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“I Hardly Know Truman”
Thus did Franklin Roosevelt characterize the man who was to be his running mate in 1944 and—as everyone at the astonishing Democratic Convention knew—almost certainly the next President of the United States. Here is FDR at his most devious, Harry Truman at the pivot of his career, and the old party-boss system at its zenith.
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
On Tuesday morning Senator Truman and Sidney Hillman had orange juice, eggs, and bacon sent up by room service to Hillman’s suite at the Ambassador East, “the fancy hotel,” as Truman called it. Born in Lithuania, educated to be a rabbi, Hillman had been an eight-dollar-a-week apprentice pants cutter in the garment district of New York when Truman was still riding a plow on the farm. He had led his first strike at twenty-three and founded the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America by the time he was thirty. To party chiefs like Hannegan and Kelly, he was an amateur and therefore not wholly trustworthy, whatever the power of his PAC or his allegiance to the President. Hillman wasn’t even a registered Democrat. In addition, as co-director of the former Office of Production Management in Washington, he had come under heavy fire from the Truman committee, which had been mainly responsible for his removal. And so Truman had no reason to expect much from him in the way of cooperation or favors.
Truman asked for Hillman’s support for Byrnes. Hillman declined and refused to be budged. He was working hard for Henry Wallace, Hillman said. If it could not be Wallace, then he wanted either Douglas or Truman.
Truman said he was going to nominate Byrnes. Hillman said that would be a mistake.
Truman reported directly to Byrnes all that Hillman had said, but Byrnes seemed not to care and with reason. By reliable reports he had already lined up more than 400 of the 589 votes needed to nominate.
F or Truman the convention would always be “that miserable time” in Chicago.
When Ed Flynn arrived in Chicago later that morning, Tuesday, the eighteenth, Hannegan rushed him into a corner to say it was all over. “It’s Byrnes!” Flynn said it was no such thing and demanded a meeting of the select committee, the same group as the night before, which convened again in the same secret North Side apartment, except that this time Sidney Hillman was included and Jimmy Byrnes was not.
There was only one man to nominate, Flynn insisted, and that was Harry Truman because Harry Truman was what they had agreed to with the President.
Flynn was extremely angry. “I browbeat the committee, I talked, I argued, I swore,” he later wrote. Hillman declared Byrnes unacceptable to organized labor. Flynn said Byrnes would cost no less than two hundred thousand Negro votes in New York alone. Byrnes was a “political liability.” Roosevelt could lose the election. Everyone agreed—Hannegan, the party’s chairman, Pauley, Walker, Alien, Hillman for labor, and Kelly, the big-city boss. Reporters were to call them “the Harmony Boys.”
Flynn put through a call to Roosevelt in San Diego, and one by one each man got on the line. In the end Roosevelt agreed it should be Truman.
Though accounts differ somewhat, this appears to be what happened next: Within a short time that evening Byrnes and Truman were individually told what the President had said. Truman heard from Hannegan, who came to his room at the Stevens, and an hour or so later he went alone to the Royal Skyway to square things with Byrnes. He asked to be released from his promise of support. Byrnes said he understood perfectly, given the circumstances. When Byrnes tried to get through to Roosevelt by phone, he was told the President was unavailable.
Word of the sudden turn in events spread fast. Ed Flynn had been in town less than a day, and everything had changed. Byrnes dropped out of the race, and the talk everywhere was that the bosses had killed his candidacy. In a release to the press, Byrnes said he was withdrawing “in deference to the wishes of the President.” He then left for home in a fury, feeling he had been betrayed by Roosevelt. In a parting conversation with Alben Barkley, who was scheduled to nominate the President, Byrnes remarked sourly, “If I were you I wouldn’t say anything too complimentary about him.”
Barkley was as upset as Byrnes, furious over Roosevelt and his games at their expense. He was sick and tired of trying to determine which shell the pea was under, Barkley told a reporter, and threatened to tear up his nominating speech and be done with the whole affair.
For Truman events were out of hand. These were three or four of the most critical days of his life, and they were beyond his control, his destiny being decided for him by others. Speculation now centered on him. But as his stock rose, so did objections to him, because of the Pendergast connection. Running into his old high school classmate Charlie Ross, now a contributing editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , Truman said, “Feel sorry for me. I’m in a terrible fix.”
How much faith he had in Hannegan at this point, he never said, but to many it looked as though the young party head was out of line in taking such an overtly partisan role. He appeared to be constantly improvising, seldom sure of his ground. To prove he really did have something in writing from Roosevelt about Truman, he at last released the muchtalked-of letter. But this only produced more grumbling and controversy. Why hadn’t he said it mentioned Truman and Douglas? His claim of an endorsement for Truman was only half true, and wasn’t a half-truth as good as a lie? And how much credence should be given to a letter released on July 18 that was supposedly written on July 19?
Among those most surprised by the letter when he later saw accounts of it in the papers was William O. Douglas, who at the time of the convention was in Oregon hiking in the mountains. No one had told him he was being considered.