“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
Meantime, Henry Wallace had arrived in Chicago, and at a packed press conference at the Sherman Hotel, sitting on a table with his long legs swinging, Wallace said he was there to fight to the finish. His supporters were claiming 400 votes on the first ballot.
A sluggish, entirely routine first session of the convention opened just before noon inside Chicago Stadium, the same giant arena where Roosevelt had been nominated in 1932 and again in 1940. From steel girders overhead hung a huge Roosevelt portrait used in 1940, retouched a little to make him look a bit less pale. There was a prayer. There were speeches. The real business continued at the hotels.
Only narrow Balboa Street separated the Stevens from the Blackstone, and it was to the Blackstone, to Hannegan’s seventh-floor suite, that Truman was “summoned” that afternoon, Wednesday, July 19. Hannegan, collar open, his shirt damp with perspiration, had assembled the inner core- Pauley, Walker, Kelly, Flynn.
It was clearly a gathering arranged for effect, for Truman’s benefit. (Barkley would later refer to Hannegan as the “stage manager” at Chicago.) The time had come for a decision from the senator. They were placing a call to San Diego.
Truman sat on one twin bed. Hannegan, phone in hand, sat on the other. “Whenever Roosevelt used the telephone,” Truman remembered, “he always talked in such a strong voice that it was necessary for the listener to hold the receiver away from his ear to avoid being deafened, so I found it possible to hear both ends of the conversation.”
“Bob,” Roosevelt’s voice boomed, “have you got that fellow lined up yet?”
“No,” said Hannegan. “He is the contrariest goddamn mule from Missouri I ever dealt with.”
“Well, you tell the senator that if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of the war, that’s his responsibility.” With that Roosevelt banged down the phone; the line was disconnected.
A s soon as the President finished speaking, the hall erupted with cries of “We want Wallace!”
Truman said later that he was completely stunned. “I was floored, I was sunk.” Reportedly his first words were “Oh, shit!” He himself recalled saying, “Well, if that’s the situation, I’ll have to say yes. But why the hell didn’t he tell me in the first place.”
On Thursday, July 20, an immense crowd filling the hall, the convention became a thundering, old-fashioned political circus. Alben Barkley, bathed in spotlights on the podium, his broad face streaming with perspiration, his anger at Roosevelt forgotten for the moment, delivered a tribute to the great leader that set off a forty-minute demonstration. In seconding the nomination, Henry Wallace gave one of the strongest speeches of his career, an impassioned, straightfrom-the-shoulder declaration of liberal principles that brought the audience to its feet time after time.
By evening, as time for the President’s address approached, the crowd had grown far beyond what the arena was built to hold. It was packed to the roof with perhaps forty thousand people. Reportedly fifteen thousand counterfeit tickets had been printed and distributed with the blessing of Mayor Kelly, who for all his apparent Truman fervor was secretly hoping for a Truman-Wallace deadlock, so the prize would go to his own candidate, Illinois’s favorite son, Sen. Scott Lucas. But the ticket ploy resulted in thousands of additional Wallace supporters, many supplied by the CIO, who jammed the galleries and worked their way onto the convention floor, while thousands more milled about in the corridors. The Wallace people were determined to see the nomination decided there in the hall and not by the “big boys” in a smoke-filled room. The idea was to stampede the convention.
Nominations for the Vice Presidency were scheduled for the next day, but as the evening wore on, with more speeches and fanfare for Roosevelt, the surge for Wallace kept growing. The heat inside the hall was nearly unbearable.
At the Blackstone Hannegan told Truman he might have to be nominated that night, if they had the votes. They would have to be ready to move fast. Bennett Clark was supposed to nominate Truman, but no one knew where he was. Clark, whose wife had died the year before, had been drinking even more than usual. Truman went to look for him. Hannegan started for the convention hall.
When the speeches and roll call ended, and the President was swiftly renominated, the delegates settled down to hear his speech. They were not to see their standard-bearer; FDR was speaking from his railroad car in San Diego. The familiar voice came booming from a cluster of amplifiers, as the huge crowd sat silently watching the empty podium. Absolute silence hung over the darkened hall, even during the President’s pauses. With no one onstage the effect was eerie.
“What is the job before us in 1944?” the great, disembodied voice asked. “First, to win the war—to win the war fast, to win it overpoweringly. Second, to form worldwide international organizations, and to arrange to use the armed forces of the sovereign nations of the world to make another war impossible…”
No sooner was the speech over than a Wallace demonstration erupted. From every corner of the stadium came the chant “We want Wallace!” The organist, catching the spirit, began pumping away at the Wallace theme song, “Iowa, Iowa, That’s Where the Tall Corn Grows.”