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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
Bob Hannegan was seen hurriedly conferring with Mayor Kelly in the Illinois delegation. Then they both were up on the podium, heads together with Chairman Jackson. To several of the Wallace floor leaders it looked suddenly as if the time to nominate their man was then, that night, and the quicker the better.
“I sat there and watched the demonstration and I saw it growing in the volume,” remembered Claude Pepper, who, as head of the Florida delegation, was positioned on the aisle. “I stood up on my seat, and I could see the whole convention hall then. And I said [to myself], ‘You know, that’s a real demonstration.…’ So after it got into full speed and steam, I said, ‘If we could bring this nomination up right now, we could nominate Henry Wallace.’”
Desperate to get the chairman’s eye, Pepper tried hopping up and down on his chair, waving the Florida banner, but to no avail. His floor microphone had been turned off.
He jumped down and started up the aisle, fighting his way through the crowd. Reporters, hundreds of delegates, and spectators saw him and knew at once what he was trying to do. If he could get to the podium, he would make a nominating speech himself with no more delay. “I got up to about the second step from the top going just as hard as I could to get up that stairway,” remembered Pepper, “and I saw the chairman look over there. He had seen me coming up the aisle. And so, immediately…the chairman said, ‘Motion made. The convention adjourned. All in favor of the motion, let me know by saying “Aye, aye.”’ And, ‘That’s it.’ And, The convention’s adjourned.’ And I by that time was just about to the top step. And they started roaring, ‘No, no, no, no.’”
Jackson later admitted to Pepper that he had seen him the whole time and that he had hated to do what he did but that he had promised the newspaper and radio people to hold the vice-presidential decision until the next day when they would be better prepared. What he did not tell Pepper was that he and Bob Hannegan had already made an agreement to shut things down that night before the Wallace people could start the nominations. The public explanation was that the decision was a matter of necessity, because of fire laws.
Harry Truman had witnessed none of this. He had spent the night in search of Bennett Clark, finding him finally in a room where he was not supposed to be, at the Sherman, and too drunk to say much more than hello. By then it was past midnight. “So I called Bob [Hannegan],” Truman remembered, “and said, ‘I found your boy. He’s cock-eyed. I don’t know whether I can get him ready or not, and I hope to Christ I can’t.’”
The final session inside the stadium on Friday, July 21, lasted nine hours and would be described as the strangest, most bitter conclusion to a national convention in a very long time.
Sen. Bennett Clark, after a great deal of black coffee, a shower, and some food, had, with Hannegan’s help, pulled himself together sufficiently to appear on the podium. But his speech for Truman was short and had none of his usual flair. He moved the audience not at all.
Nor were the seconding speakers much of an improvement. A labor leader from Pennsylvania said that while he did not know the senator personally, he thought Truman would make the strongest possible running mate because he was a Democrat and an American.
By contrast, a vigorous speech for Henry Wallace, delivered by an Iowa judge named Richard Mitchell, touched off another noisy demonstration, and Claude Pepper, given a turn at the podium at last, made a moving plea to the Democratic party not to repudiate the man who more than any other symbolized the democracy of Franklin Roosevelt. Wallace’s delegate strength for the first ballot appeared to be gaining.
But Hannegan, Flynn, Kelly, and the others had been working through the night. No one knows how many deals were cut, how many ambassadorships or postmaster jobs were promised, but reportedly, by the time morning came, Postmaster General Frank Walker had telephoned every chairman of every delegation.
The strategy of the Truman forces was to organize as many favorite-son nominations as possible and thereby keep Wallace from winning on the first ballot. The result was a total of sixteen nominations for Vice President, and as the speeches continued through the long afternoon, delegates in groups of twos and threes were seen going to and from a private airconditioned room beneath the platform, Room H, at the end of a narrow, dark hall, where, for hours, Senator Truman stood shaking hands. Only later did he emerge to join Bess and Margaret in a box just behind the podium. Henry Wallace was waiting out the session in his hotel room, in keeping with custom, but Truman sat in full view, munching on a hot dog and enjoying the spectacle.
Ed Flynn and the New Jersey boss Frank Hague could be seen conferring on the platform, a tableau that caused some veteran observers among the press to recall earlier times when the “big boys” has been more discreet about their conniving. But the crowds in the galleries were nothing like the night before. Mayor Kelly’s police had been checking tickets, with the result that thousands of Wallace supporters had been kept out.