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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
The first ballot began at four-thirty, and Wallace stayed in the lead the whole way, rolling up 429 ½ votes to Truman’s 319½, with the remainder divided among Alben Barkley and the favorite sons. By the time the tally became official, it was past six. The convention had been in session for nearly seven hours without pause, and the crowd expected to recess for dinner, before the night session. But then Chairman Jackson stepped to the microphones to announce that a second ballot would be taken at once. The convention was still in its afternoon session, which meant no tickets for the night meeting would be honored- and no more Wallace crowds admitted therefore. It was a daring stroke by Hannegan.
On the second ballot the excitement began to build almost at once. Wallace was ahead until suddenly, just as had been forecast for the second ballot, Ed Flynn delivered to Truman 74 votes from the New York delegation, which had been divided the first time around. Now Truman moved out in front.
For a brief, tense while, the count narrowed again, Wallace pulling to within five votes of Truman. Then the break came. Alabama’s favorite son, Sen. John Bankhead, withdrew his name and cast 22 Alabama votes for Truman, which gave Truman nearly 500. Delegates rose from their chairs. South Carolina switched 18 votes from Bankhead to Truman, and the stampede was on. Indiana, Wyoming, and Maine went over to Truman, while from the galleries came an insistent roar of “We want Wallace!” Photographers were clustering about the Truman box. The senator was smiling broadly. Even Bess, who had looked grumpy and skeptical through the first ballot, was seen beaming now and turning, as requested, to pose with her husband. Margaret was jumping up and down, cheering as if at a college football game. Over in the Illinois delegation Mayor Kelly shouted to Senator Lucas, “Christ Almighty, let’s get in this thing.” The whole crowd was on its feet.
Truman needed only one big state. Ohio announced for him, which would have been enough, but a delegate challenged the count and Ohio passed. Then Sen. David I. Walsh of Massachusetts declared that Massachusetts had changed its vote to 34 for Truman, and that did it. Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri, “unofficially but conclusively,” was the party’s nominee for Vice President.
Illinois, a little late, piled on another 55 votes for Truman, and more states followed. Bennett Clark started a Truman procession down the aisles, as a phalanx of police escorted the nominee to the platform. The official tally was running late, but at 8:14 Chairman Jackson formally announced the Truman victory. The final count was Truman 1,031, Wallace 105. William O. Douglas had 4 votes.
The acceptance speech, one of the shortest in American political history, lasted less than a minute. The nomination was an honor for Missouri, Truman said, and an honor he accepted “with all humility.” More than the speech, it was the shy, almost embarrassed way he stepped up to the bank of microphones, and the way he stood waiting for the crowd to settle down, that many people would remember. He looked out at the huge hall in tumult, his glasses glinting in the spotlight. Then he stepped back slightly.
“Now, give me a chance,” he said.