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The President’s popularity was waning, and he was facing an able Republican as well as two rebels from his own party. At hand was the with the nation in peril at home and abroad. Then Harry S.Truman set out to give ’em hell.
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Incredibly enough, some Democrats refused to take even that No for an answer. A measure of their des pcration was a proposal by Senator Claude Pepper of Florida that the Democrats draft Eiscnhower as a “national” rather than a “party” candidate and let him pick his own running mate and write his own platform. Eisenhower responded with a statement that was the clearest of its kind since General William Tecumseh Sherman turned down the Republicans in 1884: “No matter under what terms, conditions or premises a proposal might be couched, I would refuse to accept the nomination.” That was enough, even for Pepper. The dissident liberals now made an attempt to persuade Supreme Court Justice William U. Douglas to accept a draft. When Douglas also declined, the rebels had no choice but to call oil their rebellion.
As the Democrats gathered in Philadelphia, the prospects were for a dull and depressing convention. It did not turn out that way. Instead, the Democratic party caught fire in Philadelphia, and the man who struck the first spark was the convention keynoter. Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky. Barklcy, who had been sworn in to the House of Representatives on the day of Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration, remained at seventy one of the party’s staunchest bulwarks and one of its most colorful orators. From the moment he mounted the rostrum in Convention Hall to face the delegates, the microphones, and the TV cameras, it was obvious that the old war horse was in rare form. “We have assembled here for a great purpose,” the Senator announced. “We are here to give the American people an accounting of our stewardship in the administration of their affairs for sixteen outstanding, eventful years, for not one of which we make an apology.”
The delegates, suddenly roused from their lethargy, cheered. But the Senator was only warming up. The Republicans, Barkley noted, proposed “to clean the cobwebs” from the national government. “I am not an expert on cobwebs. But if my memory does not betray me, when the Democratic party took over … sixteen years ago, even the spiders were so weak from starvation they could not weave a cobweb in any department of the government in Washington.” That brought down the house. And when Barkley concluded his hour-long oration with a call “to lead the children of men … into a free world and a free life,” the delegates leaped to their feet in a demonstration that lasted more than half an hour.
Barkley’s rousing speech not only instilled life into the convention, it also brought about his nomination as Vice President, a development that Truman had neither anticipated nor desired. Truman originally h;;d hoped to bolster (he ticket with a youngish New Dealer, and his first choice was fifty-year-old Justice Douglas. But Douglas, who had already refused to be the presidential candidate of the dissident liberals, turned Truman down too. This threw the race for the Vice Presidency wide open, and when Barkley’s speech made him the party’s hero, Truman had to accept him.
Before the convention closed, Truman’s strategy received another jolt. He had hoped he could minimixe friction between the southern and northern wings by having the convention adopt a relatively mild platform plank on civil rights. The platform committee went along with the President’s wishes, despite the bitter protests of a group of liberals led by Hubert H. Humphrey, the outspoken young mayor of Minneapolis, who that year was running for the U.S. Senate.
When the platform reached the floor of the convention, Humphrey presented a minority report urging adoption of a stronger civil-rights plank and demanded a roll-call vote. After a tumultuous floor fight, the liberals carried the day, 651½ to 582½. Immediately, thirty-five delegates from Mississippi and Alabama stalked out of the convention—and the party—in protest. But the majority of southern delegates, however dejected they felt, stayed in their seats.
As for Truman, although his plans had gone awry the convention’s decision was hardly unacceptable. The new civil-rights plank echoed many of the proposals that he himself had made to Congress in February in his special civil-rights message. In his memoirs, Truman proudly cites an exchange between a newsman and South Carolina’s Governor J. Strom Thurmond on the convention floor. “President Truman is only following the platform that Roosevelt advocated,” the reporter pointed out. “I agree,” Thurmond replied. “But Truman really means it.”
At last the convention had come to its main order of business, the nomination of a presidential candidate. The southern delegates remaining at the convention threw their support behind Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. But it was a token gesture. On the first roll call, Russell received only 263 votes. Truman got 947½ and the nomination.
It was nearly two o’clock in the morning when the balloting ended and Democratic National Chairman J. Howard McGrath sought out the candidate, who was waiting in the wings. Did the President want a recess until a more civilized hour the next night? In a few moments McGrath returned to the platform with the answer. “The boss doesn’t want to wait,” said McGrath. “He wants to get at them as soon as he can.”
And get at them he did. Marching jauntily into the stifling heat of the auditorium, Truman waited until the welcoming demonstration subsided and then brought the delegates right back to their feet with his opening thrust. “Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it,” the President declared. “Don’t you forget that.”