- Historic Sites
Memory As History
Seeking the truth of an event in the memories of the people who lived it can be a maddening task—and an exhilarating one
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
What Hamilton got when Willkie answered the phone was a man who was exhausted and annoyed at being awakened, who said that he had given no thought to the Vice Presidency and asked whom Hamilton would suggest.
Hamilton replied that it was Willkie’s choice, not his, to which the nominee replied that Tom Dewey would be an asset to the ticket. Now Hamilton knew Dewey, a little man with a big ego and a sharp temper, and had a good idea how the New York district attorney would react to the idea of playing second fiddle to a Republican arriviste who had just given him a humiliating beating. Willkie insisted, however, and Hamilton phoned Dewey, only to hear in a few explicit words exactly how little he appreciated the suggestion.
Wearily Hamilton called Willkie again and woke him from a sound sleep. After telling the party chairman under no circumstances to disturb him again, the nominee said that he had always admired Bob Taft and that Hamilton should try him.
Taft, the senior senator from Ohio, who—like Dewey—had been a frontrunner until the Willkie boom caught fire at the convention, would react just the way Dewey had, Hamilton knew, and once again he tried to beg off. Willkie persisted, however, and a few hours later the attempt was made.
John Hollister, one of Taft’s principal aides at the convention, told me that the senator was approached that morning by a small group led by Sen. Warren Austin of Vermont. The Ohio delegation was caucusing at the time, and Hollister was called to the door, where Austin asked him to find out if Taft would accept the vice-presidential nomination. The answer Hollister brought back “was an immediate ‘No.’”
An abortive effort was also made to sign up Hanford MacNider of Iowa, an isolationist and former Assistant Secretary of War. At last someone proposed Charles McNary to the presidential nominee.
“Who’s he?” inquired Willkie.
The reply: A senator from Oregon, highly thought of in Republican circles, who would balance the ticket.
And now, to return to Samuel Pryor. When I recited the Hamilton account to him, he commented that none of the men mentioned—Dewey, Taft, or MacNider—was ever mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate. Yet the interview with Hollister indicated that Taft had certainly been approached.
Still another piece of the puzzle was the reaction of McNary’s wife, Cornelia, when a reporter cornered her in a grocery store in Salem, Oregon, that day. When told of her husband’s selection as Willkie’s running mate, she replied, “I can’t believe it. Charles wired me this morning that he wouldn’t accept the nomination.”
Probably we will never know exactly what transpired before Charles McNary—who, in pre-senatorial days, was known for developing the world’s largest prune—received the plum he did not want. What we do know is that getting at the ultimate truth is not always easy. Yet of one fact there is no doubt: Everyone agreed on the prospective Vice President’s initial reaction to the invitation. “Hell no!” said Sen. Charles McNary. “I wouldn’t run with Willkie!”
Lately I have been talking with some elderly Vermonters in an effort to discover what farming was like in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the advent of mechanized agriculture. It has been revealing to see that what strikes me as being worthy of recollection, or at least easy to recall, is often of no importance to them and has been discarded or forgotten. To put it another way, what is more commonly remembered is the unusual or the colorful, which sometimes gives a rather different twist to the answer I sought. I like to think of these byways as examples of Serendipitous Memory.
Talking with my friend Chet Baldwin, I asked what he could tell me about one of the farms that adjoin his.
“In those days it was owned by Hial Blackmer,” Chet replied, after a moment’s thought. But then, instead of elaborating on the Blackmer farm, he recalled that “Hial always had two pair of mules” and described the mountain road he always took when he traveled to Danby or Pawlet—two towns to the north.
On the other side of Chet’s place was the George Wilkins farm, and I inquired about that: How many cows was he milking? And what other livestock did he have?
Chet began by recalling how George used to arise every morning at three o’clock and walk up on the mountain to fetch his cows; but what really stuck in his memory was how George liked hard cider—always had a cellar full of it. One day, when Chet was a little boy, he and a friend were playing near the Wilkins place and saw, at the foot of a steep bank, George Wilkins “lyin’ out flat.” Chet ran and told his father what they had seen and asked if George was dead.
“Yep,” said his father. “Dead drunk.”
That led to a story about a blacksmith in the neighborhood who made home brew. Every so often in the middle of a shoeing job this fellow had to go outside to the springhouse to quench his thirst (“best water anywhere around,” he would tell his visitor), and when he came back and picked up the horse’s hoof, Chet recalled with a grin, “Oh, how you could smell that water on his breath.”