“You know who Nebuchadnezzar was, don’t you?” Truman asked.
I was a young reporter in Chicago on the day in 1956 that Harry Truman turned the tables on me. He gave me the most memorable interview of my reporting career, but I was too embarrassed to turn it in to my editor.
I was working for the Chicago American , covering police headquarters from midnight to 8:00 A.M. At about 6:00 in the morning, I got a call from my editor, directing me to go to the Sheraton-Blackstone Hotel and interview Truman before he checked out at 8:00. Truman, who had been out of office for about four years, was in the Chicago area making a halfhearted campaign speech for the Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson.
I rushed to the hotel and bluffed my way past the front desk by showing my press credentials. (Security was looser in those pre-Kennedy-assassination days.) I went to the fourth floor and rang the bell of the hotel’s Presidential Suite.
The door was opened by a big, burly middle-aged man. I told him I was there to interview the President. He told me: “The President made a speech last night in Gary, and all the other papers were there. Why weren’t you?”
I had no idea why my paper hadn’t covered Truman’s speech, so I made up a story. I said, “The reporter who was assigned to cover the speech was suddenly called away to a fire.”
“Well, the President said everything he had to say last night,” said the man. “But if you go sit by the elevator, we’ll be checking out in about fifteen minutes. You can ride down with us.”
I thanked him profusely and went to sit by the elevator. A few minutes later he walked down the hall and said, “The President will see you now.”
I gulped hard and followed him back to the suite. As I entered, there stood Harry S. Truman, the former President of the United States, beaming from ear to ear. He was wearing in a gray three-piece suit. (I had on wearing khaki pants and a red checked wool shirt; midnight police reporters seldom covered anything more formal than a murder or a fire.)
“How are you, young man?” he-asked, shaking my hand vigorously. The other man left the room. We sat on settees facing each other in front of a fireplace. My mind was racing, trying to think of something that might draw out the famous Truman temperament, and I recalled that the civil rights plank in the Democratic platform was very weak. So I asked him, “Do you think civil rights will be an issue in this campaign?”
“My boy,” he replied, “civil rights has been an issue ever since Nebuchadnezzar.”
I wrote furiously, trying to think of a follow-up question when he demanded, “You know who Nebuchadnezzar was, don’t you?”
“Of course,” I shot back. My mind was now in overdrive. The name was vaguely familiar from my Sunday-school days, but I just couldn’t place it.
“Well, who was he?” Truman asked.
I was devastated. “I give up,” I said. “Who was he?”
Truman threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Hey, Al, I'm giving this young man a Bible lesson,” he called to the man in the other room. Then, turning hack to me, he said, “I won’t tell you. You look it up and tell me the next time I come to town.”
I asked a couple more inane questions, and then the bellhop arrived for the luggage. We rode down in the elevator and walked through the lobby together. I was still trying desperately to think of who Nebuchadnezzar might have been.
Truman got into a big black limousine. Then he rolled down the window and beckoned to me. I leaned down. “Now don’t you misquote me,” he said, waggling a finger, “or I won’t talk to you next time I come to town.”
As the car pulled away, the first line of an old spiritual popped into my head. “Ncb-u-chad-nezzar was the king of Babylon … Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego. …” Of course! He put the children of Israel into the fiery furnace for refusing to worship a golden idol.
Truman’s car was just turning the corner at the end of the block. I wanted to yell, “Wait! I’ve got the answer!” But it was too late.
When I phoned my editor, I told him, in my embarrassment, that Truman hadn’t said anything newsworthy. It was several years before I was able to tell my colleagues what had really happened. I never saw Harry S. Truman again.