Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened February, 1972
Oral History Interview with
January 12, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: I believe you recently received a letter from Mr. Truman, would you like to begin by reading it into the record?
BELL: Well, to begin with this is a letter from Harry Truman who is an old and valued friend. I invited him to the Gridiron Club dinner on March 13th, 1971. He wrote me back "Dear Jack, Thank you for the invitation to the forthcoming Gridiron, but my self-imposed restriction against travel will keep me close to home. I greatly appreciate your good opinion, and coming from you, it has meaning for me. Mrs. Truman joins in our best wishes for the new year. Sincerely yours, Harry S. Truman."
I had written him that I thought he was a great President, really, in his performance. And that was a sincere opinion.
HESS: And you are president of the Gridiron Club this year,
is that correct?
BELL: That's correct, yes.
HESS: All right.
BELL: Sorry he couldn't come to our dinner, but physical limitations are very great on him now, I realize that.
HESS: To get under way sir, would you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born, where were you educated and what are a few of the positions that you have held?
BELL: Well, I was born in Yates Center, Kansas, and nobody outside of Yates Center ever heard of it probably, but it's about a hundred miles south of Topeka, Kansas. At the age of two I decided I was not cut out to be a "Jayhawker," so I induced my parents to remove me to Tulsa, Indian Territory, and there I grew up and went to grade school, high school. After that I went to the University of Missouri at Columbia for two years and worked on the opposition paper to the university's paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. I worked in various capacities. The manager and publisher of the Tribune was a graduate of the University of Missouri, but he was very hostile to the Evening Missourian, which is
put out with taxpayers' money and competed with him.
After two years there he fired me because I wouldn't work in the summertime because I wanted to go back to Tulsa. So, at the University of Oklahoma I completed my so-called education there in June of 1925.
The day I graduated I went to work for the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, as a very green but self-confident reporter. I covered everything from police to the statehouse during my stint as a reporter. And at twenty-five years old I was named City Editor of the Daily Oklahoman by Walter Harrison, the Managing Editor who was a great character in the newspaper business.
I stayed there for an overlong twelve years as City Editor of the Daily Oklahoman and the Times and later the Washington correspondent. Finally, I was offered a managing editorship in New England that I rejected in favor of an offer with the Associated Press. So, I went to the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. in 1937, and in 1940 was named head of the Senate staff. And from there I graduated into Chief Political Writer for the Associated Press, covering all the presidential campaigns, all of the presidential news
conferences, the Senate and politics, Governors' conferences, and well, everything that touched on politics for the next thirty-two years.
At the end of that time I transferred to the Gannett News Service and I now have 45 newspapers for which I write a three times a week column on national affairs and politics.
HESS: What was the date that you transferred from the Associated Press to the present news service that you work for?
BELL: September 1, 1969.
HESS: What are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman as a Senator?
BELL: Harry Truman came to the Senate under a philisophical cloud, I guess you might call it. He was a product of the Tom Pendergast machine in Kansas City. In fact, Pendergast had boasted (the current story was), that he could elect anybody to the United States Senate. And this was possibly true in that era because Pendergast controlled the balance of the vote in Missouri. He could not have elected a Republican, but he could elect a Democrat, because Missouri was inclined in that direction. It was only afterwards that some
Republicans began to get elected like [Senator James Preston] Kem and others in Missouri. But Truman came to the Senate as a back row member, and as I say, under a cloud of suspicion by all the other members, that he really was just a machine product and he didn't amount to anything, and why bother about him?
But Truman proved himself to be a very intelligent man and a very industrious man. He won the friendship of the Senator from Montana, Burt [Burton K.] Wheeler, who was chairman of the Interstate Commerce Committee, at that point.
Truman was really a very personable gentleman who was able to make friends despite the drawback as Pendergast machine product. You can't classify Senators, but some of them are very active and some of them are very prominent and some are from states which don't draw much attention from the press. Truman sort of made his way among these people as a very good fellow, and a likeable chap.
Wheeler was very powerful in the Senate at that point, always fighting Roosevelt. He took a liking to Truman. So, he installed him as the chairman of a subcommittee of Interstate Commerce (to which Truman had been assigned without his own wishes really being
consulted), for a railroad investigation. Truman pursued it actively as he always did. In everything he did he worked pretty hard. He didn't care about the hours because he and Mrs. Truman, Bess (who is a great woman), didn't care too much about the social scene in Washington. They didn't really want to go to cocktail parties and things of that sort. They much preferred sitting at home, probably listening to radio in those days, since there was no television.
This friendship with Wheeler was very valuable to Truman. The war was coming on, and in fact, had almost arrived. Our participation in it was close, and Wheeler suggested that Truman might head a war investigating committee to investigate contracts and various agreements by which the Government was then in the process -- under FDR's direction -- of furnishing planes to France, and helping the British as much as possible. At Wheeler's direction, Truman put in the first war investigating committee resolution. The resolution was not very much liked among the leaders of the Senate at that point, including Alben Barkley, who was majority leader, that a junior Senator so little known as Truman, could grab ahold of such a big project. Anyhow Wheeler faced them down on this and [Henry A.]
Wallace, who was Vice President, was instructed to name Truman as the chairman of this investigating committee.
Truman had some good help. He was a man who found good people to work for him. There was always a charge of cronyism against Truman. But he wasn't so much devoted to cronyism as he was devoted to people that he knew he could trust. He didn't know a great number of people in Government. He had a selected few that he relied on and trusted, and his trust can be illustrated by the fact that despite all the charges against Pendergast, and his conviction for income tax evasion, Truman went to his funeral at a time when this was certainly unpopular in the country, particularly with his Missouri constituents. But as I say, Truman managed this committee very well.
HESS: Did you attend very many of the hearings of that committee?
BELL: I suppose most of them. Really is difficult to separate out what you've done, or what you haven't done, or where you were at a certain time, but I covered the committee. And I remember at one point there were leaks to Drew Pearson.. I caught up with
Truman in the hall one day and said in pretty blunt language to him, "Goddamn it, this has got to stop. Somebody on your staff, or you, are giving information to Drew Pearson which he's printing in his column, that you're not giving to us," meaning the wire services.
He was very apologetic. In fact he apologized all over the lot. I said, "Well, I know you didn't do it personally, but I'm sure that somebody on your staff is doing it, and you had better goddamn well stop it."
HESS: Did it stop? Do you recall?
BELL: It slowed down.
HESS: It slowed down?
HESS: Do you know who on the committee was leaking things like that to Drew Pearson and what was their reason?
BELL: Publicity is always the reason; make yourself a big man, be complimented by Drew Pearson, and Jack Anderson. This is the way in which that operation works. The columnist uses words like well-intentioned, well-meaning, adroit and intelligent to describe cooperating Senators. Truman was never himself, personally identified in this column as the great man, but various members of his committee were. Leaks were just all over the lot.
HESS: In several books that have been written it is stressed that the staff of the committee tried to use publicity to spotlight the actions of the committee and to bring public opinion to bear on what it was trying to do. One of the men who was on the staff of the committee, who was in charge of press relations was Walter Hehmeyer. Do you remember him?
BELL: Only vaguely. I didn't deal with the press relations people, never have, because they know nothing and they give you bum steers. So, you go to the source, the committee members, and you don't rely on press assistants.
HESS: Do you recall or did you have anything to do with some of the other members of the staff? Hugh Fulton was special counsel.
BELL: Yes, I knew Hugh very well, and I thought that what he said was dependable. Hugh didn't try to mislead you and was not devoted to promoting his own interests. He was elected to Congress later. Self promotion is an objective of most committee staff members -- to get elected to Congress or to get elected to local office.
HESS: To get their name in the paper and to get elected?
BELL: That's right, to become identified with the voters.
HESS: Charles Patrick Clark was also on the committee. Do
you recall him at that time?
BELL: Yes, I recall Charles Patrick Clark, not from his connection with the committee, but the fact that as a public relations man, he arranged a number of dinners on the anniversary of the committee, with which he had practically nothing to do. He was a very minor figure in committee work.
But Truman happened to like Clark, so Truman came to these dinners. Frankly, Clark was using him for lobbying purposes throughout the Government because he knew Truman and Truman came to his dinners. And he could get people like George Meany, and other labor leaders to attend. He could get Clark Clifford and people like that, who had known Truman and had worked with him, to come out to these various dinners.
HESS: Did you ever attend any of those anniversary dinners?
BELL: Four or five of them. I didn't go for several years because I rather thought that Clark was operating for his own interests, but Truman kept coming to them.
HESS: Another member that joined the Truman staff at that time and stayed with him for several years, was Matthew J. Connelly.
BELL: Yes, Matt was persecuted, I think, when he was sent to jail for accepting a suit of clothes or something like
that. Matt went with Truman to the White House. I always felt Matt wasn't quite as smart as he might have been, but he was loyal to Truman, and this Truman valued above everything.
HESS: Do you ever recall Mr. Truman speaking in those days about the importance of the work of the Truman Committee, the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, why it had been set up, and what he saw as the purpose of such a committee?
BELL: Oh, I'm sure he did because he made speeches in the Senate, but it doesn't stick in my mind that he was bragging too much.
HESS: What seemed to be the. relationship between Mr. Truman and the other Senators at this time? He was elected in '34, came up here in '35, and had been in the Senate for quite some time before the committee was set up. What seemed to be the general relationship between him and the other Senators by the time that the Truman Committee was set up?
BELL: Do you have the date when it was set up?
HESS: I think in 1941.
BELL: ‘41. Well, after he had been in there for a while, I'm sure Truman had the admiration of a great many people, but also the enmity of some who thought if they had been given his opportunity, they would have become a
national figure, whereas, they were not at this point a national figure. I can remember kidding Truman in 1944, "Oh, you're running for Vice President are you?"
"Absolutely not:" he replied. "I wouldn't think of it. Roosevelt wouldn't want me."
HESS: This was before the convention?
BELL: Before the convention, yes. I also remember at the convention that I broke the news to Henry Wallace that he wasn't going to be Vice President again.
He was staying in a Chicago hotel, the Sherman I believe it was, and I had heard about a [Robert E.] Hannegan letter, FDR's letter to Hannegan, in which he said that he would take either [William O.] Douglas or Truman, for Vice President.
HESS: How did you find out about the Hannegan letter, do you recall?
BELL: No, I don't specifically. Somebody told me but I don't know who it was at this point.
HESS: What was Mr. Wallace's reaction when you told him?
BELL: Wallace had a security man outside the door of his room in the Sherman Hotel, who was asleep, I walked past him, knocked on the door. It was about 2 o'clock
in the morning. Wallace finally came to the door in an old-fashioned nightshirt. The windows were all open and his nightshirt was blowing back and forth. He had a little hood on top of his head. I said, "Mr. Vice President, I've just learned that FDR is dumping you."
He said, "What? What? What? What?" [Speaking in a sleepy voice.]
I said, "Well, there's a letter to Hannegan, and do you have any word from the President at all?"
"No. No." He was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, "No. No, I don't have any word at all about this."
"Well," I said, "I guess it's true. What comment do you have on it?" You understand I was working for a wire service at that point.
He said, "Well, I can't comment. I can't comment. I don't know what this is all about. I'll have to see the letter." And he said, "I think I have the letter from the President."
I said, "Can you find it?"
He said, "Oh, well, I don't know. I don't know." His hands outstretched, he went around sort of feeling his way around the room. "No, I don't find it there,
I don't find it there."
So, I said, "Well, if you have the letter, we'll put it on that basis. If the President no longer wants you for the Vice President, what is your reaction to that?"
He said, "Well, he's President."
I said, "Well, thank you Mr. Wallace. I'm sorry I got you up. I'll see you tomorrow and we'll talk more about this," and walked out.
But this is getting off of Truman. This is the point where, of course, Hannegan jimmied the works for Douglas. He didn't want Douglas. He was for Truman.
HESS: Did you ever hear him say why he didn't want Douglas? Why he preferred Truman?
BELL: Oh, well, Truman was from Missouri.
HESS: Yes, so was he [Hannegan].
HESS: You mentioned awhile ago about hearing a phone conversation, one side of a phone conversation, something...
BELL: Well, that was when Wallace was selected by FDR four years previously.
HESS: In 1940?
BELL: Yes. It had nothing to do with Truman really. This was the time the surprised Jimmy Byrnes was so dismayed.
He and Harry Hopkins were running the operation for FDR at the '40 convention. John Garner, the Vice President had announced that he was a candidate for President, was against a third term. It was automatic that Garner was going to be dumped. And it was more or less automatic that FDR was going to take a third term nomination. I heard Byrnes' side of a phone conversation making it clear Roosevelt wanted Wallace for a running mate.
HESS: That's all right, this is still history. What do you recall about Mr. James Farley's wishes or aspirations or views in 1940 about the vice-presidential spot?
BELL: Well, Jim thought that FDR had promised it to him, and of course, this was one of these FDR promises which were made on an empty basis. But Jim thought he had it. He thought FDR was on the line, he should have known better. He dealt with the guy for so many years that he should have known it was impossible to pin Roosevelt down in advance on anything, that he might change his mind at the last minute. So, Jim got out on a limb on that and FDR sawed it off.
HESS: As you will recall, Farley also made some statements, some no third term statements at that time. Do you think
he had visions of being the number one man on the Democratic ticket?
BELL: Sure. Of course. Of course. Jim thought he was running, but Roosevelt mislead his friends and supporters, as well as his enemies.
HESS: Was that one of his natural characteristics?
BELL: It was a natural characteristic with Roosevelt, that he would not tell anybody what he was going to do if he could avoid it. He had a long association with Jimmy Byrnes. Byrnes used to say, "That son of a bitch, I can't get an answer out of him on anything. Okay, maybe this is the way to play it, maybe this is the way to be President." This may be. I think FDR was a great President really.
HESS: There are those that would say that that was just smart politics, acting this way. Would you think that was good politics, smart politics; not letting the right hand know what the left hand was doing?
BELL: Well, Roosevelt gloried in this, really. He wanted to set people against each other within his administration as part of the whole operation, sort of have an uproar and...
HESS: Why did he do that?
BELL: It was his nature, I guess. Well, let's say he
wasn't always sure of himself, or sure of his decisions. If he had controversy, had opposition from both sides and he got these people pressing in on him, he'd finally have to come to a decision. It was like this when he decided for Jesse Jones against Wallace in the foreign trade thing.
I don't know, but I think Roosevelt hated to make final decisions. He was a man for whom there was no black or white. He was sort of like Adlai Stevenson in that respect -- there were always greys, there was always something on each side, and he just hated to say to one side, "You're wrong, and this side's right." Or hated to say, "To hell with both of your houses," as he did once with labor and the conservatives. He avoided a decision until he just had to make it. Then he screwed up his courage and made it.
HESS: Do you think that some of the furor that he created in his administration might have been caused from his physical infirmities? He couldn't go out and play tennis, but he could sit in the office and pit one man against the other and then set back and watch the fireworks.
BELL: That's an old theory. Of course, [Herbert] Hoover used to play volleyball with his people and stuff like
that, and go fishing. Roosevelt could fish, there wasn't much else he could do.
One of the vignettes that I have of Roosevelt is: One morning we went to Easter services at Arlington, and Roosevelt was there. This was very early in the morning, and I saw him really for the first time, go up the stairs with his arms. They didn't have all the modern conveniences then, this was quite a long time ago. He literally pulled himself up. And it just sort of stuck in my mind, as did another incident at [William Edgar] Borah's funeral, when Roosevelt came to the Senate. He walked in, well, he was helped in of course, with his braces. He went down to sit on the front row of the Senate while the eulogies were made to Borah. As FDR sat down, he straightened his braces and they clicked.
Well, to me, those small things are moments in history that are never recorded in the history books or anything like that. But here was a very brave man in a great many respects, a very wise and intelligent man, but screwy. He did everything in a devious sort of way.
Well, we're not talking about Truman now, we better get back to him.
HESS: Well, we'll get back to Truman.
Now, you mentioned James Byrnes, and we mentioned 1944 and the 1944 convention. All right, in 1944 Mr. Byrnes wanted that vice-presidential nomination very bad himself, do you recall that?
BELL: Yes, I remember talking to him a day or two before it came up, and he said in effect, "Labor has killed me."
HESS: Was that out in Chicago?
BELL: It was in Chicago, yes. And he said, "Labor has killed me, they won't take me."
I said, "Jimmy, it's a goddamn shame, but you ought to be Vice President, you've done more," -- and he had done more for Roosevelt than almost anybody, uncomplainingly.
I used to cover the Senate. I talked daily to [Senator] Charlie [Charles] McNary, the Republican leader of the Senate -- which had only sixteen Republican members then. I used to call him up and say, "Look, Charlie, here's where they're (the Democrats), are going to run over you. This is what they are going to do. What are you going to do?" He knew what was going on and he usually gave me the Republican slant.
Jimmy Byrnes knew everything that was going on also, what Roosevelt was going to do, and was the man who did it for him. Roosevelt, of course, crossed Byrnes just as he crossed everybody else at times, but this was part of the operation.
Jimmy should have been Vice President, but no, Roosevelt called Jimmy two days later, and said, "It's Wallace." He wanted Wallace because of the farm vote, which used to amount to something, but doesn't any more.
I just happened to know where they were meeting, just happened to be in a cloak room next door, and just happened to be next to a door when Jimmy took a telephone call from the White House. I will say it was a cryptic call in every respect because I couldn't hear Roosevelt's conversation. Jimmy never mentioned Wallace's name, but he mentioned Iowa, and he mentioned...
HESS: Who else could it be?
BELL: Yes, this was the point. You knew even if you never heard Wallace's name.
HESS: All right, and in 1944, just why in your opinion did Mr. Roosevelt accept Mr. Truman on the ticket? There were others that he knew far better than he knew Mr. Truman, isn't that correct?
BELL: Oh, it had nothing to do with his relationship with Truman. Roosevelt was concerned only with politics then and there was some opposition to the war, despite the present historians' notations that everybody was unanimous. I mean the Nazis were in Madison Square Garden with their flags and everything else, and there was a resistance to the draft, there was a very great German feeling...
HESS: Now that was in '40?
BELL: Yes. There was a great resistance to our entering the war. As you know, Wheeler and Borah -- or at least in '39 -- Borah was denouncing the war. There was a great debate over whether we should enter. This was a classic battle between isolationism and internationalism, which [Arthur H.] Vandenberg had turned over. There was controversy about military contracts. You remember [Andrew J.] May was convicted in the House and there was scandal in the air. And Truman represented the best that FDR could find in the way of clean hound's tooth.
He really, I think, preferred Douglas, because he thought Douglas would appeal to the liberals and bring out the Democrats. Thank God it wasn't Douglas. Thank
God for Hannegan, you might say in that respect. But FDR wasn't enamored with Truman at all. If he had decided definitely on Truman, he would never have included Douglas' name at all. And of course, I think Harry was thunderstruck, really, that FDR would pick him. FDR didn't, Hannegan did.
HESS: As you will recall, Mr. Byrnes had phoned out to Independence and asked Mr. Truman to put his, Mr. Byrnes' name, in nomination at the Chicago convention, and Mr. Truman had agreed. So, at that time, just before leaving for Chicago, supposedly, he knew nothing of what was afoot, and what was going on in the background.
BELL: Oh, don't worry, Hannegan had called.
HESS: You think Truman knew at that time?
BELL: Well, I can't offer any evidence on it, but your good judgment tells me that Hannegan had called him, and informed him about this, although I can't pin down the timing.
HESS: What was the main objection at the time to continuing Henry Wallace in the position?
BELL: Wallace had gone off the deep end, as far as FDR was concerned, in a lot of respects, and he was proposing a sort of a get-together with Russia as it were. Wallace also had a shy but abrasive personality
as far as politics is concerned. FDR was interested in politics and getting a third term -- and looking forward obviously at that point to a fourth term, too.
HESS: Just as an assumption on your part, but one point that puzzles me is in 1940 Mr. Roosevelt came out very hard and said, "I want Henry Wallace," and I believe that in the letter that he sent to the convention, he said, "If I can't have him I won't run."
BELL: Oh, yes.
HESS: He was very, very firm on the subject of who he wanted for Vice President.
BELL: No not really. In that respect no matter what FDR said, he was going to be renominated. The Democrats had nobody else. They couldn't offer anybody else. And he played it to the hilt in that respect that he wanted Wallace and he wanted him for the farm vote.
As I say, today we don't think about the farm vote. But it made a difference in those days and the farm bloc in Congress was very strong then. They can't agree on anything now, and they can't get anything in Congress except the leavings, the scraps.
HESS: And then in 1944, it seems to me that Mr. Roosevelt did not take a very great interest in who was placed
on the ticket, is that a fair assumption or not?
BELL: Well, I think that's a fair assumption. He wouldn't have named two men if he had been interested in one over the other. He would have named one.
HESS: And he did send Wallace a letter saying, "If I were a delegate to the convention, I would vote for Wallace." That was probably the letter that Mr. Wallace was looking for the night that...
BELL: Yes, I think that was probably it. But that was the usual Roosevelt deception, let the man down easy, don't kick him over the cliff, just say, "Oh well, I'm the victim of circumstances, I have to do this. Good-by Henry."
HESS: Do you think Mr. Truman's handling of the Truman Committee during the war years was what placed his name before the President, and helped him to receive the nomination for Vice President?
BELL: Well, yes, he was "clean Harry."
HESS: Did any of the stigma of being from the Pendergast machine last until this time?
BELL: No, it wore out. They forgot about it. The public forgets very quickly, you know. And Truman's colleagues were reassured by the fact that he was a solid citizen. Truman was never an extrovert in that sense that he was
going out to manage things for publicity for Truman.
I think he -- as far as any public man can do -- did an honest job. I think that was the opinion of most of his colleagues. He was doing an honest job. Some of the people who were around him were trying to take political advantage of this, but I don't think that that was Truman's idea at all.
HESS: As an observer at the Senate, did you observe any of this development in Mr. Truman during these years that you were there at the Senate?
BELL: Oh, yes, he developed. Of course, he had no experience. As a county official he was picked up and thrust into the thing, and really knew nothing about the Senate. But Wheeler was a very good mentor. Wheeler knew the Senate backwards and forwards. He helped Truman wherever he could and this was in a lot of valuable places.
HESS: Did you travel on the campaign trips in 1944?
HESS: Who did you go with, President Roosevelt?
BELL: Well, as we do in the AP, I split my time between Roosevelt and...
HESS: [Thomas E.] Dewey?
BELL: Dewey, yes. I was primarily assigned to Dewey; had
been in '44 and '48. Dewey was my prime responsibility, but every now and then we'd switch for a week or so, to go with the other fellow to sort of level out your consciousness about the campaign and not get over-powered by being with one man all the time.
HESS: Do you recall any startling contrast that you may have seen between the two? The way that the two men conducted their campaigns. The way that the crowds received their speeches. Anything come to mind on that?
BELL: Let's see, it was '44 I guess. I was in a train wreck with Dewey in Oregon and had a couple of busted ribs, which were patched up. From Oregon and Washington we went to Los Angeles to the coliseum, where Dewey had a crowd of 102,000 , which is a pretty damn good political crowd. They were hanging from the rafters.
I had a bad night that night because I had to write the overnight, and that kept me filing until the stadium was almost empty and the buses had all gone. So, I had to carry my portable typewriter, which weighed twenty-two pounds in those days -- that was before the light ones came in -- and there were no taxis. I had to get out in the remaining crowd and sort of flag down a ride and so forth. That night and the Dewey crowd are
Of course, Roosevelt had had 101,000 at Soldier's Field, or close to that. The reception of the candidates differed. I found that Dewey wasn't very well-liked (as far as you could tell), by the people that associated themselves with him or by the crowds. The crowds loved Roosevelt. They practically kissed his garments. And it was very plain to me early in the campaign that Dewey was not going to beat Roosevelt. Traveling with Dewey we left Los Angeles on the night that FDR made his "Fala" speech.
We boarded the Santa Fe Chief going east to Oklahoma City. Aboard we got some reports on his speech. We hailed Jim [James C.] Hagerty, said, "We want some reaction, now get going." What had Dewey said. That's the usual procedure. They had a press conference just before we got to Belen, New Mexico, a God forsaken little place with about twenty-five houses...
HESS: A whistlestop?
BELL: No, not even a whistlestop, it wasn't quite up to that. And so we hit the ground with Dewey's answer, which was a fighting one. He was going to expose Roosevelt and all that sort of stuff; Roosevelt trickery. I just couldn't run with broken ribs. So my UP opponent
outdistanced me to a telephone and this was the only telephone anybody could see in town. It was in front of the station.
HESS: The sum total of the communications.
BELL: Yes. So, I thought, "Well, hell, they can't run a railroad without telephones." There was none in the station itself. So, I, as fast as I could I explored the yards to find the communications center where the switching operation was. And, "Oh, yes," they had a telephone. I got on the telephone and called Kansas City with a story. I came back to the station thinking, "Well, hell, I've been beaten by twenty or thirty minutes on this story, just not being able to get to the telephone." But I found that Dewey had come along and had commandeered the station phone my opposition was trying to use.
HESS: Before he could get his story filed?
BELL: Before he could even get his number, and security men were saying, "You've got to get off of here. You've got to get off of here."
HESS: Who was the UP man at that time?
BELL: It was Johnny Cutter, who was one of my best friends and has remained one. Dewey made a stupid mistake that
FDR would have avoided.
HESS: All right, continuing on sir, with the events of the campaign of '44, where did you travel with President Roosevelt? Did you go to New York and ride in the rain? I understand that he was in New York and rode in an open convertible and caught a cold.
BELL: He did.
HESS: Were you there at that time?
BELL: No, I was not. And as I say, it's very difficult to remember. I can't remember where I've been on most of these campaigns. I've been on so many of them.
HESS: Okay. Mr. Truman took a little campaign swing in ' 44 , as vice-presidential candidate.
BELL: I didn't travel with him, because I only traveled with presidential candidates. So, I don't know anything about that particular campaign.
HESS: All right. Did you think that Roosevelt was going to win that fourth time?
HESS: Which he did.
HESS: Were you at the White House -- the inauguration was held that year, as you recall, out on the South Portico.
HESS: Were you out there that day?
BELL: No, I didn't go. We had the White House regulars covering.
HESS: And then shortly after the inauguration, Mr. Roosevelt left for Yalta, and when he came back he addressed a joint session of Congress, did you see that?
BELL: Yes, this is the first time he had appeared in a wheelchair.
HESS: That's right.
BELL: And he looked, as everybody said, gaunt and tired, almost exhausted, but he wowed them in the House with his report. There wasn't even a Republican who sat on his hands. It was a very moving experience really, where you thought, "Well, maybe this man has brought peace to the world for all time, or at least a generation."
I had been there when he asked for the declaration of war. The contrast was very sharp between our hopes after Yalta and our great disillusionment, disappointment, over Pearl Harbor, about which we didn't know very much. We only knew that a number of ships had been sunk. But it was glossed over that we had suffered probably the most tremendous defeat that we had since the war of 1812.
I can't remember much of what Roosevelt said and it is very difficult after the years to pin down a subject, but it was a very optimistic report on what was coming up in the world.
HESS: Did you see Mr. Roosevelt very often after that, before he left for Hyde Park and then for Warm Springs?
BELL: I attended almost all the Roosevelt press conferences which usually came on Tuesdays and Thursdays, alternate morning and the afternoon.
Now, these were very great affairs in the sense that it was always an atmosphere of drama there. You lined up at the door to get into the Oval Room. The first one in got in the front row, and May Craig was always the first at the door. When she didn't have anything else to do, she might spend a couple hours waiting at the door.
HESS: Do you think that she could elbow her way to the front even if she wasn't the first one at the door?
BELL: Oh, everybody would let May up there. They loved May with that little hat of hers on, and those spicy questions. She was really great.
But you could always tell Roosevelt's mood by the altitude of his cigarette. If it was up like this, pointing up in the air, he was in a good mood. If he was
sort of dragging it out of the corner of his mouth, well, look out. He'd snarl at you and he'd make fun of you and he'd ask you to stand in a corner, like a dunce, and all sort of stuff but this was always exciting.
HESS: Did Mr. Roosevelt usually give a forthright answer to the questions he was asked or not?
BELL: No President ever gives forthright answers to any difficult question. Once in a while you could pin FDR down on something. I remember the horse and buggy statements of a long time ago. He had prepared this in advance.
HESS: What was that?
BELL: About the Supreme Court. His statement that the Supreme Court was in the horse and buggy stage, and had not caught up with the modern world. Somebody, I don't know who it was, asked him, "Can we have that on record Mr. President?"
He grinned and said, "You may quote me on that."
HESS: Where were you when you heard of the death of President Roosevelt?
BELL: In Washington.
HESS: What were your impressions?
BELL: Well, "Something's wrong with God." I mean I almost thought that man would live forever, and most people did.
I covered the parade, the death march is the word, to the White House. We AP reporters were all assigned to the various places. When those horse drawn caissons turned in at the White House with the body of the man who had seemed to be the world's hope, at that point I couldn't understand why he had been stricken.
I didn't support Roosevelt's policies. I mean I thought his efforts to pull the country up by its bootstraps had failed and that Harry Hopkins', "Spend and spend and spend, elect and elect and elect," really sounded the tocsin of the Roosevelt administration.
What they wanted to do was get elected, stay in power, keep power. I never voted for him. But of course, I didn't vote very often, because I was usually out of town traveling the presidential campaigns, and didn't register, and often didn't get back to town in time to vote.
But he was undeniably a great man in many respects, and I know that Truman thought this, and he was overawed by the fact that Roosevelt would take him on the ticket. Truman didn't know what to do as Vice President. Roosevelt never consulted him on anything. You have the story of Truman finding out at the "board of education" that he was dead and bursting back through the Capitol and
evading the Secret Service and all of that sort of stuff.
HESS: Since you knew Mr. Truman for several years before that, what kind of a job did you think he would do, at that time?
BELL: I thought it was awful at first. I remember that he came up the day after he was sworn in to have lunch in an old familiar ground at the office of the Secretary of the Senate.
HESS: Les [Leslie] Biffle's office.
BELL: Les Biffle's office.
HESS: The dining room or whatever it is.
BELL: No, it's his office, it's off the floor of the Senate. And seven or eight of us were waiting for Truman there when he came out. He walked out and we didn't know exactly how to address him, among other things. He was President and we were all astounded that he was President. We had called him Harry all the time. But we couldn't do that. We couldn't say, "Harry," and we couldn't swallow enough to say, "Mr. President," so we just addressed him as, "You." He made that statement which has been recorded about, "Did you ever have a bull fall on you," and "Did you ever have the stars and the
moon fall on you? Pray for me." But he was a very modest and self-demeaning man at that point. That didn't stay long, he became pretty cocky a little later on.
HESS: During his administration did you attend most of his press conferences?
HESS: How would you...
BELL: There's a picture over there of his first press conference. That's he, with me leaning over the desk.
I was instructed by AP to write a roundup story on this conference. With Eisenhower, I used to dictate four or five bulletins on various points. I remember dictating his statement that TVA was creeping socialism. The office called me back and said, "He didn't really say that did he now?"
I said, "Yes, goddamn it that's what he said."
But back to Truman's thing. I dictated a lead and pointed other statements in one, two, three, four, five, six order.. Truman hadn't learned to say, "No comment."
We didn't take, "No comment," when he was a Senator, or when he was Vice President. He didn't "No comment," us then because we insisted that he answer one way or
another.. He thought that was just -- that was the way he lived. It had become a way of life for him so he couldn't say, "No comment," as President. He couldn't really answer some questions, but he said something about everything. This was characteristic of Truman throughout his early Presidency. He finally learned to say, "No comment on that," but he was always pretty blunt.
There's a classic story about when he was in Tennessee (I've forgotten the name of the town), when he was on kind of a vacation. Somebody asked him in an offhand way, "What are you going to do with the bomb? Are we going to give it to the Russians?"
He said, "We're going to keep it."
HESS: That was down at Reelfoot Lake.
BELL: Reelfoot Lake, yes.
HESS: Do you think that Mr. Truman at times was more apt to give a forthright answer to a question that was asked? We mentioned Mr. Roosevelt.
BELL: Of course, of course he would.
HESS: Is it always a good thing for a President to give such a forthright answer? Maybe he should be a little bit more devious like Mr. Roosevelt, perhaps?
BELL: I think you would have to, in that position. Truman was not -- Truman had no real inborn finesse. He didn't know how to finesse a question as Nixon does.
And Eisenhower liked that finesse too. He was inclined to answer a question if he thought he could, and Truman was too. Of course, Kennedy would kid you out of the question if he could. He was more like FDR than anybody I've known in the job. And he had a great deal of wit which Truman lacked, which Eisenhower certainly lacked, and which Nixon is not notorious for.
HESS: In general, how skillful was Mr. Truman in fielding questions at his press conferences?
BELL: Not very skillful, not really.
HESS: He was sometimes accused of shooting from the hip. Was that the phrase that was used back during those days?
BELL: Well, I think this is true, it was not shooting from the hip, but it was shooting from the heart. This is what the guy felt. He just said it. I mean it was not politic to do it a lot of times, but there was no deviousness, or very little about this man.
HESS: Also, in your book, The Splendid Misery, which I think is an excellent book, you mention that Mr. Truman let reporters put words in his mouth. And the red herring
matter is covered in your book.
BELL: If we can say he shot from the hip he did then. The questioner was an out of town reporter and he had a framed question ready. He was allowed to go into the press conference on a special pass, which you can't object to. Any reporter in the United States ought to be admitted to those press conferences. Mr. Truman just said, "Yes," to this framed question. He didn't initiate the red herring business.
HESS: One question on the physical location of the press conferences: They were moved during the Truman administration from the Oval Room, from Mr. Truman's office, over to the Indian Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building. That move was made on April the 27th of 1950. Which location did you prefer, the Oval Room, or the Indian Treaty Room?
BELL: Well, the Oval Room. But it had outgrown its usefulness because the crowd was too large for this particular room to accommodate it. You just couldn't get all the bodies in there. I think that the Indian Treaty Room was probably the worst alternative they could have thought of, but this is the only one they could find where he could walk across the street in complete security. This was a God awful, garish room, goes back to about 1870
I suppose, or something like that.
Taft once looked out of the White House at this building across the street, and said this was the God awfulest monstrosity that he had ever seen. It was known as the State, War, Navy Building, then.
HESS: State, War and Navy.
BELL: State, War and Navy, yes. All three departments were in that building.
HESS: Constructed during the Grant administration, I believe.
BELL: Was it? Well, I know that Dean Acheson had an office over in one corner of the building. I guess he was Under Secretary then. No air-conditioning, and this thing was stifling in the summertime. When you walked in there heat would just hit you to the point where you couldn't understand how these people could carry on any business in their offices.
HESS: Clifford was Special Counsel. Did you ever speak to him very often when he was in the White House?
BELL: Oh, yes, I ran across him quite often socially, and he was available if I telephoned the White House. Of course, he started as kind of a legal assistant or something like that to Harry.
HESS: Yes, he was brought in as Assistant Naval Aide.
BELL: Yes, that was it. And Truman's trait was to recognize intelligence that he needed, and he recognized him. Clark is a very personable fellow. He wears double breasted suits which have come...
HESS: Come back into fashion haven't they?
BELL: Back into fashion, but he wore them all the time when button down collar and the single button suit and so forth were in.
HESS: Tell me, during the Truman administration did you feel free as a reporter to contact members of the White House other than the press office?
BELL: Oh goodness yes. You didn't pay too much attention to the press officers, they were always changing. Charlie was in there first.
HESS: Charles Ross and then Joe Short.
BELL: Yes, Charlie Ross.
HESS: What kind of a job did he do? What kind of a Press Secretary did Charles Ross make? Effective; ineffective?
BELL: He was an old friend, but I remember on a Truman trip before Charlie went in, we were sitting in the parlor car and I said, "Charlie, who's going to be the President's Press Secretary?"
He said, "Well, I think I know, I can't tell you."
And it turned out a few days later that Charlie had been chosen.
Charlie hadn't written a news story in years, he was an editorial writer. Charlie had Truman's confidence, but Charlie just didn't know the operation, the modernized operation. He had operated in the days when you had a Washington correspondent, and he wrote a story a week for the paper, and this wasn't exactly what we wanted. Everybody loved Charlie, but he wasn't worth a damn in the practical aspects of the job.
HESS: How would you compare him with the two men that held the job under Franklin Roosevelt? Now, Steve Early held it the longest period of time, and then Jonathan Daniels held it from the time that "Pa" [Edwin M.] Watson died on the way back from Yalta until April the 12th of '45.
BELL: Steve Early was the best of all, ever.
HESS: Was he better than Jim Hagerty for Eisenhower?
BELL: Yes. Jim Hagerty was Vice President in a certain aspect. But Steve Early was the essence of the Presidency. Roosevelt never made a move without going to Steve. And Steve divined his mind, and his proclivities, and everything else.
And Steve had a easy, even personality. He was the guy he always used to call Charlie McNary and say, "Look Charlie, we're going around you on this." And McNary knew that this was what Roosevelt was going to do, there was no question about it. Byrnes might get a word or two about what was going on, but he wasn't real sure. But McNary knew because Steve had told him. You know, you don't often have that kind of relationship between a Press Secretary and the President. The President had so very many other things to do that he could only worry about the press at stated hours, and most Presidents couldn't have the confidence that Roosevelt had in Steve. Steve was sort of a son to him.
It was a different relationship between Hagerty and Eisenhower. Eisenhower was a very frosty man with the press. He didn't really like anybody in the press. He only liked millionaires. And because they...
HESS: Not too many members of the press are millionaires?
BELL: Not too many.
HESS: How effective was Jonathan Daniels?
BELL: I think he was more or less of a zero. I mean Jonathan is a great guy personally, a great storyteller and all this sort of thing, but he had no business being
HESS: Charles Ross died on December the 5th, 1950. A few days later Joseph Short of the Baltimore Sun was appointed Press Secretary. How effective was Joseph Short?
BELL: I had known Joe for I guess ten years before that. He had been an AP man before he had gone to the Baltimore Sun, and he was one of my good friends. Joe worked hard and he tried. But I don't think he came up to it in the sense that he didn't really know what Truman was doing. Joe had Missouri connections. Beth, his wife, was from Missouri. Beth used to work for me as a reporter on the Daily Oklahoman years ago. I think Joe tried very hard but he had difficulty in making the transition from being a reporter to being a front man, a press relations officer. I think Joe saw lot of things that were damn good stories and he wasn't allowed to put them out. This is an irritating sort of a thing to a man who is devoted to putting out the news, getting it out to the public.
HESS: Charles Ross went to school with Mr. Truman, they had been in the same high school class. Do you think that gave him a better rapport perhaps with Mr. Truman in that he could go into the office and speak to Mr. Truman where
Mr. Short might have hesitated a little bit and didn't have quite the same rapport?
BELL: Well, I think that's probably an accurate judgment of it yes.
HESS: Well, Mr. Short died on September the 18th of 1952 and Roger Tubby and Irving Perlmeter took over as Acting Press Secretaries, and then in December of '52 Roger Tubby was named Press Secretary. How effective were those two gentlemen?
BELL: Well, Roger was out of his league. Irv Perlmeter was never cut out for this sort of thing. He was a hell of a good reporter, but he wasn't attuned to this give and play.
You've got to be a comic among other things. You've got to be a very wise man. You've got to be close-mouthed, and you've got to be all these things to be a press secretary. You can become imperialistic as Hagerty did, or you can become too humble and too soft as it were, as Roger Tubby did, and I just don't think that either he or Irv were up to it on a mental level. They weren't thinking in the right terms. This is no criticism of them because they are both friends of mine. I don't think they cut the mustard.
HESS: At the time of Mr. Truman's takeover, on April the 12th of 1945, he cut back the number of press conferences
from two a week to one a week.
HESS: Do you think that that was a good thing for him to do? Was that a wise move?
BELL: Well, I think that no President that I've known could manage two a week except FDR. You'd have to remember that those were what we might call off-the-record. You couldn't quote the President directly on anything he said unless you obtained approval from him to use his quotes. Even then you could only use part of a phrase perhaps, or one phrase or part of a sentence. Very rarely did he permit you to use a complete sentence or even a paragraph of what he might say.
Since then time marched on to a point where Eisenhower taped these things. They taped for radio and then took movies for later editing. Both of these were later edited, and Hagerty knocked out any booboos that he found. They missed some, of course, but nevertheless, this was a restrained sort of quotation of the President.
Kennedy was very confident that he could handle this thing and Bill [William H.] Lawrence had a piece today in the New York Times about that. Lawrence was critical of the format and I agree. But I can't say
Kennedy was stupid in doing it. He wasn't. He could handle it. He had a readymade wit that could turn critical questions off. He made it into a propaganda thing for Kennedy. I think it helped him greatly with the country. The timing had a lot to do with it. It didn't always work, I remember there was a noon press conference, when people were supposed to be out to lunch or in the corner saloon having a drink and looking at TV, and Kennedy was outranked in ratings by a talking horse. This sort of thing happened. They were just experimenting with TV.
Nixon's presentations on TV are completely controlled. I thought that in the conversation he had the other night, the questions were feathery. Nixon had explored every possible question in advance. He complained later that he wasn't asked some that he knew about, and wanted to answer. But Lawrence said the man never answers questions directly. Of course, Kennedy didn't either, but he was more subtle about it. He walked around the edges of plenty of questions, but once in a while he'd give you a straight answer on something.
HESS: And how would you evaluate President Johnson's handling
of questions during a press conference?
BELL: I think Lyndon was -- in the first place -- scared being on the tube. I knew him back in the Senate in the days when he'd order photographers "Don't take that. Don't take me from that side, get around over here. My best profile is on my right."
HESS: Sort of a John Barrymore action.
BELL: Lyndon was so overcome with being President that he couldn't quite justify himself, even in those sort of things.
HESS: One question on the general use of a press conference: A press conference, used effectively, could be used to educate and inform the public and influence congressional action. Do you think that Mr. Truman used his in an effective manner in those ways? Do you think that he used them in a way to inform the public of what was going on and to influence congressional action?
BELL: No, I think the general impression was that Mr. Truman was extremely hostile to his critics. He wasted his ammunition in that respect. He always had a chip on his shoulder. When he called the Turnip Session, a special session of the 80th Congress, this was a grandstand move to draw attention to the Democratic ticket at that point in '48 where nobody expected Truman and Barkley to win.
HESS: Were you in Philadelphia that night he made that speech?
BELL: Oh, indeed.
HESS: What do you recall about the convention in '48, and the general atmosphere around the convention?
BELL: It was one of deep gloom and depression. Almost every delegate was convinced Truman couldn't win again, or couldn't win this first elective run as President.
Old Alben [Barkley] got up on that awful, awful long night and spoke an awful long time. They had had all the demonstration of the Dixiecrats, and [J. Strom] Thurmond had marched out waving the flag. Old Alben had got up about 1 o'clock in the morning. He always had diarrhea of the mouth and he couldn't stop. But he began lifting these people up. It was sort of magical there. Probably most of them were so drunk they didn't know what they were doing at this point. There had been a lot of bourbon whiskey flowing around in various places there. But old Alben began telling them, "Look, don't be stupid, we can win. We can win because we're Democrats. This is the great party." And he went on for a couple of hours I guess.
But he really lifted them up and he got them to cheering. They had been through the controversy where [Hubert] Humphrey had led the revolt against the compromise civil rights plank, that had caused Thurmond and the Dixie marchers to go out. There were a lot of vacant seats but Alben got ahold of these people. He was a tremendous guy in a lot of respects. You'd have to say he always talked too long and too much, just like Hubert Humphrey did, but Alben had something that gave them some hope. When he got through they were cheering, and Truman came along and came up on the platform and I said, "Harry, where have you been?"
"Oh," he said, "I've been down looking out the window enjoying the night and listening to Alben on the radio."
He went up on the platform and he made a short, very militant sort of a speech, "We're going to win. We're going to win." And then he called the Turnip Day session.
HESS: Had you had any inkling of that before he mentioned it in his speech?
BELL: No. Maybe some real experts in the business had, but I don't know anybody who did.
HESS: Had you ever heard any newsmen say that he had heard
anything about that?
BELL: No, and we all recognized it as a gimmick to draw attention. This of course, was the beginning of the fight on the "Eighty-worst" Congress.
HESS: Why do you think he was striking so hard at the 80th Congress?
BELL: He didn't have anything else to hit.
HESS: But you know the 80th Congress was the one that passed the Truman Doctrine for the aid for Greece and Turkey and passed the Marshall plan.
BELL: Sure. He also was the only President up to that time that had guts enough to ask Congress for action on FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission]. Roosevelt talked about it, but Roosevelt never sent a message to Congress on it. He just talked about it, an old tactic on the part of a President to get elected. I don't think Truman really believed in it because his family was all southern oriented. But he had decided this was the political thing to do and he was going to do it. So, he set up an FEPC message and he proposed a great many things, some of which are coming true now, but they were ahead of the times. They were pre-dated then you might say, but he had just made up his mind the only way he could win was to beat the mule of the
During the campaign nobody thought that he was going to be successful, except some of us saw some of these crowds that he had, and how the people sort of reacted. But you can't depend on crowds and you can't depend on polls and you can't depend on anything, really, in a presidential election.
HESS: What do you recall of that campaign? Did you also split your time that year between Mr. Truman and Dewey?
BELL: Yes. I remember a 1950 trip when Truman had gone out to North Dakota on a train.
HESS: Well, he went out and dedicated a dam again.
HESS: The Grand Coulee Dam, or something like that.
HESS: You were along on that trip?
BELL: I think Joe Short was the press man then, but I'm not sure.
HESS: No, not at that time. See Charlie...
BELL: I guess Charlie was.
HESS: Charlie Ross died in December of '50 and this was the May trip of '50.
BELL: Yes, Charlie was there. I remember when we were
going into St. Louis. We had no advance on Truman's speech, and we were giving Charlie a little unshirted hell about that. "Well," he said, "you see, it isn't written yet. It isn't decided on."
We'd go to Charlie about every thirty minutes on the train and say, "Come on, you're going to miss all the first editions." Being a wire service man I was very acutely aware of timing.
HESS: Was this one of the aspects that Mr. Ross just did not seem to appreciate or grasp the importance of?
BELL: Charlie wasn't accustomed anymore to deadlines. I don't know that he had ever been, because he was a special correspondent in Washington in the days that he might write one or two stories a week.
But the guys in the press train had to have something in for the morning, just some little stuff that would cover them for a first edition. But if Truman had a speech of any import, they wanted to get it in the first edition if possible, and certainly they wanted it by the home edition. Deadlines vary all over the country. Of course, I had no deadline because the 3,600 newspapers in the AP you have a deadline every four or five minutes when somebody goes to press. Charlie came back into the press car finally with two paragraphs
saying, "Truman is going to say this." All you could do was write a story on what he said in those two paragraphs. Then Charlie would come with two more paragraphs, saying, "Well, this might provide a better lead," so you've got to top your story even before it got in the papers.
He then would come back with a couple more paragraphs, and this is the way it ran up until the time the train reached St. Louis. Truman went in and made a speech and he didn't mention anything that Charlie had given us. But they had to stand on it. The understanding was that the White House would stand on anything that they put out. We had to sit and listen to the speech then top our stories with what he really did say. But we still left in what he said he was going to say but didn't say.
HESS: What kind of a reception was Governor Dewey receiving in 1948, from the crowds, and from the press, and just what seemed to be the atmosphere? Any different from '44?
BELL: Yes, it was different from '44 because he assumed in '48 that he was already President. And he even gave us, at one point, the makeup of his Cabinet -- off-the-record as it were -- going back into Albany from some trip.
He went into Des Moines in that year and all of his advisers were urging him to make a farm speech. He said, "Hell no, why bother about the farm thing? I'm going to talk about welfare."
It was '44 we're in Valentine, Nebraska for about six or seven days and we were living on a Pullman car with no shower or anything, had to go down to the local barbershop and line up to get a shower. It took so long that people just didn't bother too much about it.
HESS: The fellows at the end of the line didn't get one?
BELL: We had a seven-day shirt that we always wore.
But '48 was a very pompous sort of a campaign. Dewey was sure he was going to win. He was very picky about saying anything that would commit him as President to do something.
It was in '48, yes, that I was on a train with Truman. We left Washington at night, and I remember they didn't get my baggage aboard. I gave it to a porter, but he never put it on for some reason. I woke up the next morning without a toothbrush. But Truman was out at 5:30 in the morning at Harper's Ferry making a speech to about ten people that come down to the tracks.
HESS: Accommodating wasn't he?
BELL: Somebody on the train had told Harry, "There's some voters out here," so he went out.
Eisenhower was just as bad. I think someplace in North or South Carolina the train stopped to be iced about 6 o'clock in the morning. Eisenhower was out in his robe talking to a few of the gentry that had come in.
But I remember on this trip with Truman that one day he made eighteen platform speeches from the back of a train, and a noon speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We wound up in Muskogee -- at 11:30 that night, and he still was out on the back platform. Truman got people out at any time of day or night.
A President can always bring people out. Even if they are not going to vote for him, even if they hate him, people want to see the President in person you know. This still holds now when they are curious to see if he really looks like he does on TV. Most of them never saw a President. They may have voted for him, or voted against him.
Presidential candidates that fly about the country still draw people who have seen them on television and want to see for themselves what he looks like.
The candidates make these airport stops, where
nobody comes out except the Republicans or the Democrats. The crowds are organized and bused there and told to display great enthusiasm. This is baloney of the first order. They don't make any votes by this.
It used to be thought that if a President just went into a state he probably could carry it by just appearing there, particularly the small western states. The mere fact that he even went there was supposed to be conclusive that he had a great interest in the particular state. That's why Nixon in '60 made this rash promise to go to all fifty states. He kind of scared Kennedy about this too.
I went with Kennedy to Alaska and there couldn't be any stupider operation than flying clear up to Alaska to get two or three electorial votes up there.
HESS: Kennedy or Nixon?
BELL: Kennedy. On Labor Day he went to Detroit. The candidate gave a little speech in the square there.
HESS: Cadillac Square?
BELL: Cadillac Square. He went on up through the state up to a small town where we were supposed to take off to Boise, Idaho. It had been a day in which Governor Mennen Williams, with his green bow tie, and got all the
attention, and Kennedy was kind of a second man. But finally we were going to fly to Boise. But first they couldn't fuel the plane, the Caroline. They could only fuel it with gas in five gallon milk cans.
HESS: One at a time.
BELL: They had to climb up on the wings and pour the gas in. We sat on the ground for about three hours before we finally got off for Boise. We got in at Boise at 4 a.m. mountain time. You didn't fly very fast in those planes those days.
The announcement when we got off the plane was: "Baggage in the hall at 6 o'clock in the morning." So, you go in and flop on the bed and sleep for about an hour and then you'd begin awaking up, thinking, "I've got to get that baggage out there."
He made a speech at a high school there at 8 o'clock in the morning. Didn't say anything worth a damn, and then from there we took off for Alaska, Anchorage. We got in Alaska and, oh, they were all happy to see somebody like Kennedy come there. This was an exercise in futility to counter Nixon's pledge that he would visit all 50 states in the campaign.
HESS: As you say, Nixon sort of boxed himself in by saying he was going to go, and then when his time could have been
spent at greater profit someplace else, he had to go.
BELL: That's right.
HESS: Back in 1948, at the convention in Philadelphia, do you recall anything in particular about Leslie Biffle boosting Mr. Barkley...
BELL: Oh, yes.
HESS: ...for not just the vice-presidential spot, but maybe even for the first spot on the ticket? Do you recall anything on that?
BELL: Well, Les was very careful about this. He wanted Barkley, and he was convinced along with everybody else, that Truman couldn't win. But he had to be very, very careful because he had been very close to Truman and Truman had confided in him. Les was as close as I guess to Truman as almost any politician.
But Les never made an overt move of any kind. He told some of us that he thought Barkley would make a better man on the ticket. But he was always cautionary: "Now remember, I'm not downgrading the President, and I'm not doing anything against him" But I have no doubt that Les was a moving spirit in telling Truman that if he was going to run again -- Truman had some doubts himself -- that the man for him to have on the ticket with him was
HESS: In his efforts in promoting Mr. Barkley for the first spot do you think he was careful enough? What I'm leading up to is, do you think that the relationship between President Truman and Leslie Biffle cooled in the last four years of Truman's time in the White House?
BELL: I think this is possible. Les had on his desk a white telephone, on which he would call Truman and Truman himself answered. I'm sure it was not as much used in Truman's elective term as it had been previously, because then there was -- I don't think it was friction between them, I think Truman was reorienting himself with [George C.] Marshall, Clark Clifford and people like that. He was going away from his senatorial advisers, I know his relationship with a number of Senators became rather sketchy and formal, whereas it had been very close before.
HESS: Who would you place in that category?
BELL: Well, a friend from Montana.
BELL: Wheeler, yes, who was invited to the White House now and then not so frequently.
HESS: Not as often as before?
BELL: Truman had outgrown Wheeler I'll say, and he had appointed a man from Indiana on the Supreme Court, Shay Minton.
Shay had been a very close -- had helped Truman as a Senator to acclimate himself to a great many things in the Senate that only your friends tell you about, and your enemies forget to. Truman rewarded Shay by appointing him to the Supreme Court. But Shay's relationship diminished too. The only man I ever knew on the court that maintained a real close relationship with the President was Jimmy Byrnes and Roosevelt.
I used to go over to the Court in the afternoon and ride down to the White House with Jimmy and ask him what was going on. Of course, I wasn't invited to come in or anything.
But Truman's diminution of his relationship with his old friends progressed as Clifford, Marshall, Acheson and other people gained the President's confidence. Truman was able for the first time to see that the people in the Senate, that he thought were so great, really had a limited view of National problems, they were partisan in most respects. He leaned more and more on the people around him in the White House, John
Steelman and John Snyder and all those people went way back with Truman. He knew them before he ventured into National politics.
HESS: On the subject of White House-congressional-legislative liaison during Mr. Truman's first four years, or a little bit less than four years, when he wanted to push legislation, what manner did his efforts take? Did he usually personally phone the people on the Hill or did he have some operative in the White House get in touch with Senators or their legislative assistants?
BELL: He'd usually call Les Biffle, in the Senate, and say, "Les, this is what I want to do." But none of this was too effective because too many Senators had decided before 1948 that Truman wasn't going to be elected anyhow. And after 1948, they knew that he wasn't going to run again. So, he was sort of a lame duck in two administrations, as it were. Usually his legislative efforts took the form of some blunt message to Congress, that you do this and you do that, and the follow-up was not good.
HESS: In 1949, two men were brought onto the White House staff to work on matters of this sort and were given the title Legislative Assistant to the President, the only
two men to have this title during the Truman administration. That arrangement lasted from the spring of '49 until the end of the administration. And it was Joseph Feeney in the Senate, and Charles Maylon in the House. Do you recall those two men?
BELL: No, only the names.
HESS: Did you see them around very often?
BELL: If I did, I probably could identify Joe Feeney, but Maylon, no.
HESS: Feeney had been a captain in the Navy and had been the Navy's liaison in the Senate for several years before that time.
BELL: Pretty good opening, in that sense.
HESS: Maylon had been a Army general, and he had conducted Pentagon liaison with the House before that time.
BELL: I don't recall any effectiveness for either one of them.
BELL: The President was prone to do this sort of thing. People who appeared before the Appropriations Committee of the House and the Senate, and this included quite a number of military people who always had a very good reception, impressed the President with their impression on key people in Congress. He was likely
to call on somebody like this for liaison. But in my experience no White House liaison has been worth the powder to blow it up, really.
HESS: Even Larry [Lawrence F.] O'Brien's operation?
BELL: Well, Larry was tabbed as partisan too much. Larry is a very personable guy and I think really a pretty clear thinker on political matters. This is what counts, but I couldn't find any trace of where Larry O'Brien's arguments or appeals to members really made much difference. This is the fallacy of the whole system to me. The liaison men were dealing with a bunch of individuals who considered themselves as good as the President or anybody else. They don't like to be told anything. Larry is pretty persuasive in a lot of ways, but he had no real ax to chop anybody down and it has got to the point where you can't strong-arm anymore.
HESS: As an opinion, how would you evaluate the success or failure of Mr. Truman's general legislative program during the eight years he was in?
BELL: He didn't get anything he asked for, for all practical purposes. He was caught in that famous railroad strike thing, the Army business, ordering the Army to run the
railroad. When he was addressing the Congress, I saw Les Biffle come down and pass him a note that the strike had been settled. But Truman didn't know what to do with it at that point. He just said rather simply, "Well, I am told that the strike has been settled," at the end of an impassioned speech. That's maybe the wrong word to describe any speech that Truman ever made.
After the speech we reporters hotfooted it over to the Senate to ask Bob Taft about Truman's proposal. Taft said, "Absolutely not, we will never do this." We had the answer in five minutes after Truman spoke.
This was characteristic of what happened to so many Truman moves, somebody like Taft would ambush him immediately, and he would be done for.
HESS: What did they do wrong? What could they have done to have had a successful legislative program?
BELL: You're getting ethereal, I mean how can you...
HESS: You're a professional observer and you were there.
BELL: Well, I don't think it was possible for him to get a successful legislative program through, because Truman always exaggerated his demands. His theory was to ask for the moon and...
HESS: Ask for a 150 percent and hope he got 95.
BELL: Well, no. Hope you got 10 percent of it would be more like it.
Truman knew better. He knew the score. He had been in the Senate, he knew how it worked, he knew how the operation went. He knew exactly what would happen to his recommendations. But he was intent then on getting himself elected to the Presidency and his was a grandstand operation. He never asked for anything really substantial. He had that fight about controls and things like that. He was too stubborn about those things.
The '46 election was decided on something that he could have avoided, which was the relaxing of meat controls. There was meat and they didn't need it for the Army any more. But he wanted to continue price and rent controls. The country was pretty tired of this. When the country gets tired of what a President is trying to do, look out.
He recouped in the following two years, simply because the Republicans who were elected in 1946 were stupid. They were merely obstructionists on everything. Truman cashed in on that in '48. But if the election had been in '46 he would have been soundly defeated.
HESS: You mentioned Mr. Taft. Did he ever tell you what his
opinion of Mr. Truman was?
BELL: Taft's attitude was, "Well, old Harry, he's all right. He isn't too bad, but he's just going the wrong direction. All of the liberals will lead him off into left field, where eventually we will corner him."
But Bob Taft was a great deal more of a realist than historians will picture him, because he was a political animal too. He was painted as a conservative, but hell, he's the guy who was for low cost housing, the conservatives wouldn't take it.
HESS: The Taft-Ellender-Wagner housing bill. [Senators Robert A. Taft, Allen J. Ellender, and Robert F. Wagner.]
BELL: Yes, various things like that.
HESS: Which didn't pass.
BELL: Well, no, of course not. Not in those times. Yet Bob Taft was always pictured as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and he was not that in any respect.
He was forward thinking in many respects. On the other hand he could turn completely around and be so reactionary that you just wondered how a man that was for housing, would say, "Well, let the poor take care of themselves," which he did in effect. And, "We'll always have poor people and there isn't anything we can do
about it, and if there isn't enough meat let them eat less meat," things of that sort.
HESS: Back to the events of 1948. In June before the convention when Mr. Truman took that so-called non-political campaign tour, which was sort of a pre-warm-up swing through the West and back, do you recall that?
HESS: Did you take that trip?
BELL: Yes, I was on that. The thing I remember most clearly was that there was a poker game going at the end of the press car twenty-four hours a day, with a two dollar limit game, seven card hi-lo stud, low hole card wild.
HESS: All right, now that we have the important things out of the way, what happened in Omaha? Do you recall Mr. Truman's speech at the auditorium named Nebraska spelled backwards, and one of these days I'm going to learn how to pronounce it.
HESS: Ak-sar-ben. Did you ever hear what went wrong that night?
BELL: The local organization just sat on its hands. With
the President you've got to get people organized in cadres, fill the busses and bring them in from outside and all that sort of stuff.
HESS: It takes a lot of work.
BELL: Well, even with [Barry M.] Goldwater, with all of the enthusiasm among the conservatives -- these antediluvian right wingers -- you still couldn't get them off of their cans to come out unless you organized the thing. I've been to Goldwater meeting after Goldwater meeting, rallies and so forth, you'd count fifty or a hundred busses there. They had gone out and got these people from small towns by saying, "Look, the next President's coming. Now, come on out." Then they got them out.
This wasn't done in Omaha. They just had some stupid local people who said, "Well, the President's coming, we'll print 14,000 tickets for a 7,000 seat hall," which is always done, and pass them out to everybody, and say, "Look, you'll get a good seat and hear the President." Or maybe they didn't even do that.
HESS: Do you recall that in Idaho he dedicated an airfield to the wrong person, Carey, Idaho, Wilma Coates? Do you recall that?
BELL: I recall that. It's just one of those booboos that are always made, like Dewey with, "Glad to be back," in
the wrong town. That's bad staff work, which is not permitted now, but campaigning used to be more relaxed.
HESS: And one of the stops on the trip was at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received an honorary degree and I believe that he spoke at the commencement ceremonies. I have been told it was a very hot day, very warm day, do you recall that, at Berkeley?
BELL: No, I don't recall anything specific about it. I mean it was just another stop. So...
HESS: Okay, back through the convention and then on into the campaign, and then on into the election. Where were you on election night in '48?
BELL: I was in Washington, D.C. writing the leads on the election. I haven't been out of Washington on election night in -- since I was with Dewey in '44, in New York City. Since then I've always written the leads on the election so I left the campaign two or three days before.
HESS: Who did you think was going to win that election?
BELL: Oh, I thought Dewey was going to win it, like everybody else.
HESS: Just like everybody else.
BELL: Including Truman.
HESS: You don't think Mr. Truman thought he was going to win?
BELL: I don't think so.
HESS: Did you ever hear him say so?
BELL: No, you will never hear Harry Truman say that he didn't. This was the apogee of his life, you know, when he won that election.
HESS: Well, since Mr. Truman was a Senator, can you recall any instances that could point to Mr. Truman's handling of a particular Senator when he was President, and his skill or lack of skill in such manners?
BELL: That's very difficult to define, because no Senator will admit that the President had anything to do with his decision. The President can't afford to say, "Well, I twisted this guy's arm," nor can the recipient admit it. Once in a while you hear somebody say, "Oh, the President asked me to do this, so this is why I am doing it," but that's only an alibi, that usually doesn't relate to the facts.
HESS: Did you ever travel with President Truman to Key West or aboard the Williamsburg or to Shangri-La or in his off duty moments?
BELL: No. I was not assigned to the White House, so I
didn't travel on these things. I've been to Camp David, but...
HESS: Shangri-La, was Roosevelt's name for it.
HESS: And Mr. Truman kept that same name.
BELL: Yes, I've been up there with Eisenhower. But this was no experience because the Secret Service won't let you within a mile of the thing really. You know nothing about what is going on except what the Press Secretary comes down to Thurmont and tells you.
HESS: Late in his administration, Mr. Truman did give a few individual interviews to correspondents, but this was quite late. In 1950 he gave an interview to Arthur Krock, which was exclusive.
HESS: Did it cause any difficulties in your bailiwick for the President to give an exclusive interview? Some of the White House reporters thought that that was dirty pool more or less, and that he should not have done that.
BELL: The White House reporters would think it's dirty pool, but the average reporter would envy the ability of Krock to get in there.
And of course you have to take into consideration that this was the New York Times, this was not Krock. The Times was the Bible for the President, mistakenly I think. And since the Times is not read by a great many Americans when you consider the whole population, if he wanted to reach everybody, he should give an interview to the Associated Press and it would be printed all over the world, or to UPI. But most President's curry the favor of the New York Times. Nixon's doing it.
The Times blasts Nixon down, and he has his people leak news to the Times. Maybe this is by way of tempering the hurricane as it were. I don't know, it's not right. But there are a hell of a lot of things that are not right about what goes on in the country.
HESS: Many improvements can be made.
BELL: Yes, and they are not likely to be made.
HESS: When did you first become aware that Mr. Truman did not intend to run for re-election in 1952?
BELL: When he announced it.
HESS: At the National Guard Armory at the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in 1952?
Of course there was speculation before this time, but had you heard any good, solid rumors coming out of the White House before that?
BELL: I don't think Truman told anybody. He just made up his mind it wasn't worth it, and he would like to go down as all Presidents want to go down in history, as (and Lyndon followed this same pattern), the man who voluntarily stepped out.
He wasn't defeated, and of course Truman couldn't have been elected against Eisenhower, I don't think any Democrat could.
HESS: After Mr. Truman took himself out of the race, who did you see as the strongest candidate that the Democrats could put up? I believe his announcement was March 29th of 1952. Who at that time did you think was the best, or the most likely, candidate for the Democrats?
BELL: Well, I thought that Alben Barkley might have been, despite his advanced age. The old man had something. I don't know, you can't describe it, but he had something that drew people to him with great joy.
HESS: "Charisma," as the Kennedys called it.
BELL: Well, maybe charisma. But I don't know, there just didn't seem to be anybody outstanding other than Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois.
I've been a longtime friend of Stevenson's and they had a Governor's conference in Colorado Springs in 1951. I talked to Adlai there and I remember telling him, "You're
the obvious nominee."
HESS: What did he say?
BELL: He said, "Oh, Jack," he said, "you overestimate my importance and appeal." He said, "I have no thought of becoming President." He said, "Actually," he said, "I don't want to be President. I don't think I'm equal to it."
Well, this conversation went on, but I said, "Look, you're the only Democratic Governor of any renown who has been elected. You've been elected by a great margin." And I said, "I think you're going to be the Democratic nominee."
And he said, "Well, God forbid."
And this went on until the Governors' conference in Houston in 1952. I told Adlai I would like to talk to him and he said, "Well, the only place we can go is out here, outside the hotel at a swimming pool." It was hot as hell out there, about a hundred degrees, but we sat there and talked. You've probably read this in the book.
He said, "How can I avoid this thing, how can I avoid the nomination? I don't want to run against Eisenhower. I think he is right on international things and," he said, "I don't know anything about his domestic
views, but I would be inclined to support the man at this point."
He had already been at the White House and told Truman that he wouldn't run. Truman got disgusted. Truman always got disgusted with people who wouldn't make up their minds immediately, you know. But I said to Adlai, "I don't think you can avoid it at all. I think it's going to happen to you and you just better get yourself in line."
And he said, "God, almighty, I'm not going to do it if I can help it. If there's any way -- tell me how I can get out of it."
And I said, "I don't see how you can get out of it. You could 'Shermanize' yourself."
And he said, "Well, I wouldn't do that. I have too much respect for the Presidency to say that I wouldn't accept the nomination or serve if I were nominated and elected."
We sort of left it at that. He went on at the convention and of course, eventually was kind of worn down by all the draft stuff. He went in and told the Illinois delegation he didn't want the nomination and he didn't want their endorsement, and he didn't want to run. But if it came to a last resort, okay, he
would do it.
I think he was one of the most tremendous men in American political life, not only because of the lucidity of his thinking, but because he had great ideals, and expressed himself very well. He had the ideal that the Presidency should be above partisanship. Other men have said that but he had the sincere ideal of bringing Americans together, really jelling their thoughts, their aspirations and their hopes.
I'll have to say I voted for the Governor a couple of times, astounding my critics and friends who thought I was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative because I liked Barry Goldwater, whom I didn't vote for.
HESS: Did you ever tell him you didn't vote for him?
BELL: Oh yes, I told Barry, sure.
HESS: What did he say, anything in particular?
BELL: Oh, we're bourbon-drinking friends.
HESS: So, he understands.
BELL: Yes, he understands. I admire Barry greatly for a lot of things, but I didn't think he was the man to be President and I might add, neither did he. He told me time and again, "My God, I'm not qualified to be President." We used to argue about it and I told him, "Well, look, these guys are going to push you into it."
He said, "Well, I'm not qualified. I couldn't be President. I don't know anything about the job. I'm happy in the Senate and I love it." He is really eating it up now, you know, when he has no responsibility at all.
HESS: One of your books is about Mr. Goldwater is it not?
HESS: Mr. Conservative.
HESS: What do you recall about the campaign of 1952, did you again switch off on the Eisenhower and Stevenson trains?
BELL: Yes, much more so than previously. I was with Eisenhower I recall at Cincinnati when he stopped his speech to go in and look at Dick Nixon's presentation on the expense fund.
HESS: The "Checkers" speech?
BELL: The Checker's speech, yes, the cloth coat and the cloth hood. Eisenhower came out afterwards to make a short speech and said he didn't know about Nixon, that he had to prove himself as "clean as a hound's tooth," to remain on the ticket. We got on the train that night and went south from Cincinnati to Wheeling, West Virginia. At every stop Eisenhower was getting more and more in favor
of Nixon on the ticket.
Eisenhower didn't know anything about these telephone calls that Nixon had made saying to his critics, "To hell with you. If you don't want me on the ticket I'll get off." I was there at Wheeling at its mountain top airport when Nixon came in and cried on Bill [William F.] Knowland's shoulder. Eisenhower finally climbed up in the plane and said, "You're my boy," and all that kind of stuff. Then they got in a car and rode down the mountain to a sports field. We got out of a following car and rushed over to Nixon and asked, "What was your conversation about? Did he ask you if you can disprove all these charges against you?"
He said, "Oh, we just had chit chat." Typical Eisenhower. Ike endorsed him that night.
HESS: In 1952 Mr. Truman made several campaign trips. You weren't along on any of those?
BELL: I think I just described one where we were on a train that went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Muskogee, the time he made eighteen speeches in one day.
HESS: Was that in '52 or '48.
BELL: Well, Truman wasn't running in '52.
HESS: No, that's right, but he did take about two or three good swings in 1952.
BELL: Oh, no, I didn't go on those. No, I just covered presidential candidates. I wasn't even with Lyndon when he said in Culpepper, Virginia, as the train pulled out, "What has Dick Nixon ever done for Culpepper?"
Oh, it was a classic thing in American politics.
HESS: Where were you on election night in 1952, here in town?
BELL: Yes, writing a lead.
HESS: Who did you think was going to win?
BELL: Oh, I knew Eisenhower would, everybody knew that Eisenhower would.
HESS: Was there anything that the Democrats could have done, anyone they could have put up, anything they could have done to have defeated General Eisenhower?
BELL: Adlai Stevenson was the best candidate that the Democrats had had up to that time since FDR.
HESS: What do you see as Mr. Truman's major accomplishments during his administration?
BELL: Oh, hell, you've got all those lists, the Greek-Turkey thing and the Marshall plan, and I suppose you've had
to list among those the decision not to give the Russians the H-bomb, or the atomic bomb as it was then.
HESS: What do you see as Mr. Truman's place in history? One or two hundred years from now, how will historians and the general public rate Mr. Truman?
BELL: They rate him pretty high on the basis of his international accomplishments and all the chitter-chatter of the domestic controversy will be forgotten, it will be glossed over and it won't amount to anything. But what will remain is that he gave the impetus to rebuilding western Europe.
HESS: Thank you very much.
Kennedy, President John F., impressions of, 45-46
Presidential candidate, Democratic, 1952, opinion on, 73
Roosevelt. Franklin D., death of, 32-33
Truman, Harry S., impressions of, 24-25, 34
Borah, William Edgar, 18, 21
Byrnes, James, 14, 19-20, 22, 60
Kennedy, President John F., 56-57
Lawrence, William H., 45-46
Nixon, President Richard M., 56-57
O'Brien, Lawrence F., 63
Kroch, Arthur, and controversial interview with, 71-72
Grand Coulee Dam, dedication of, 51
historians, future rating by, 80
legislative program of, 63-64
and press conferences, 37-38
and press conferences, moved from Oval Office, 38-39
election of 1952, decision not to seek re election, 72-73
Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 36
Roosevelt, Franklin D., statement about death of, 34-35
Truman Committee, 6-7, 11, 24
"Turnip Day" session, 80th Congress, 47-50
Vandenberg, Arthur H., 21