On Tuesday, August 18, 1944, in the shade of a magnolia tree said to have been planted by Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had lunch on the South Lawn of the White House. Because of the heat, Roosevelt suggested they take off their jackets. So it was in their shirtsleeves, seated at a small round table set with crystal and silver from the Coolidge years, that the two men posed together for photographers for the first time.
In background, interests, personality, in everything from the sounds of their voices to the kind of company they enjoyed to the patterns of their careers, they could not have been much more dissimilar. Roosevelt was now in his twelfth year in office. He had been President for so long and through such trying, stirring times that it seemed to many Americans, including the junior Senator from Missouri, that he was virtually the presidency itself. His wealth, education, the social position he had known since boyhood were everything Harry Truman never had. Life and customs at the Roosevelt family estate on the upper Hudson River were as far removed from Jackson County, Missouri, as some foreign land. Roosevelt fancied himself a farmer. To Truman, Roosevelt was the kind of farmer who had never pulled a weed, never known debt, or crop failure, or a father’s call to roll out of bed at 5:30 on a bitter cold morning.
Truman, with his Monday night poker games, his Masonic ring and snappy bow ties, the Main Street pals, the dry Missouri voice, was entirely, undeniably middle American. He had only to open his mouth and his origins were plain. It wasn’t just that he came from a particular part of the country, geographically, but from a specific part of the American experience, an authentic pioneer background, and a specific place in the American imagination. His Missouri, as he loved to emphasize, was the Missouri of Mark Twain and Jesse James. In manner and appearance, he might have stepped from a novel by Sinclair Lewis, an author Truman is not known to have read. To anyone taking him at face value, this might have been George F. Babbitt having lunch with the President under the Jackson magnolia.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, was from the world of Edith Wharton stories and drawings by Charles Dana Gibson. He was the authentic American patrician come to power, no matter that he loved politics or a night of poker with “the boys” quite as much as the Senator from Missouri, or that he, too, was a Mason and chose a bow tie as many mornings as not, including this one. Roosevelt had been given things all of his life—houses, furniture, servants, travels abroad. Truman had been given almost nothing. He had never had a house to call his own. He had been taught from childhood, and by rough experience, that what he became would depend almost entirely on what he did. Roosevelt had always known the possibilities open to him—indeed, how much was expected of him—because of who he was.
Both were men of exceptional determination, with great reserves of personal courage and cheerfulness. They were alike too in their enjoyment of people. (The human race, Truman once told a reporter, was an “excellent outfit.”) Each had an active sense of humor and was inclined to be dubious of those who did not. But Roosevelt, who loved stories, loved also to laugh at his own, while Truman was more of a listener and laughed best when somebody else told “a good one.” Roosevelt enjoyed flattery, Truman was made uneasy by it. Roosevelt loved the subtleties of human relations. He was a master of the circuitous solution to problems, of the pleasing if ambiguous answer to difficult questions. He was sensitive to nuances in a way Harry Truman never was and never would be. Truman, with his rural Missouri background, and partly, too, because of the limits of his education, was inclined to see things in far simpler terms, as right or wrong, wise or foolish. He dealt little in abstractions. His answers to questions, even complicated questions, were nearly always direct and assured, plainly said, and followed often by a conclusive “And that’s all there is to it,” an old Missouri expression, when in truth there may have been a great deal more “to it.”
Each of them had been tested by his own painful struggle, Roosevelt with crippling polio, Truman with debt, failure, obscurity, and the heavy stigma of the Pendergasts. Roosevelt liked to quote the admonition of his old headmaster at Groton, Dr. Endicott Peabody: “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights—then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization is forever upward….” Assuredly Truman would have subscribed to the same vision. They were two optimists at heart, each in his way faithful to the old creed of human progress. But there had been nothing in Roosevelt’s experience like the night young Harry held the lantern as his mother underwent surgery, nothing like the Argonne, or Truman’s desperate fight for political survival in 1940.
Roosevelt, as would be said, was a kind of master conjurer. He had imagination, he was theatrical. If, as his cousins saw him, Harry Truman was Horatio, then Franklin Roosevelt was Prospero.
Truman was often called a simple man, which he was not. “I wonder why we are made so that what we really think and feel we cover up,” he had once confided to Bess, and some who knew him well would, in retrospect, feel he had withheld too much of himself from public view, and that this was among his greatest limitations. But in contrast to Franklin Roosevelt—and it was Truman’s destiny from this point forward to be forever contrasted to Roosevelt—he was truly uncomplicated, open, and genuine. In private correspondence Truman could be extremely revealing, whereas Roosevelt never dropped the mask, never poured his heart out on paper as did Truman in hundreds of letters and notes to himself, even after it was clear that he was to be a figure in history.
To many Americans, Truman would always be the “little man from Missouri.” Roosevelt was larger than life, even in a wheelchair. He had that force of personality that Truman so admired in a leader and to a degree rarely equaled in the ranks of the presidency. This, too, was something Truman knew he did not have himself, as he knew he had no exceptional intellectual prowess, as had, say, Henry Wallace. “I am not a deep thinker as you are,” he had told Wallace only a day earlier when asking Wallace for his help in the campaign ahead. Yet Truman, as Republican Congressman Joe Martin would write, was “smarter by far than most people realized.”
In some ways Truman would have felt more in common, more at ease, with the earlier Roosevelt, Theodore, had he been host for the lunch. They were much more alike in temperament. They could have talked books, Army life, or the boyhood handicap of having to meet the world wearing thick spectacles. Or possibly the old fear of being thought a sissy. Like Theodore Roosevelt, and unlike Franklin, Truman had never known what it was to be glamorous.
The contrast in appearance between the President and his new running mate was striking. Truman looked robust, younger than his age. The President, though only two years older, seemed a haggard old man. He had returned only the day before from his long mission to the Pacific, and from the sag of his shoulders, the ashen circles under his eyes, it was clear the trip had taken its toll. Truman, who had not seen the President in more than a year, was stunned by how he looked. Even the famous voice seemed to have no energy or resonance.
The lunch was sardines on toast. The conversation dealt mainly with the campaign ahead and was not very private or revealing, since the President’s daughter, Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, joined them. Truman would later repeat only one remark of Roosevelt’s. The President told him not to travel by airplane, because it was important that one of them stay alive.
To his dismay, Truman noticed that Roosevelt’s hand shook so badly he was unable to pour cream in his coffee.
“The President looked fine and ate a bigger lunch than I did,” Truman told reporters afterward, already becoming party to the fiction of a steady hand at the helm. To Bess and Margaret, who were still in Independence, he described how Roosevelt had given him two roses, one for each of them. “You should have seen your Pa walking down Connecticut Avenue…with his hat blown up by the wind (so he looked like a college boy—gray hair and all) and two rosebuds in hand,” he wrote, as if he hadn’t a worry in the world. But arriving at his Senate office, he appeared noticeably upset. He was greatly concerned about the President, he told Harry Vaughan, and described how Roosevelt’s hand had trembled so pouring his cream in his coffee that he put more in the saucer than in the cup. “His hands were shaking and he talks with considerable difficulty…. It doesn’t seem to be any mental lapse of any kind,” Truman said, “but physically he’s just going to pieces.”
In September, Truman took Eddie McKim to a White House reception, where McKim was so shocked by the President’s appearance he wondered if Roosevelt would live long enough to be inaugurated, if Henry Wallace might become President after all. On the way out, as they were walking through the gate, McKim told Truman to turn and look back, because that was where he would be living before long. “I’m afraid you’re right, Eddie,” Truman said. “And it scares the hell out of me.”
To his cousin Laura Delano, Roosevelt would later remark that he liked Harry Truman. “Harry is a fine man, intelligent, able, and has integrity. He doesn’t know much about foreign affairs, but he’s learning fast…”
How Truman honestly felt about Roosevelt can be deduced only from odd remarks to friends or in his private notes and correspondence, and the picture that emerges, though incomplete, is not complimentary. He called him Santa Claus. He called him a prima donna and a fakir. Writing about Bernard Baruch, whom he disliked, Truman would say, “There never was a greater egotist unless it was Franklin D.” Another time, describing Roosevelt to Bess, he wrote, “He’s so damn afraid that he won’t have all the power and glory that he won’t let his friends help as it should be done.”
There was little subtle about Truman. He was never remote, rarely ever evasive. He had been raised on straight answers by people who nearly always meant what they said. Roosevelt wasn’t that way. “You know how it is when you see the President,” Truman once told Allen Drury. “He does all the talking, and he talks about what he wants to talk about, and he never talks about anything you want to talk about, so there isn’t much you can do.”
To Republican Owen Brewster, Truman said he had but one objection to the President and that was “he lies.”
Such feelings, however, would never be publicly expressed, not by Senator Harry Truman of his President, his Commander in Chief and leader of the Democratic Party. That would be unthinkably disloyal, not to say politically unwise and unprofessional. On occasion Truman could also rise to Roosevelt’s defense and in a manner not unlike that of his father. At a meeting in Boston in a room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel that fall, halfway through the campaign, Joe Kennedy began vilifying Roosevelt. “Harry, what the hell are you doing campaigning for that crippled son-of-a-bitch that killed my son Joe?” Kennedy said, referring to his oldest son, who had died in the war. Kennedy went on, saying Roosevelt had caused the war. Truman, by his later account, stood all he could, then told Kennedy to keep quiet or he would throw him out the window. Bob Hannegan had to step in and take Truman aside to remind him of how important Kennedy’s money was to the Democratic Party.
His first official speech of the campaign was delivered on a steamy, full-moon night in front of the old red-brick courthouse in Lamar, just up the street from the house where he was born. He spoke for half an hour, never once referring to himself. Experience was what the country needed in such critical times. Franklin Roosevelt was what the country needed. “You can’t afford to take a chance. You should endorse tried and experienced leadership,” Truman said, as if his own comparative inexperience were in no way part of the equation.
And this was the theme that he carried cross-country, traveling by rail in an old combination sleeper and dining car called the Henry Stanley. Hugh Fulton, Matt Connelly, Eddie McKim, and Fred Canfil were along to assist.
The youthful, handsome Connelly, whose own experience thus far had been only as an investigator for the Truman Committee, would remember how the senator recruited him as a political right-hand man:
Truman came back from Chicago after the convention and the office was a madhouse…photographers, press, so at 5 I locked the door and said, “I think you’ve had enough for today.”
He said, “Yes, it was quite a day. Let’s go back to the ‘doghouse,’ I want to talk to you.” There he said, “How about a drink? You like that damn Scotch, don’t you?”
I said, “I’ll mix them.”
He said, “No, I’m up to something. I’ll mix them.” So he made a drink and sat down. He said, “You know, I’ve got to make a campaign trip.”
I said, “I assumed you would.”
He said, “I want you to go along with me.”
“You want me to go along with you! What do I know about politics?”
He said, “Never mind that. You’ve got a pretty good teacher.”
The route was from New Orleans through Texas and New Mexico, then up the Pacific coast to Portland and Seattle, then east all the way to Boston, with a dozen stops en route. From Boston Truman went to New York, then Washington, where finally he turned homeward again, by way of Wheeling, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
At Uvalde, Texas, the morning the train stopped, old John Nance Garner was waiting on the station platform dressed in khaki work pants and a battered ten-gallon hat, his hands stained from picking pecans. “I’m glad to see you, Harry. Bless your old soul,” said the former Vice President, who after falling out with Roosevelt had left Washington vowing never again to cross the Potomac River as long as he lived, a vow he kept. Somewhere in the world it must be twelve o’clock and time for a drink, Garner speculated. Truman told him to come right aboard.
In Seattle he addressed a crowd of ten thousand. At little Avery, Idaho, beside the Shoshone National Forest, only three women, schoolteachers, were waiting when the train stopped, but he spoke for fifteen minutes just the same. It wasn’t their fault they were the only ones there, Truman would explain. “He’s just like the rest of us,” said Montana Congressman Mike Mansfield, introducing Truman at a lunch in Butte. On a drive through Pittsburgh he had a twenty-six-man motorcycle escort and huge crowds stretching for miles.
He was not an exciting speaker. It was not a colorful campaign. He just kept pounding away at the need for Roosevelt’s leadership to win the war and establish the peace. There could be no return to the isolationism of the Republicans once the war was over, no Congress in the control of Republicans like Nye and Taft. To one reporter on the train, it was “the farmer-neighborliness,” the “genuineness” of the candidate that made him appealing and believable, far more than anything he said.
Once, on the train, he was wrenched from his sleep by a vivid nightmare. He had dreamt Roosevelt was dead and he, Harry Truman, was President.
The Republicans tried hard to make him an issue. “Clear it with Sidney” became a Republican war cry. But all efforts by Republicans and reporters to turn up something unsavory from his Pendergast years came to nothing.
Bess’s Senate salary was reported and deplored, just as he had feared. He was portrayed repeatedly as small-time, backwater Harry, the failed haberdasher. (“He couldn’t even make good selling shirts.”) A rumor spread that he was part Jewish, again, as in years past, on the basis that he had a grandfather named Solomon. He was not Jewish, Truman responded, but if he were he would never be ashamed of it.
The charge that he had been a member of the Klan, which he categorically denied, appeared first in the Hearst papers. The story broke shortly before he reached Boston, where, with the Irish-Catholic vote at stake, it might have done irreparable harm. To Truman and his entourage there was no question that the story had been Seen purposefully planted to hit Boston just in time for his arrival and that the day was only saved by the celebrated former Governor of Massachusetts James Michael Curley, then a member of Congress, who spoke from the same platform with Truman.
“Jim Curley got up to make his little speech,” remembered Matt Connelly, for whom it was one of the memorable moments of the campaign, “and [he] said, ‘We have a very unusual candidate for Vice President. He goes to California, the word comes back to us he’s a Jew; he arrives in the Midwest, the word comes back to us that he’s a member of the Klan.’ And he turned, ‘Mr. Vice President, I invite you to join my lodge, The Ancient Order of Hibernians. We’d be glad to have you as one of our members, and I assure you, we will get out the vote.’
“I said to Mr. Truman, ‘That takes care of the Klan.’ ”
But it was the old Pendergast association that dogged him most, and especially when coupled with the question of Roosevelt’s health. Attacks by the Chicago Tribune were sharpest of all:
If they confess that there is the slightest chance that Mr. Roosevelt may die or become incapacitated in the next four years, they are faced with the grinning skeleton of Truman the bankrupt, Truman the pliant tool of Boss Pendergast in looting Kansas City’s county government, Truman the yes-man and apologist in the Senate for political gangsters.
To the immense relief of the Trumans, nothing was said of the death of Bess’s father, and Truman’s anger erupted only over remarks by Republican Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, the glamorous wife of publisher Henry Luce, who, poking fun at the idea of Bess working on his Senate staff, began calling her “Payroll Bess.” If, as Truman had said, his mother didn’t bring him up to be a statesman, then she would not be disappointed, Mrs. Luce also declared.
In the normal rough-and-tumble of a campaign, Truman could take nearly anything said about him, but at any mention of his family, even an implied slight, he got “hotter than a depot stove.” He would have nothing but contempt for Clare Boothe Luce from that point on, commenting privately that she spelled her name L-O-O-S-E.
Between Truman and the White House there was little or no communication. The real battle, after all, was the one Roosevelt was waging against Dewey, and to the delight of those close to the President, the battle revived him wonderfully. Though he made few public appearances, one before the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Washington was considered the best campaign speech of his entire career. He seemed his old self, spontaneously adding a little extra to the prepared text, delivering it with great, feigned gravity and savoring the moment as only a seasoned performer could:
These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks—on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but [pause] Fala does resent them….
As Robert Sherwood, his speechwriter, later observed, the Fala story put the needed excitement into the campaign. “The champ” was back. Ed Flynn, after all his anguish and exertions over the choice of a Vice President, would later tell friends that Roosevelt was in such fine form in the campaign that he could have won had he put Fala on the ticket.
The night the President spoke in Chicago, more than a hundred thousand people packed Soldier Field. He “improved visibly in strength and resilience,” recalled Sherwood. In New York, in the face of a cold driving rain, he rode for hours in an open car, bare-headed, so millions of people could see him with their own eyes and know he was all right. It was an ordeal that could have put a younger, stronger man in the hospital, but at the end Roosevelt seemed exhilarated, glad for the chance to show what he could take.
Dewey had raised the specter of Communist infiltration in Washington. “Now…with the aid of Sidney Hillman…the Communists are seizing control of the New Deal…to control the Government of the United States,” Dewey warned. Roosevelt had grown to detest Dewey as he never had a political opponent, and like the driving rain, this too seemed to brace him up.
The Trumans waited out the returns in Kansas City, in a suite at the Muehlebach, a throng of old political and Battery D friends on hand to help celebrate, and before the long night ended a large number of them were extremely drunk. “I was shocked,” remembered Margaret.
One old political friend from southwest Missouri, Harry Easley, stayed on with Truman after everyone had left. Stretched out on a bed, Truman talked of how lonely he had felt through the campaign. He had seen the look of death in Roosevelt’s face, Truman said. “And he knew…that he would be President before the term was out,” Easley remembered. “He said he was going to have to depend on his friends…people like me, he said…he knew that he was going to be the President of the United States, and I think it just scared the very devil out of him…even the thought of it.’
It was nearly four in the morning before Dewey conceded, and the victory was narrow, the closest presidential election since 1916. The Roosevelt-Truman ticket won by 3 million votes, carrying thirty-six of the forty-eight states. Yet a shift of just 300,000 votes in the right states would have elected Dewey and Bricker. Dewey asked all Americans to join him in the hope that “in the difficult years ahead Divine Providence will guide and protect the President of the United States.”
Roosevelt, before turning in at Hyde Park, said, “I still think he is a son-of-a-bitch.”
In deference to the tragedy of war and the President’s limited strength, the inauguration at noon, January 20, 1945, was a somber affair lasting less than fifteen minutes. It was the first wartime inauguration since Lincoln and the first ever held at the White House, the ceremony conducted on the South Portico before a crowd that included numbers of disabled soldiers. A thin crust of snow covered the lawn. The day was grim. There were no parades. The red jackets of the Marine Band were the one note of cheer in the whole chill, muted scene.
Truman, wrapped in a heavy dark blue overcoat, his shoulders braced as if at attention, took the oath of office from Henry Wallace, a serious look on his face. Then the President was helped to his feet by his Marine son Jimmy and a Secret Service agent. Roosevelt wore only a thin summer-weight suit and moved slowly, stiff-legged from his braces, until he could reach out and grip the edge of the lectern. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, standing close by, was suddenly reminded of how her husband had looked when he went into his decline.