Some admirers and old friends of Harry Truma met...

LAST WEEK

July 25, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LAST WEEK some admirers and old friends of Harry Truma met in Chicago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his getting that fateful 1944 vice presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention there.

I wonder what old friends and admirers of William O. Douglas were doing.

I say "fateful," because, of course, everybody involved in the decision to dump Vice President Henry Wallace knew that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was dying. The next vice president would become president.

Wallace was too liberal for Southerners and moderates in the party. Even for some liberals. (He would run as a far-left third-party presidential candidate four years later.)

So FDR agreed to get rid of him, saying, with his usual masterful deviousness in such matters, that were he -- FDR -- a delegate, he'd vote for Wallace, but he would bow to the wisdom of others. ("The coolest and cruelest brushoff in all the long Roosevelt career," one contemporary FDR-watcher put it.)

FDR's choice was Jimmy Byrnes, but he knew the South Carolina segregationist and ex-Catholic would never be accepted by blacks, liberals or Catholics. After going through lots of names, Roosevelt settled on Supreme Court Justice Douglas and Missouri Senator Truman.

He preferred Douglas, whom he had appointed to the court. He told his advisers that Douglas was young, dynamic, a good liberal and -- "he is good in a poker game and tells good stories." Besides that, he was FDR's favorite martini-mixer.

Many Democratic regulars thought Douglas a little too independent and liberal, and while they could live with him, they preferred good old reliable Harry.

PTC Truman's leading advocate was Robert Hannegan, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He and FDR talked the nomination over in private on the eve of the convention. FDR dictated a letter to Hannegan to use to instruct the delegates: "Dear Bob: You have written me about Bill Douglas and Harry Truman. I should, of course, be very glad to run with either of them. . . "

Hannegan got FDR's secretary to type it ". . . Harry Truman and Bill Douglas . . . ," implying Harry was Numero Uno. She did, and the rest is history.

That fall, Douglas saw Hannegan at a cocktail party. He was boasting about how he got his boy Harry on the ticket. "Bill," Hannegan said, "we really did you in!" Douglas put his arm around him and said, "Bob, if I ever did run for anything, I'd want you as my manager."

* * * * FDR liked his martinis very strong and very cold. A challenge Douglas sometimes failed, since ice melts. For FDR's birthday in January, 1945, Justice Douglas gave him a martini shaker which kept the ice in a separate interior chamber. "I look forward to launching it soon," FDR wrote him. A few weeks later he died, and Truman, who had been vice president for less than three months, succeeded him.

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