Oral History Interview with
Seventeen year veteran with the Associated Press. Later news editor and acting managing editor of the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal-Bulletin, after which he served in the White House as liaison for the press-radio division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. In January, 1945, he became part of the White House staff as a press officer until he retired at the end of the Truman administration.
Eben A. Ayers
August 15, 1969
Jerry N. Hess
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This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
August 15, 1969
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Ayers, this morning let's discuss the White House staff.
AYERS: Well, I think it would be well to define, a little bit, what is meant by the White House staff and the presidential staff. Presumably, you refer to the personal White House staff of the President, that is, to his own appointees who served within the White House offices. Now, this staff normally changes with any change in administration; although a President may ask some of his predecessor's assistants to remain. And when there is a sudden change in the Presidency, such as was caused by the deaths of Harding and Franklin Roosevelt, there is a greater problem than that which comes about normally through elections. In the latter case there is a period of time, about two months and a half I believe, from the election to the inauguration in January, in which the President can line up his staff and know just whom he is going to have. But in any case there are, in effect, three presidential staffs. There is, first, the staff of the President who's gone or who is going out of office; second, there's the staff of the incoming President; and third, there's a staff of which the public rarely hears
anything, and knows almost nothing. And yet that's the staff that pretty much keeps the White House going year in and year out. In the case of the death of a President, a change in administration, that staff is a presidential staff, it's a White House staff, it may not be the staff that the President himself appoints when he comes in, but it's a more or less permanent staff and I think it has happened that the Government continues, the White House continues, the Presidency continues, even if there isn't a President in there, in fact. There is in theory, of course. And these are largely Civil Service employees and most of them remain in the administration of the incoming President and maybe for years and years. I don't know whether there are now many of those, but there are some who've been in for a long time and are still there. Men like, oh...
HESS: William Hopkins.
AYERS: William Hopkins, yes. He's been there for years and he keeps that White House going no matter what happens.
HESS: How effective was he in his job back during the Truman days? What is your memory of Bill Hopkins?
AYERS: Very effective, of course, that's when he took the job, came into the job. He'd been there as an assistant to Maurice Latta. Maurice Latta was more or less of an
assistant to Rudolph Forster who was the Executive Clerk in charge of White House offices in the days of Roosevelt, and when he died, Mr. Latta, who'd been with him, became that Executive Clerk; and Hopkins, who'd been in for years, became Mr. Latta's assistant. Mr. Latta died during Mr. Truman's administration and Mr. Hopkins was appointed. Now his job is the running of the White House office staff. He doesn't exercise the same detailed control of the House, by that I mean, the White House proper; that is under the Chief Usher. But in the offices, he has been and was during the Truman administration after he took over, in complete charge really of the whole staff. Changes in the assignment to different jobs in that staff. Now the whole staff in the White House in those days was of considerable size, much larger now, undoubtedly, but...
HESS: About what size was it during the Truman days?
AYERS: Well, that again is a hard thing to answer exactly. I think I got the figures together for a newspaperman at one time and I think it figured up to around three hundred people, perhaps. I do not recall exactly and that figure may be wrong. But at that time, when Truman came into office, many of the people who worked in the White House, the clerks, clerical staff, were people
who were on the payroll of other agencies and were assigned over there. They might stay for years but their salaries were paid by the agency from which they came; and Mr. Truman thought that wasn't right, that if they worked in the White House they should be on the White House payroll and considered a part of the White House and he changed it. The result was that apparently the White House payroll went up. And one newspaperman I know, at one time, had a news story about the increase--well, his story was correct, on paper, but in fact it wasn't, because it implied a great increase in the White House staff which wasn't an increase in that they had been working right along, but they had been paid from other agencies. As a matter of fact, when I went in on the President's staff, I was employed by the Office of Inter-American Affairs and paid on their payroll. Subsequently, after the end of the war, I was transferred to the State Department payroll. That didn't last very long, very briefly; then I was put on the White House payroll. As I may have explained it, I never was actually working under the title of Assistant Secretary or Assistant Press Secretary. There was no such title. I don't know what came in later years but there was no such thing. I had a Civil Service status,
as an information officer. I have a letter which I ran onto just the other day signed by Mr. Latta when he was Executive Clerk that said I had been assigned as Information Officer in the White House. I think that was it, something to that effect. And I was paid from the White House. Now that's a little bit extraneous what I'm saying but it explains a little of the difference in those staffs. Now, when President Roosevelt died so suddenly, in April '45, his White House personal staff included three secretaries to the President. His personal staff included Steve Early, who was then serving as Appointments Secretary in the place of General [Edwin M.] Watson, who died on the return trip from the Yalta Conference; Jonathan Daniels, as Press Secretary; and William D. Hassett as Correspondence Secretary. Former Judge Samuel Rosenman was Counsel to the President and Admiral William D. Leahy was serving under a title created by Roosevelt, as Chief of Staff to the President, or something like that. Then there were four Administrative or Special Assistants at that time. Now, we don't count in these staffs such officials as Cabinet officers and Government officials on the outside. They are employees appointed by or under the President, of course, but we never thought of them in the same sense as we used the
term "President's staff." Generally speaking, they were the men who conferred with the President in his staff meetings in the morning, or from time to time during the day. When President Truman took office he had a small personal staff that had been with him as Senator and as Vice President and that staff included Matthew Connelly and Colonel Harry Vaughan and immediately after he took office there were a number of people who showed up that none of us knew at all.
HESS: Who were they?
AYERS: Well, men like J. Leonard Reinsch, who was employed as a radio man with former Governor Cox's radio station in Atlanta, I believe; and there was Edwin McKim, who was not in any official position with the President, as far as I know, before he came into the office, and then he was made an Administrative Assistant and given the title of Chief Administrative Assistant.
HESS: Who gave him that title as Chief Administrative Assistant?
AYERS: Supposedly the President did, but he may have adopted it himself, I'm not sure about that; I don't recall.
HESS: Mr. McKim did not stay around for very long. What do you recall about that?
AYERS: Well, he didn't stay very long, that's true. There were various rumors or some gossip as to why he departed.
HESS: What were the rumors and the gossip?
AYERS: Well, I don't know that anything could be accomplished by going into them. I don't know whether they had anything to do with his departure or not, or whether he just got a little bit too ambitious. He was very ambitious, he was going to reorganize everything in the way of staff in the White House and he did a lot of work, on paper at least. In fact, I think somewhere in my collection of stuff there are some sheets with charts which he made of his proposed setup. He was going to be over everybody that was in the White House offices. But that somehow foozied out.
HESS: What was the nature of his relations with the people who were holdovers from the Roosevelt administration?
AYERS: Well, I couldn't answer that too specifically, but I don't think that they were overly enthusiastic about him. Another thing that I heard something about, relating to McKim, was that he was trying to set up in this governmental reorganization, duties for different people and that he had, in the course of it, asked for the resignation of William McReynolds, who had