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
February 1, 1967
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
February 1, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Ayers, at the end of our last interview we had mentioned Mr. Joseph Short, and I know that it was shortly after he came in that you left the press office and became special assistant in the White House office. I'd like to ask you a few questions concerning him anyway. Did he carry out the functions of the press office in any significantly different manner than Mr. Ross had done?
AYERS: That's a little difficult for me to answer because I left the office almost immediately after Short came in and I think that perhaps my impression would be about all that I can give on that. My impression is that the office operated technically about as it had with its predecessors. Whether the changes he made could be characterized as significant or not, I'm not sure, but he did make some changes. When I left the office, which, as I say, was within a few days after he came in; in fact, immediately after he came in; he'd brought in two men in my place: Mr. Roger Tubby, and Mr. Irving Perlmeter. Now, I don't know from anything that was said to me what his purpose was, but my understanding, arrived at from observation as much as anything, was that Mr. Tubby, who had been in the press office at the State Department, was
brought in probably to afford a closer relationship with foreign affairs than the press secretary might normally have. Perimeter's work was never explained to me beyond the fact that he was an assistant to Short, presumably doing whatever Short might ask him to do. Now, as to the operation of the office under Short, as compared with that of his predecessors, I think there was a difference. I think that Short, perhaps, was more inclined to feel himself as more of a policy adviser than either Charlie Ross or even Steve Early. I had no specific knowledge of that other than the way it seemed to operate from my observation on the outside. He, I believe, spoke up more positively for the President at times than Charlie Ross would have, or I would have, or most of the others would have who preceded him. There isn't much beyond that that I could say about Short's operation of the office. There were some incidents which I wouldn't want to go into, because I don't know the background enough of them. I had no direct relations with him in the work that I was doing for the President, except on one or two occasions and that was very slight. I thought that once or twice he got a little bit overly excited about something. That happened on one occasion in the case of a magazine article that was published in a small magazine
which attacked Mr. Truman and his career in Kansas City. It was, oh, a violent thing. I hadn't seen it until, I think the President called me in, or I was in there, and he brought it up to me. And I said that I didn't think that he should pay any attention to those things and he agreed with me. But it had been brought to his attention by Mr. Short, who, apparently, wanted to make some kind of an answer. I don't know that that was said specifically, but the President did say to me, "Eben, I wish you would go out to Kansas City and look into the whole thing yourself. All I want you to do is go out there and get the facts. And we'll have that for the record."
And I said, "Very well, I will."
And I did. I spent several days out there and I put together what I found. It has never been used or published, and insofar as I know has never been disclosed to anyone. But it was a purely factual, objective piece of reporting that I did. We never took any recognition of the magazine article which Short was so excited about. What he may have told Short about it, I don't know.
HESS: On that subject, whom did you talk to out in Kansas City?
AYERS: I talked to quite a number of people; business concerns,
with which the firm of Truman and Jacobson had done business, in their period as haberdashers in Kansas City when the depression forced them to the wall. This article implied, as I recall, I may be a little bit hazy about some of the details of the article, but it implied that they didn't pay their debts, or something like that. I saw several of the creditors, every one of whom told me that they paid up everything. Then there was more about banks, bank loan, or something. I checked with the bank and the head of the bank, who, incidentally, I think, was a Republican, but who went out of his way to see whether they had the records, and they found that they did have them from the beginning. And I could see them, and it showed where they paid every cent before they got through, at times making the smallest kind of payments--but they cleared that up. That was the sort of thing--I won't go into details about it because it was done confidentially and I feel it is still a matter of confidence.
HESS: Mr. Truman probably still has his copy at the Library.
This is a question that we've mentioned in one of the previous interviews, but there are several topics that arise from Elmer Cornwell's book, Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion, and I know he interviewed you before
he wrote that book, and he has many references to you and of that interview, so we don't want to duplicate what he has covered there, but I think we can and should enlarge upon a few of the things that he mentions. And one of the statements is something that we have already hit on, but I thought you might want to enlarge on it a bit, and that is that it was your contention that if Charlie Ross had lived, the President's prestige would not have fallen as low after 1950 as it did. Why did you feel that way?
AYERS: I haven't seen that book and just how he may have quoted me. But I undoubtedly said that because I have said it on several occasions. I don't think I would say it as a contention, merely as an opinion, which, quite possibly, is a little biased. But I did say, and have said, that I felt had Charlie lived, the President's prestige wouldn't have fallen quite as low as it did. There were other factors that entered in, many that probably would have affected his standing in the polls. As it does with every President, his popularity goes in cycles, and President Truman's probably would have fallen. But I had the feeling, and have had the feeling, that it wouldn't have been quite as low, not that Charlie Ross or I consciously made a very strong effort--in a phraseology
that's used so much these days--of trying to present a better "image," but it could have been handled a little better we thought, or I thought, at least. I, as I say, I may be a little biased. Maybe it would have been as low as it was, but it seemed to me things might have been smoothed out a little now and then, in all honesty, without trying to color things too much . For that reason, he probably would have had a somewhat better standing than he did have. I think it was allowed to deteriorate by people who knew that he was not going to run again, and they didn't care as much as they might have. Again, I may be wrong.
HESS: A question on Mr. Ross. He was sick off and on, and I believe he was in the hospital in the months of October and November of 1945. Did all of the work of the press office fall on you, or did you get any assistance from any of the other staff members of the White House?
AYERS: No, I didn't. If I were sick at any time, for a day or so or something, anything like that, then I usually called on Hassett who had served in that office and he would fill in for a day or a couple of days. But otherwise, on a day to day operation, no. I had no help. The only help I had was the secretarial help that we had in the office, the stenographers and typists. And my
feeling is that no others were necessary. Correspondence might pile up a little bit more, but handling the day to day operations I don't think was affected. I never felt there was need for anybody else. I was very much surprised, in fact, when I left the office and two men were brought in in my place.
HESS: Do we have anything we want to add on Charlie Ross; anything about his particular relationships with the President; anything that comes to mind?
AYERS: Not particularly, offhand. I think it was a very fine relationship, I'm sure, because of their background, the fact that they were together in high school, although I don't think they were particularly intimate at the time, but, of course, they were, I guess, in the same class, they had the same teacher, and if you'll recall, when Charlie accepted the job, he called the teacher and both he and the President spoke to her. And I think that that relationship grew closer during Charlie's service as press secretary. I know that there were times when the President called him in on certain things that were policy matters.
HESS: In February of 1950, the President granted an exclusive interview to Arthur Krock of the New York Times, and this was a departure from his policy of not granting such
interviews. Do you know why the President granted that particular interview, and did it cause any particular problem?
AYERS: Well, I don't know whether I'd say yes to both parts of that question, but . . .
HESS: What about that first part? Do you know he departed from his established . . .
AYERS: I think I do. I don't know whether it was ever put in quite those words when we talked about it, but he wasn't the first President to have given an interview. I think that Krock had had interviews with most of the Presidents that he had had any association with as a newspaperman in Washington.
HESS: Was this the first exclusive interview that Mr. Truman had ever granted?
AYERS: Oh, I don't know how you'd answer that. He had not, so far as I recall now, held any formal interview. He might see some reporter who'd ask him a question or something, like the first morning when he drove down to the White House and took Tony Vaccaro of the Associated Press into the car with him, and talked on the way down, and Tony got a good story out of it.
HESS: Quite a different situation.
AYERS: That's a little different situation, and that's the
sort of thing that might crop up if he was out walking or something. But we must remember that he hadn't been President before, and although a President did not ordinarily do so, Franklin Roosevelt had given some exclusive interviews. I think he had given Krock one. I think this with Truman was brought about through Charlie Ross, perhaps. Ross may have arranged it. He knew Krock, of course, and everybody recognized Krock's integrity and the paper he worked for, the New York Times, and the President granted the interview. As to the repercussions, there were some, immediately after it appeared. And the newspapermen howled, as was to be expected. He knew they would, and they had to go through that, and they brought it up, somebody did, I don't recall without looking up the record of the press conference, but in the presidential press conference that followed within the next few days, some reporter brought it up and the President snapped back at him, rather sharply, and said that he was the one who would decide--or words to that effect--whom he would see and whom he wouldn't see. And I think it died about then. I don't think it had any lasting effect on the press. There may be, as there always was, jealousy, if one man happened to get something that others didn't get, through some quirk. But at
the beginning, and I think this probably will hold true with most men who come into that office, it takes a little time for them to realize that things are a little different with the President of the United States than they are with, say, a Senator, whose constituency is limited, as compared with the President's, and that anything the President says is going to go all over the country, to everybody. And newspapermen, especially those who represent big papers, are bound to be a little hurt, to put it in mild words, and they sound off. And I think that were I on that side of the desk at the time, I probably would too, for the record at least. I might understand why it was done, and from the President's standpoint he had a right to do it if he wanted to. And I think that most all of them, at least, realized that.
HESS: There wasn't any lasting damage though?
AYERS: I don't think there was any lasting damage. Just to cite a small incident in my own case, I have a letter at home, somewhere in my files, that is the most virulent, violent letter you ever read from some kind of a newspaperman. In the days when they were doing over the White House, the renovation--and this has no bearing exactly on what we've just talked about, but it's a
little amusing--we had followed the rule that if there were to be any pictures to be taken or anything, everybody should have the same chance. That was the rule all the way through, that nobody should have an exclusive. I got a phone call one day from a young fellow, I've forgotten whom he represented or what he represented, but he asked, could he send up a photographer to make some pictures in the White House where they had it torn to pieces, and I said, "No, you can't. When all of them come, you can send your photographer."
Well, he got very indignant, and it got to be quite a hot argument over the telephone. He was pretty angry at me. The next morning I got this letter. He called me everything; and I've been tempted to frame the letter because that's the only one I ever got. I haven't heard of him in years; I don't know what became of him, but he took the wrong attitude at that time and so far as I know he never attained any prominence in the newspaper crowd.
HESS: His letter was almost a collector's item.
AYERS: Yes. But that's the sort of thing that wouldn't happen, probably, with these experienced men. They felt they should have had the same chance in this case, but it was a different situation, because Krock occupied somewhat
of a different position among the correspondents, and he had done it before. Perhaps it would have been nice if they could have all had the same interview, but it wouldn't have been the same interview had they all been there, as it was with Krock. And Krock, with his prestige and everything, it was perfectly proper, we felt, for the President to do it, if he wanted to.
HESS: In June of 1947 was when General Marshall made his talk at Harvard on the Marshall plan, or outlining the background of what came to be known as the Marshall plan, and on the same day, the President gave out quite a little bit of news or hot information, you might say, at his news conference, and some historians have pointed out that the President sort of "scooped" his own Secretary of State off of the front page. Was this particular thing watched during the Truman administration; was coordination of news among the Government agencies so that one news release or one press release by one agency would not scoop another agency? Was any attention paid to that at all?
AYERS: I don't know that I can answer that very well. The particular incident that you speak about I don't recall at all what happened. I'd have to kind of look back to know what happened that time. But certainly it made
no impression on me that lasted, and as to anything that was done generally towards the coordination of news, I don't think we had much of a problem in that respect. I don't recall that we did. Oh, it might be that some agency would come out with something sometimes, that we thought we should be informed about, but we didn't make an issue of the thing. It has been in some subsequent administrations when they've tried to control the news from all agencies. We made no such effort.
HESS: Cornwell mentions in his book that in his interview with Pierre Salinger, Mr. Salinger told him that during the Kennedy administration there was a group of representatives from the various agencies that was set up as a coordination agency to regulate the flow of news so that they wouldn't be competing with another agency's news, and he mentioned at that time, I believe, that they still had troubles, even when they had a coordinating agency.
AYERS: I can believe that, and I think it's probably almost impossible to avoid some of that. Perhaps if you'd want to have a President who is dictating to every executive agency which he heads, of course, that might come about, but we never gave much, if any, thought to it. There
were sometimes things that came to us from an agency when it was obvious that it should come out of the White House, but we didn't try to control all the news from an agency, or even attempt to correlate the things. If they had news, let them put it out. Some of our difficulties which I may have referred to before, occurred early in the President's administration when, while in the case of the State Department, the new Secretary of State, Byrnes--did I refer to that?
HESS: Yes. You mentioned how Byrnes would come across the street and see the President and go back without checking things through the press office. That's already down.
AYERS: We too had another thing that I was more concerned about, I think, than Charlie Ross was. And that was: On the part of the President's staff, I felt, and in the Roosevelt administration, Steve Early was very strong about it, that members of the President's staff shouldn't be seeing newspapermen and giving them interviews about something without our knowing about it at least, because it could be very embarrassing sometimes. Something comes out and you don't know where it came from, and it might be something which shouldn't have come out. Those things happened and I think more particularly with--and I don't
mean to imply that there was anyone doing this--but it might be with men who were trying to ingratiate themselves with some newspapermen, and perhaps build themselves up a little, and favor them by trying to tip them off to something before it was actually released by the White House press office.
HESS: Was that much of a problem?
AYERS: Well, yes and no. It was an annoying problem when it happened, as it did at times, and we would see a story that we knew must have come from somebody, and there was nothing to identify whom it came from, and yet we might know in our own mind where it had to come from.
HESS: I think we discussed this last time when we were talking about leaks and news coming from other agencies. I think we pretty well covered that.
AYERS: Yes, I think so.
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