Oral History Interview
Associate Director of Public Relations for the Research Division of the Democratic National Committee during the 1948 presidential campaign.
July 7, 1966
Jerry N. Hess
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened November, 1966
Oral History Interview with
July 7, 1966
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Birkhead, would you for the record, give me a little of your personal background: Where were you born, where did you go to school, and a brief resume of your career?
BIRKHEAD: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, November 15, 1914. I lived in St. Louis for about two years when the family moved to Wichita, Kansas, where I also lived very briefly, and went to Kansas City, Missouri in 1917. I lived there until 1938. My father was a Unitarian minister at the church in Kansas City. I went to grade school,
to high school, and took some work at the University of Kansas City, in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1937, about, I quit college and went to work for an organization called Friends of Democracy which did research work in the field of anti-democratic propaganda. We did a great deal of work at that time in studying native American fascist groups and in 1938, or possibly it was early 1939, I'm not sure which, the organization moved its headquarters to New York City, and I moved to New York City at that time with the organization. I stayed in New York City working for Friends of Democracy until I went into the service in 1942. I came out of the service in '45. I went back to work for Friends of Democracy and stayed with the organization until 1948 when I came to Washington to help in the Truman campaign of 1948. I'll have to make one correction here, I guess
I was in the service until 1946, not 1945.
I first ran across Mr. Truman in Kansas City when he began his political career in Jackson County. I know that I did not know him personally, although I may have met him a time or two during that period. I was active in politics. I became twenty-one in 1935 and was able to vote for the first time in the elections of 36, but I had worked in politics before I became eligible to vote and had always been a strong supporter of the Democratic Party in Kansas City. I was concerned, as I guess many people were, that the Democratic Party there was under the control, I guess you could say, of Tom Pendergast, but I had possibly different feelings about Pendergast than some others. I felt that actually he did a lot for Kansas City during the difficult days of the depression. I know many people in Kansas
City today who probably were kept alive because the Pendergast organization would bring them food baskets from time to time, and in the winter he would bring them some coal to keep the house warm. I know friends of mine who were trying to make it through school at the time who would from time to time visit Mr. Pendergast's office down on Main Street, around 19th and Main, and go in and tell him that they needed a few dollars more to get through the rest of the semester and he seldom asked exactly why they needed it. He was a pretty big-hearted guy in many ways. And it's my further feeling that he built some things like the Municipal Auditorium; he built a great street system, and a lot of other things which were -- have always been -- and still are, of great value to Kansas City. This is not to deny that possibly in building streets or the Municipal Auditorium,
he didn't make a few extra dollars out of using his own concrete, and some things like this. Nor does this deny that some things occurred under the Pendergast regime which maybe some people didn't favor, but I thought, personally, myself, that he did a lot of great things for the city. And he, of course, always turned out a big vote for Mr. Roosevelt, who was a great favorite of mine, and I was willing to help to the degree that I could in his work. I know at this time you would hear of Mr. Truman, although he was from Independence, which in those days was not quite as close to Kansas City as it is now -- not physically I mean, but it was just a little further. The roads weren't as good, the cars weren't as good, and you used to think of Independence as being another city off someplace.
We all knew of Mr. Truman, and some people
were terribly disturbed that he had Mr. Pendergast's support, but I don't think that anybody ever raised the question that I knew of that somehow he may have been a party to any of the unpleasant things or unsavory things that were alleged to have been undertaken by Pendergast, or that were carried on under Pendergast. In 1948, as I say, I left New York City and came to Washington at the urging of William L. Batt, Jr., who at that time was setting up a group to provide research and rough draft speeches and speech material for the President in the 1948 campaign. I originally was contacted by Batt, who is a longtime friend of mine, because it appeared early in the year that the Wallace movement -- the Henry A. Wallace movement -- the Progressive Party, was going to be a major problem in the campaign and that it had a lot of the extreme left-wingers in the country associated
with it, and a good part of my work with Friends of Democracy was devoted to the subject of Communists and Communist-type propaganda in the country, and Batt wanted me to, in a sense, advise and help to develop material which might be useful in the campaign, essentially, I guess you could say, in combating the Wallace movement. I think possibly I was the first person that Batt brought in, although several of us came together at roughly the same time in an office that he set up away from the Democratic National Committee...
HESS : This was what came to be known as the Research Division?
BIRKHEAD: This was what came to be known as the Research Division. My remembrance was that I was carried on the payroll as an assistant, or something to the public relations director...
HESS: Associate Director of Public Relations.
BIRKHEAD: ...Associate Director of Public Relations, and this was my remembrance. Basically, we were called the Research Division, and Batt was the director, and brought in a gentleman by the name of Johannes Hoeber from Philadelphia; a fellow named Phil Dreyer, who was from the State of Qregon (I'm not so sure whether he brought Dreyer in at my suggestion or whether he had known him before, but Batt, Dreyer and I had been associated together in the American Veterans Committee about that time); Dave Lloyd, who later became executive director of the Truman Library Corporation, was brought in as a member of this little group. They were looking for an able writer, and a close personal friend of mine who was living in New York by the name of Frank Kelly, who is now vice president of the Robert Hutchins group in California, which was first
called the Fund for the Republic -- I can't remember the exact title now -- was, I knew, looking for a job, so at Batt's urging I called Kelly one Sunday night and he arrived in Washington the next morning on the train and went to work for the group; and we had John Barriere doing some of our leg work for us. John is now an assistant to the Speaker in the House, and was, for many years, one of the staff directors of the Housing Subcommittee in the House. This group was basically started as a research group. It was thought that we would try to provide a lot of information for the President. It was thought, I think in the early days, as I remember, that a lot of the President's speeches for use in the campaign would probably be written by the White House staff and some in the departments of the Government, but they found out that the speeches turned out in the departments of the
Government, were in many instances, little more than long, lengthy recitations of statistics and tended -- as many things turned out by the executive branch -- tended to be rather long and turgid and not very forceful and just really didn't fit what Mr. Truman thought he needed in the campaign, and so we were in a sense -- this little research group that was sitting off in a very hot office up by Dupont Circle -- given the job of not only researching a lot of material, but we were given the job of writing drafts for the President's speeches, both his whistlestop speeches and his major speeches. We probably devoted more of our time to his whistlestop speeches than we did to his major speeches.
HESS: What type of speech did you write, an outline or a complete type of speech?
BIRKHEAD: We cast around at the beginning of our operation, this was probably along in, oh, late June or early July, trying to work out a format. Finally, I think, it was Charlie Murphy, who is now head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, who was then a counsel to the President, who came up with an outline of the kind of thing that they wanted for the whistlestop speeches. It started off with material on the principal people that the President should mention at each stop. There was then a section on local color. Then a section on some comments or some suggestions for comments on the particular burning issue in the area or this community in which the President was making the stop, and then finally, I guess you'd sort of call it a peroration at the end, some comments about looking forward with the Democratic Party and that kind of thing. We drafted the whistle stop speeches -- I guess there were over
three hundred of them, in my remembrance, following these specific heads, and we would be in touch with the local political groups, wherever the president was speaking and find out who the principal people were who were going to be there. Of course, we generally knew who the candidates for the principal offices were. We'd list these, then we'd try to come forth with the second and greatest source of this kind of material, and the '48 campaign was loaded with material from the WPA Guidebooks. Then we, through contact with members of Congress or wherever we could get a feeling of the principal issue the president ought to hit in a particular place, would then have a little section on this, sort of closing off with a peroration of some kind. We dial one of these for each of his stops. We tended to divide up. We seldom tried to take more than -- any one of us -- more than two or three stops at a
time. We would tend to take -- if he was in Oklahoma, and was going to make six stops during the next day, I would take three, and one of the other members of the staff would take three, while somebody else was working then on stops maybe he was going to make the next day in Texas or New Mexico or wherever he was going at that particular time. I would draft this material. Sometimes we would get together at sort of a staff meeting and discuss it, or I would discuss it with Bill Batt, and we'd refine it down to what we thought it ought to be, get it typed up, it would be delivered to the White House, and would go from the White House to the train, sometimes by plane, or if we were ahead of him, and the President was in town, it would go to the White House and wait there preparatory to another trip. We tried not to draft these up too far ahead of his appearance in a particular place, because
we tried to keep the comments, particularly the section on the burning issues and the peroration as up to the moment as we could, so that we tried never to be drafting these speeches more than three or four days ahead of the time he appeared at a particular place. When they got to the train they were delivered to a little group on the train composed of Charlie Murphy; Clark Clifford, the attorney; and George Elsey, who was on the White House staff, and basically the three of them went over the material and would refine it depending on the situation as they knew it on the train. Sometimes one of our speeches would go, it seemed, directly from us to a plane, to a train, to the back platform, and Mr. Truman would practically use it word for word. I don't mean that he read it, but he would follow the points that we put down right straight through. Other times, we couldn't recognize anything that we had prepared
for a particular stop. Very often it would happen that something we had prepared two or three days before in Washington for a particular stop didn't turn out to be usable at all because something had happened in the meantime which changed the whole tone of what he was saying. But I would say that of the probably sixty or so that I worked on during the course of time -- of the whistlestop type, back platform type speeches -- that probably he used thirty or so of them pretty much as they were prepared. The other thirty I couldn't recognize at all.
Then in addition to the whistlestop kind of things we worked on basic drafts on his major speeches. These tended to be the ones that he delivered at night after he was on the train all day. I remember I worked quite hard on one that he delivered in Indianapolis, Indiana, on human resources, and I guess I became, although
we all worked on all different kinds of things in a small shop, I tended to work more on, or collect material on and advise with the others on human resources. Phil Dreyer tended to be our expert on natural resources. Dave Lloyd tended to deal more with foreign policy matters. Frank Kelly sort of ran across the board, but he helped us a lot in polishing up some of our phrases, and in addition to writing some of the speeches, and Johannes Hoeber, I guess, he was more in the human resource area than he was in any others. But it wasn't too long after I came to Washington with the group, when it appeared that the Wallace movement was not going to have the impact that we had originally thought it was going to have, and so I spent very little time really, in fact it was decided, I think, as a basic policy of the campaign that Mr. Truman just wouldn't pay much attention to the Wallace movement,
would hardly mention it. So I was occasionally called upon to, give some advice and counsel to the national committee or somebody on what was the significance of this activity in the Wallace group or who was this person, was this person well-known in the left-wing movement or something, but I really provided practically no services for what I had sort of originally come to Washington for.
HESS: Was there a time when that decision was made, as such, to sort of disregard Wallace?
BIRKHEAD: There was a time. I was not that close to Mr. Truman or the top side to be able to point specifically to a time, but I don't think there was any question but that there was a decision made some place along the line, that the less said about the Wallace movement the better. Because I had, originally, as I say,
been brought to Washington -- and it was quite definite, and Batt indicated to me that this was what he had discussed with the people in the White House and the national committee -- specifically why I was coming to Washington was to be an advisor and consultant and preparer of materials and whatever it was, in connection with the Wallace movement. It wasn't too long after I came to Washington that the Wallace movement was just dropped, and I don't remember that I was ever told "Forget Wallace, we're not going to mention him," but it was obvious what had happened.
HESS: He was just downplayed.
BIRKHEAD: He was downplayed and seldom, if ever, mentioned. There was obviously a lot of interest in what the Wallace movement was doing and what they were saying, and we followed the Wallace movement activities and what they
were saying quite carefully and in areas where we thought they might have some strength, like New York, we would try to develop material for speeches which would have some impact in combating what they were saying. I'm sure -- I was never privy to it -- that there was a point when the Wallace movement -- the decision was made that the Wallace movement and the Progressive Party and -- what was his name -- Taylor -- he was vice-presidential candidate...
HESS: Glen Taylor.
BIRKHEAD: ...Glen Taylor would not be mentioned.
HESS: You mentioned that you wrote the draft fox the Indianapolis speech. Was it given pretty much as you wrote it? Do you remember off-hand?
BIRKHEAD: Offhand, I would say that the basic
approach that I developed was used. As with all these major speeches which all tended to go through several hands, it was considerably changed from what I had prepared. I say with the off-the-cuff, or the ad lib, back of the platform kind of speeches, sometimes, I think they were probably so busy on the train that they never really had a chance to look at them, and they were just sort of handed to him for guidance in his comments. But his major speeches, such as Indianapolis, and others, always went through quite a few hands and I had worked on one for -- I worked on the major speech for Chicago, and some other places, I can't remember exactly which ones they were now, but they tended -- mine tended to be one of the very first drafts. Occasionally I'd get it back on the second or third draft for some checking of figures or refinement of some area that was sort of originally mine and had been changed by somebody else and
I'd get it back to do some further work on it, but I could not honestly say that any of his major speeches I can claim great credit for. Of course, he ad-libbed even in major speeches a great deal, and I must admit, improved them usually from what the copy was when he got it, although the copy went to the press and was very often what was reported.
HESS: I think that pretty well covers the job of the Research Division as far as speechwriting goes, doesn't it?
BIRKHEAD: I think so. Of course, you could go on and develop a lot of the kind of physical set up we had and a lot of things like this, but I think basically this was what it was, generally how it worked, and major parts of it.
HESS: Is there anything else you think that would be important to put in on this? My next question is
on the development of the "Files of the Facts."
BIRKHEAD: "Files of the Facts?" Was this a thing that we developed at the Research Division?
HESS: I thought it was.
BIRKHEAD: This is what eighteen years does to you.
HESS: Here's a copy of a note that I have drawn out. It's from Bill Batt, and dealing with the "Files of the Facts."
BIRKHEAD: This is what eighteen years does to you. I remember these, I worked on them, and we prepared these files. In fact, one of them I know here in the notes that you've handed me, "The Record of the 80th Congress," I spent a lot of time on that. I spent some time on the one on "Veterans Benefits," and considerable time on the one on "Thomas E. Dewey." I'd forgotten these completely. What they were
were just fact sheets -- briefing books, I .guess you might more nearly call them -- which gave all the facts about these various subjects which might be useful at the national committee and on the train. They had a set of these on the train, they had a set at the national committee, and as I begin to recall this now, I think we sent these out to candidates around the country. I'd forgotten "Files of the Facts" completely.
HESS: Did all the members of the Division work on the "Files of the Facts" as well as write speeches?
BIRKHEAD: Yes, we all did. Frankly, in a sense, well, we actually went out and dug material for these, but as we were developing speech material, we gathered a lot of this material as we went along. When I went back to the national committee in 1950 and we set up a
Research Division under Phil Dreyer, who had been with us in '48, we went back and updated the "Files of the Facts," and we put out some of these in printed form in '50. I remember particularly the one on "Foreign Affairs," because I worked real hard on that one, and it was tough work, because I don't know much about foreign affairs. I can't remember that we ever printed one in 1948. There was a printed document that was put out mostly under the direction of Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, which had the record of the administration. I can't even remember the name of it, it had a red cover on it.
HESS: It sure did.
BIRKHEAD: And someplace, I'm sure among my papers at home, I've probably got a copy of it because I know I worked some on it, too. But I'd forgotten
the "Files of the Facts" completely.
HESS: Just how were those drawn up? From newspaper accounts or...
BIRKHEAD: Well, we used the morgue at the national committee, or the library at the national committee, which is run by Mary Clynes, their clipping files. We got a great deal of material from the departments, the problem of material from the departments, which had been a problem earlier in the campaign when they sort of disregarded the departments preparing the President's speeches and one thing and another, there was just too much of it, and it was sort of overwhelming and our biggest job with the departments was to boil out the key material, the useful material, in developing the "Files of the Facts," and to pull out that material which would be useful in the campaign. A lot of the facts
that the departments gave us were interesting, but really didn't have very much political impact in the campaign. These were collected in a lot of different ways. Some of the basic material was prepared by people in the departments. It was a catch-as-catch-can kind of thing to get together the best possible files. I'm trying to recall. I remember the name "Files of the Facts" and I remember these subheads generally, and working on them. I don't remember what they looked like but it seems to me they were loose-leaf. notebooks with the various subject headings, and we could change them, use them in loose-leaf form more easily. When we found new figures or figures became out of date we could put new figures in - new facts in.
HESS: Were these the two main jobs that the Division did: the "Files of the Facts" and writing the speeches?
BIRKHEAD: The two main jobs were the "Files of the Facts" and writing the speeches. I guess I sweat so over the speeches -- and when I say sweat, both mentally and physically, because that was the hottest office I think I've ever worked in in my life. We had no air-conditioning, and it was at the time when they were rebuilding Dupont Circle and making the underpass under Dupont Circle, and you had to have a window open to get any air at all, and outside were pile drivers driving piles, and it was not conducive to very concentrated thinking. I guess I worked so hard trying to put together what I thought might be useful material for the President's speeches that that's the reason I drew sort of a blank on the "Files of the Facts." These were the two principal jobs.
HESS: Was this the first time that such a thing as the Research Division had been set up?
BIRKHEAD: It's the first time that people who had been around the party for a long time remembered any such concentrated effort of a group specifically devoted to research in this way. Of course, during the days of Mr. Roosevelt, leading up to this, Charlie Michelson had been sort of a one-man research operation at the national committee. There had not been this kind of a thing. Some of the people who had been around, as I say, for years in the party did not remember that there had been several people brought together specifically into this kind of a setup. I'm sure in the past there had been somebody called a Research Director or something, but this, as we understood it, was the first time.
HESS: As a research division, didn't it lapse after the '48 campaign?
BIRKHEAD: It lapsed after the '48 campaign. There was considerable discussion about it and concern
about it. Dave Lloyd, who was one of the members of this division, went from the campaign after Mr. Truman's election, to the White House as an administrative assistant to the President. In the White House Dave was always concerned that the national committee had cut off the research operation. He felt that the national committee ought to be thinking about the 1950 campaign, and that they at least ought to keep a modest or small -- maybe even two or three people, continuing to keep things like the "Files of the Facts" together so that when we came to the 1950 campaign all this material would be ready. But the national committee did not continue the research operation. Dave Lloyd did some at the White House, and Ken Hechler, who is now Congressman from West Virginia, joined the White House staff and collected a lot of material during the time that he was at the
White House, and then in the spring of 1950, Dave Lloyd kept pressing the President, or pressing Mr. Truman, about the need for the Research Division, and finally they reactivated the Research Division under Phil Dreyer. I came back when I finished my master's degree in '50 at the University of Missouri -- came back to Washington in July, I guess it was, or maybe early August, and joined Phil Dreyer and a couple of others that we brought together in the Research Division.
HESS: Who were they?
BIRKHEAD: Let's see, Mike Gorman worked for us some. Mike Gorman now runs the Committee on the Nation's Health and works for Mrs. Albert Lasker. He has an office here in Washington up on Connecticut Avenue -- Mike Gorman. And then there was a young fellow who I see
occasionally around Washington who is a representative -- a lobbyist -- for a West Coast operation of some kind. I can't remember his name or what he does. But I think there were four of us: Phil Dreyer was the director, myself, Mike Gorman, and this young fellow. Frankly, we were not the most fully accepted operation at the national committee in 1950 and I don't think if Dave Lloyd had not talked to Mr. Truman -- well, I don't know that he talked him into it -- but if Mr. Truman had not supported Dave in this, I don't think the national committee would have set up a Research Division. I remember we were housed in an inside room at the Ring Building where the national committee had its headquarters...
HESS: This was in '50?
BIRKHEAD: ...'50, yes. It was a room without
any windows in it. In one corner of the room was the ticker, the Washington city news ticker. So we were trying to do research in a windowless, small room; four of us, plus a secretary, with a ticker banging in the corner. We were never really accepted by the committee. We did try to bring the "Files of the Facts" up to date. We did some material -- some speeches for congressional candidates and prepared some material for the national committee. But we were never very well accepted.
HESS: Why do you think that was?
BIRKHEAD: I can't honestly say. I think that the feeling was that this was not a year when the national committee ought to put out a big effort; that the President wasn't running; that the candidates themselves could put together the material that they needed -- the congressional
candidates could -- the national committee would give them a little bit of assistance, but I think there was just a feeling that there was no real need fox a Research Division. And in fact, in early September, I. guess it was, Tom Hennings, who was running for the Senate in Missouri, wanted somebody who had some Washington experience and knew a little bit about Missouri to help him, so I left Washington, after only having been here about a month, and went back to Missouri and ran Tom Hennings' campaign in '50. The Research Division continued to function with Phil Dreyer and Gorman doing some work and this other fellow, but they didn't turn out too much material. I know I was then on the receiving end when I was out in Missouri working with Hennings, and we did get some help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but little or nothing from the national committee.
I can't really answer why the Research Division was never well accepted in the campaign, but it wasn't.
HESS: Did you feel that it was accepted in 48 by the committee?
BIRKHEAD: It was not accepted in '48 by the committee, no. I think that some of them felt we were interlopers.
HESS: Who felt that way?
BIRKHEAD: I think the chairman of the committee did. I know that the publicity director did. Of course, we were in a slightly strange situation. We were on the payroll of the national committee but we were not housed at the national committee. Our basic contacts were not with the national committee; our basic contacts were with the Truman campaign train, and they
sort of wondered about exactly who we were, sitting off in this building up there, and exactly what we were doing. You had a feeling when occasionally -- and it didn't happen very often -- when you went down to the national committee headquarters that they sort of looked and said, "There goes one of those guys." We never really felt a part of the national committee staff, although we were paid by the national committee, we were members of the national committee staff. Whether this was some jealousy that we might get some credit which they thought they should get or whatever it was, we were never sure.
HESS: You mentioned that Batt hired you people.
HESS: Who told Batt to set up an organization like this? Where did the idea come from?
BIRKHEAD: Basically, I think the idea came from Bill Batt himself, to an extent, and from some people who I think were contributors to the party who felt there ought to be some of this kind of activity, that there had not been enough in the past
HESS: Do you know who? Anyone in particular?
BIRKHEAD: I know of one individual, a guy named Clarence Low in New York City, who had some money and contributed to the party. He was part of the reason I got into the Research Division because he was terribly concerned about the Wallace movement, and he was convinced that if Mr. Truman was going to be defeated it was, going to be because of the Wallace movement. He was making many contacts -- with whom I do not know exactly -- in Washington, urging that the national committee have some
specialists on its staff to deal with Wallace, and do a lot of research on the Wallace movement -- somebody who knew who these people were and could prepare material about them. I know this was one individual, and I happen to know Mr. Low, and I think at some point there was probably contact between Low and Batt who I think knew each other, about my coming on board. I'm not sure exactly what brought on the setting up of the Research Division in '48 but I know we were never really accepted by the committee itself. We were considered sort of outsiders if you can put it that way. We were not in the traditional political sense of raising money and putting out press releases. I guess to some of them they thought we were some kind of thinkers or something. We were not politicians in their mind although all of us at one time or another had been
closely associated with politics. In fact, Batt had run for Congress in '46. I had worked in politics in Kansas City and in New York and the others had all been in one way or another associated with politics. In fact, Phil Dreyer, who was on our staff, before he joined the staff, had filed for the state legislature in Oregon and then got this offer and decided to come back here, and really didn't campaign except for the last few days of the campaign. Obviously, the last week or so of the campaign, we didn't have too much to do, because all of our material, our speeches and material had been prepared by that time. So we took one day -- the whole group of us -- and wrote several short speeches for Dreyer and he jumped on an airplane and back to Portland, Oregon, and in the meantime some of his people back there had lined up all the engagements they could for him
and he took our speeches and ran all over Portland speaking to anybody he could. Although he had never campaigned except for the last week and had been in Washington during the whole campaign period, he got elected to the state legislature. But we were a thing apart from the national committee. I think part of it was that they never really had anything like a Research Division. We were maybe too erudite for them or something. They weren't sure what a Research Division really did.
HESS: Did yo