Oral History Interview with
Administrative assistant to Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, 1950-52, executive assistant, 1953-55, and one of Stevenson's law partners, 1955-61. Subsequently U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, 1961-64, and to the Philippines, 1964-67.
William McCormick Blair Jr.
June 22, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
William McCormick Blair Jr.
June 22, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Blair, tell me just a little bit about your background: Where were you born and where were you educated and what positions have you held?
BLAIR: I was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 24, 1916. I went to elementary school in Chicago; I went to Groton Preparatory School in Groton, Massachusetts from 1929 to 1935, took my undergraduate work at the University of Hawaii, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago and Stanford, all in four years because of a sinus condition. I graduated from Stanford in 1940. Then I went to the University of Virginia Law School for a year and then into the Army and then into the Air Force for a period of about four years serving in the China-Burma-India theatre most of the time. I came back to law school at the University of Virginia after the war.
I started the practice of law in Chicago, and practiced for about three years, then went to Springfield as an administrative assistant to Adlai Stevenson and remained with him until 1952, then traveled a good deal with him between 1952 and 1956. The two of us had an office. I was active in the 1956 presidential campaign on his behalf, formed a partnership with him, Willard Wirtz and Newton Minow after the '56 election. I practiced law until '60 when President Kennedy sent me to Denmark as the United States Ambassador. After President Kennedy's death, President Johnson sent me to the Philippines as Ambassador where I remained until December of 1967, I then returned to Washington and became general director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which is my present occupation.
HESS: When did you first become aware that President Truman did not intend to run for reelection in 1952?
BLAIR: I guess the night he announced it here in Washington.
HESS: At the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner.
BLAIR: At the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. I was not here at that time.
HESS: When was Governor Stevenson first approached about the possibility of being the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party in the 1952 elections?
BLAIR: Well, my recollection is that this was discussed soon after he was elected as Governor in 1948 and there was some speculation that President Truman might not be a candidate for re-election and he was considered one of the comers in the Democratic Party. I don't remember any precise date.
HESS: When in 1952, what time of year in 1952, did you think that Governor Stevenson's name began to come before the public, in this context?
BLAIR: Well, again, I think, as it became more and more evident that the President might not run (nobody knew for sure), why, there was more and more interest in Adlai Stevenson.
HESS: And we have covered the nature of your earlier relationship with Governor Stevenson. In your opinion, were there others that Mr. Truman might have preferred to see as Democratic candidate other than Governor Stevenson?
BLAIR: In my opinion, that would have been the case just prior to the convening of the convention. I think Mr. Stevenson was Mr. Truman's choice originally, and then for various reasons, Mr. Stevenson wasn't as receptive perhaps as President Truman had anticipated, and I had the impression that later on President Truman might have preferred someone else.
HESS: Why wasn't Governor Stevenson as receptive as he might
have been at this time?
BLAIR: Well, I think the first reason is that he preferred to stay on as Governor of Illinois. He had already announced his candidacy for re-election as Governor, and this is what he really enjoyed doing, and I think he also felt possibly that it wasn't going to be a very good year for the Democrats, and it might not be the most propitious time to run.
HESS: In an article on Governor Stevenson by George Ball in the Atlantic Monthly in May of 1966 entitled "Flaming Arrows to the Sky," Mr. Ball states that David Lloyd and Charles Murphy of the White House staff talked to the President in January of 1952 about the possible candidacy of Adlai Stevenson for the Presidency. Ball states: "The President had not yet decided whether he would run himself. He had not commissioned them to sound out Stevenson but had indicated that he would interpose no objection if they cared to do so on their own initiative."
Were you aware of the efforts on Mr. Stevenson's behalf of those two White House staff members?
BLAIR: I don't recall that I was aware of it, no.
HESS: What do you recall about David Lloyd and Charles Murphy?
BLAIR: Well, I think I knew David Lloyd maybe a bit better. I saw more of him than I did of Charlie Murphy, but we
knew they were both very close to President Truman, and I know that Governor Stevenson had a high regard for them. My recollection is that he was perhaps closer to David Lloyd. I believe David Lloyd had worked with him previously at the time that Mr. Stevenson was doing some work in the State Department.
HESS: When did you meet David Lloyd, do you recall?
BLAIR: I don't recall, but it must have been around 1948 or '50, some time around there.
HESS: What do you recall about Governor Stevenson's deliberations as to whether or not he should accept the nomination, from the time he was first approached until he finally accepted?
BLAIR: Well, as I tried to indicate, I think he was torn between (a) a feeling that he really wanted to stay on as Governor, and (b) a feeling that nobody really could turn down a nomination as a candidate for the Presidency; that it would have been presumptuous for him to say that he would not accept, but the problem was that if he said he'd accept, then it would appear that he was seeking the nomination, which wasn't the case. That was his dilemma.
HESS: I understand he made some trips to Washington about that time of year. Did you accompany him on any of those trips?
BLAIR: I did accompany him on those trips.
HESS: What do you recall about that?
BLAIR: As I recall, he went on Meet the Press, you perhaps remember the date. That was the day after the dinner at which President Truman announced that he would not be a candidate for re-election. As a matter of fact, we were staying right down the street here, not the Hay-Adams but the Roger Smith Hotel. We were staying there. I remember Mr. Stevenson coming home from the dinner in somewhat of a state of shock.
HESS: What did he say?
BLAIR: Well, I just don't remember, except his view hadn't changed at all. He worried about all the pressure that was going to come to bear on him. He was concerned, of course, about the next day, his appearance on Meet the Press. I remember his feeling that some people might think he had known about this all along, and that's why he was scheduled on Meet the Press, but that was purely coincidental.
HESS: Did you go with him to his appearance on Meet the Press the following day?
BLAIR: Yes, I did.
HESS: What do you recall about that occasion, anything particular?
BLAIR: I recall a lot of excitement, a lot of interest, and I recall that he did extremely well, and that served to fan the flames.
HESS: Did you come back to Washington that spring and early summer on any other trips with the Governor?
BLAIR: I came back later in the spring when he came back to see President Truman -- no, I didn't come back that time, but I recall we went to St. Louis and the reservation was made in my name, so he came to Washington very quietly. I forget really whether it was Dave Lloyd who met him. It might very well have been. He saw President Truman at that time. My recollection is that he reiterated his desire to run for re-election as Governor, and not to go after the nomination.
HESS: Is this still at the time when President Truman was trying to get him to take the candidacy?
BLAIR: That's correct.
HESS: Why do you think that Governor Stevenson changed his mind?
BLAIR: Well, I think he changed his mind because it was inevitable that he was to be nominated. As I've indicated, he thought it would be presumptuous to say that under no circumstances would he accept the nomination.
HESS: Was that a so-called "honest draft?"
BLAIR: I think it was as honest as a draft can be. He certainly did nothing, to my knowledge, to encourage it, because he didn't really want it.
HESS: What do you recall about the convention in Chicago that year?
BLAIR: Well, I recall quite a lot about it. Governor Stevenson was staying in my family's house. We were besieged, as I recall, the entire week. I don't recall moving from the house once, except that one morning, Governor Stevenson and I had breakfast with Governor Harriman. But otherwise we were answering the telephones, and trying to fend off visitors. You can imagine, it was pretty much of a madhouse.
HESS: Governor Harriman also wanted the nomination that year, do you recall that?
BLAIR: I recall that, although I don't remember that he announced. I remember more about that in '56 than I do in '52.
HESS: Also Alben Barkley would have liked to have had the nomination in '52.
BLAIR: Yes, well, I gathered that.
HESS: Do you recall Governor Stevenson saying anything about the other men who may have been seeking the prize actively?
BLAIR: No, I really don't.
HESS: What do you recall about Mr. Stevenson's first activities following the convention?
BLAIR: Well, I believe after going back to Springfield, he went to Wisconsin with some of his advisors to think about speeches. I remained in Springfield to work on schedules.
HESS: I'd like to read a statement from Cabell Phillips' book, The Truman Presidency, page 425 and get your reaction to it:
In August Stevenson paid a visit to the President in the White House in the hope of working out a modus vivendi by which the President would remain in the background until the last couple of weeks of the campaign, while Stevenson created a public image and program of his own. The conference was held in the Cabinet room with the President and the key members of his staff lined up on one side of the vast coffin-shaped table and, on the other side, Stevenson and picked members of the "Springfield crowd" -- like representatives of sovereign powers at a treaty conference. It was stiff, painfully uncomfortable, and largely inconclusive.
Did you attend that meeting, sir?
BLAIR: No, I didn't.
HESS: Do you know who did? Which members of Governor Stevenson's staff…
BLAIR: I assume Carl McGowan attended it. I don't remember about whether Mr. Mitchell was there or not, Stephen Mitchell.
HESS: Now, he had replaced Frank McKinney at this time.
BLAIR: At this time he had, yes.
HESS: What do you recall about Governor Stevenson's decision to replace Frank McKinney with Mitchell?
BLAIR: I don't really remember much other than Mr. Stevenson felt, as all candidates do, that he should have his own man in there.
HESS: It was about the time of the meeting in August when David Bell and Clayton Fritchey on the White House staff were informed that their services would be required in Springfield. Do you know why those two men were selected, and what they did in Springfield?
BLAIR: I don't know why they were selected; I'm glad they were selected because I think they were both very helpful, very loyal to Governor Stevenson. Dave Bell worked chiefly, as I recall, on speeches. I guess Clayton did too.
HESS: Just what were your duties during the campaign and how did you carry them out?
BLAIR: Well, I was, I suppose, appointments secretary. I traveled everywhere with Mr. Stevenson, was usually in a car right in front of him or back of him, was the first into the hotel suites with him, and the first to shut the doors so no one else could get in right away.
HESS: Did you have that specific title?
BLAIR: I did not have a specific title, because I really was an administrative assistant to Governor Stevenson in
his capacity as Governor. I traveled with him and, arranged for people to see him or not to see him, etc.
HESS: Which is the most difficult, arranging for someone to see him, or not to see him?
BLAIR: I suppose it's more difficult to arrange not to see him.
HESS: Does that create any hard feelings at times?
BLAIR: I suppose. In looking back, I think he probably saw too many people, and had too much of a schedule.
I began to think Mr. Nixon was well advised in the '68 campaign where he would go off for three or four days at a time, particularly on weekends. But Mr. Stevenson's problem, of course, was that he was not well-known, and there was a great clamoring to get him around the country.
HESS: Did you ever have occasion to request any help or assistance from Mr. Truman's staff, and if so, was it forthcoming?
BLAIR: I don't recall having to request any assistance, but I had nothing but cooperation from the Truman people whom I did see from time to time.
HESS: Why did Governor Stevenson decide to have his principal headquarters in Springfield?
BLAIR: I think the main reason is that he was still Governor of Illinois.
HESS: Was it to a degree to disassociate himself from Mr. Truman and the so-called "mess in Washington?"
BLAIR: You know, I've heard that expression.
I think it obviously helped him to create his own im