Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview. .
Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey
July 17, 1969
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Elsey, to begin this afternoon, would you tell me about the organization of the White House staff and about some of the duties of some of the various people who served on the staff during the Truman administration?
ELSEY: Before we get to specific individuals, Jerry, and specific jobs, I'd like to make some general comments. First, the White House staff in the Truman administration was never a static institution. It never had a table of organization and precise duties. It varied from, not from month to month, that would be an exaggeration, but certainly, from year to year, and what I would tell you about the Truman White House staff in 1945 would be very different from what I would tell you about the Truman staff in 1951 or '52. So, time, the calendar, is a factor here in considering the size of the staff, the individuals on the staff, the nature of their duties. Indeed even President Truman's own concept of what his staff was for and what he wanted it to do. A second point that is very important especially now, when we're
in the late 1960s, looking back over twenty years, we have to be careful not to judge the Truman staff by the kind of a White House staff which more recent Presidents have had. The White House staff now is a big institution. I don't know the current number on President Nixon's staff, but it seems that, in the last week, I've seen announcements of three new people being added to the Nixon White House staff. It was a big place in the Johnson administration; not quite so big in the Kennedy administration, and the Eisenhower staff seemed large to those of us who had been there with Truman. But it seems small when you look back on it from the current time. So, when we discuss the White House, the Truman White House staff, please bear in mind that it was a small group. Don't expect that it was structured, organized, clearly defined, to the way we have, and political scientists, scholars, writers, and others have come to expect White House staffs to be organized.
Well, with those general remarks out of the way, okay, fire away.
HESS: Beginning with the Brownlow Commission, can you tell me about the organization of the White House staff as
far as the Administrative Assistants are concerned?
ELSEY: Well, I don't know that I need to go all the way back to the Brownlow Commission, and the Administrative Assistants as FDR appointed them and initiated the idea. But, by the time that President Truman took office, in April of '45, it was a well-established practice to have three, four, or five men on the staff bearing the title of Administrative Assistant to the President. Their duties varied. Their duties varied with the individual concerned, with the problems of the moment. James Forrestal, for example, had come down from New York to be an Administrative Assistant to FDR prior to going over to the Navy Department. Most of the Administrative Assistants in the war years, and this held true into the Truman administration, were there for fairly brief periods. There might have been a specific ad hoc task the President wanted done and this was a convenient title and a convenient rank, position, to utilize for that purpose. Administrative Assistants were not expected to have line responsibilities of any sort. The only Administrative Assistant of the late Roosevelt and early Truman period who had a pretty sharply defined function, and who stayed for a long period was
David K. Niles. Dave Niles continued to do for Truman, what he had for FDR, be an adviser on civil rights, minority problems, relations with Jewish, Negro, and other racial or religious interests. He's an exception to the practice of Administrative Assistants that I've just mentioned.
I don't believe that at any time Truman ever had on board the full six Administrative Assistants authorized by law. The number went up and down, three, four, five, perhaps he had six for a brief period, but I don't happen to recall when it was. I was named an Administrative Assistant in August of 1949 and remained one for a little over two years. During that period of time, I worked on speeches, legislative matters, relations with State Department, National Security Council in particular, and the many, many questions pertaining to defense matters that arose with the outbreak of the Korean war in January 1950. It was, as a matter of fact, my involvement, my concentration on foreign matters, after the outbreak of the Korean war, that led to my transferring from the immediate White House staff to that of Averell
Harriman in December '51 when Harriman became Director for Mutual Security. But that's another story and not relevant here. I'm sure you have available from congressional directories and the Government Manual, the names and tenure of the individuals who served as Administrative Assistants. Names that come quickly to mind are David Lloyd, David Bell, Dick Neustadt, Charlie Murphy, who came to the White House in the spring of '47 as Administrative Assistant, remained there for three years at which point he became Special Counsel to the President succeeding Clifford. At any given point in time, if you took just a slice of time, and tried to analyze what these men were doing, you'd find quite a different picture from what you would find at, say, six months after that date. The workload ebbed and flowed with the problems of the Administration, with whether or not an election was in the offing, whether the Congress was 80th, Republican dominated, or 81st, Democratic controlled.
HESS: What was the relationship between the Administrative Assistants and the Special Counsel?
ELSEY: Well, this too varied from time to time. Sam Rosenman,
who had been brought down from New York by Roosevelt in the middle of the war to assist on speech matters and congressional relations, had no particular relationship with Administrative Assistants as I recall it. Nor did Clark Clifford who succeeded Rosenman for the first year or so that he was Special Counsel. But as Clifford's experience in the Government grew, as his knowledge and prestige, and general expertise, broadened, President Truman began to assign more and more major substantive problems to Clifford to study and advise on, and Clifford needed help, and needed more assistance, and began scouting around. He turned to Charlie Murphy in the spring of '47, when Murphy came to the White House from the Senate Legislative Drafting Service. Because of Murphy's long association on the Hill and intimate knowledge of congressional procedures, Clifford found Murphy's advice invaluable and the two of them established a very warm cooperative, effective partnership. Officially and theoretically, at any rate, Administrative Assistants reported directly to the President and were not subordinate to the Special Counsel to the President. As a matter of practice, however, it developed that, beginning with Clifford and Murphy's relationship, one or more of the
Administrative Assistants were clustered around the Special Counsel and tended, if not to work directly for him, to take his advice and guidance and follow his leadership as they went about their daily tasks and chores. After Clifford left the White House in February of 1950 to enter the private practice of law and Murphy succeeded him, Murphy followed the same practice that Clifford had of being the primus inter pares amongst some of the White House staff members. And being the practical, if not the officially designated leader of a team of two or three of the Administrative Assistant.
HESS: What was the relationship between the Special Counsel and Dr. Steelman, The assistant to the President?
ELSEY: This has always been a tough area to define. John Steelman was the incredibly energetic and capable and busy, all around workhorse of the White House staff. It's very easy to overlook the enormous volume of business that the President of the United States has to do in his capacity as Chief Executive, as chief administrator, as chief bureaucrat, if you want to call him that, of the executive branch of the
Government. The public at large tends to think of the President in his more dramatic, flashy roles, in foreign policy as commander in chief, as a political leader and he is all of those things as we know. But, in addition, he is the head of a department, of a branch of the Government, consisting of many departments, of multiple independent agencies, a couple of million civil servants, and so on and so forth; and the sheer volume of paper work and administrative problems, personnel assignments, so on so forth, all this comes to the White House in a steady stream and an unremitting stream. Well, John Steelman was the man who coped for the President with this area of the President's job. Steelman had a bigger staff than the Special Counsel or anyone else because the sheer volume of work required it. Steelman, if I have to ma