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Opened September, 1997
Oral History Interview with
August 5, 1996
by Ray Geselbracht, Randy Sowell, and Sam Rushay, Harry S. Truman Library and David Atkinson, Enarson's Second Cousin, Professor of Political Science, University of Missouri at Kansas City.
GESELBRACHT: It is Monday, August 5, 1996, and present for this interview are Harold Enarson, formerly of Truman's White House staff, Randy Sowell, archivist at the Truman Library, Sam Rushay, also an archivist, Mr. David Atkinson, a professor of political science and law at UMKC, and Ray Geselbracht. Let me first ask Mr. Enarson how did you get into government service, and how did you end up on the White House staff?
ENARSON: I think I arrived there through a serious of fortuitous accidents. They say that chance favors the prepared mind. Well I'm not sure I was always prepared, but I was lucky in my choice of friends. I had served in the infantry and fortunately could exercise the right to return to my prior job, in which I had been a budget examiner in the U. S. Bureau of the Budget. Incidentally, the Bureau of the Budget was a splendid graduate seminar for anybody fascinated with the art and diplomacy of public administration, and I treasured my years of service in the Bureau of the Budget. There I worked for David Stowe, a North Carolinian, whose interests were in labor mobilization, the use of the employment service, manpower, and its larger dimension. That began to help focus my interests in that area. Remember, in the times following World War II we had this huge clash of big labor and big
corporations. It's almost impossible to reconstruct the passion and anger of the times. Just as today, 1996, health is the major focus of controversy in the country and in the Congress and in the political situation, at that time labor-management relations were the focus and the heat was enormous.
There built up over time, in the Congress, an insistent demand for reform and it emerged in the form of the Taft-Hartley bill. Taft was, of course, Senator Bob Taft of Ohio. Hartley was Fred Hartley of Indiana. So the Taft-Hartley Bill emerged finally as a major contentious issue. I had followed it very carefully as had my colleague, David Bell, who also worked in the Bureau of the Budget, and who later figures in the life of Truman and his staff. Dave and I -- and this is unbelievable, because I was either 32 or 33 at the time -- were invited over to the White House to meet with Clark Clifford who was Chief Counsel and speech writer and confidant of Harry Truman. The question was what should the President do about the Taft-Hartley Bill? Should he veto it? If so, why? Should he not veto it? If so, why? Now I reflect back on this and think upon my innocence because there was no way in hell that Truman was not going to veto that bill, given his ties, given the forces at work in the Democratic Party. If I saw that at all, I saw it very dimly. My focus, quite properly, was on the merits of the legislation and Dave and I were careful students of the legislation. We thought it was bad in a variety of ways which I can't remember exactly today. I should add, parenthetically, that at the time I was so immersed in this, that I practically lived it.
Clifford was a very, very impressive man. He listened. He listened very carefully, took notes, and forced us to say clearly why we thought a provision was bad, et cetera, et cetera. Following that meeting, we helped draft the Taft-Hartley veto message. Dave Bell was a superior writer and soon, through sheer intellect and drive, subsequently returned as a major speech writer in the White House. But that, I think, was Dave's first excursion
and assignment like that. That event was capped by a special invitation from the White House for me and for my wife to sit in on the veto message.
Of course, the Taft-Hartley message had incredible fallout and the area that I was fascinated with was the emergency provisions. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on fact-finding in national emergency labor disputes and I felt very deeply that we did not have the answers to national emergency labor disputes.
Well, change of scenery. Then I'm off to Whittier College, and then to Stanford. We had just finished our first year of teaching at Stanford and I had a call from someone I have forgotten. I think it was Dave Stowe. But in any event, I was invited to come back in the summer of 1950 to work for the National Security Resources Board, then headed by Stuart Symington of Missouri. So this was a three-month summer assignment, great fun, and I dug deeply into the history of wage stabilization and price control in World War II and got rather deeply into that.
Traveled to Canada to study their system at one time. I'm not clear on the exact dates and I don't know exactly when the Korean crisis heated up, but, in any event, by the end of the summer, I was suddenly invited -- I guess it was by Dave Stowe -- to go meet Dr. John R. Steelman. Dave said you can go to work with Dr. Steelman if you'd want to. I don't remember the first time I met Steelman, which is a curious omission. In any event, I phoned the people at Stanford and I asked if I could have a leave of absence for a year and they said, reluctantly, yes, because as academics they thought that academics was far more important than anything you could possibly do in government. I should advance the discussion by saying that at the end of the year I asked for another year, and they said they didn't think that was advisable. Well, there was no way I was going to leave the White House where I was having great fun. In retrospect, that was a career decision, a turn in the road, that changed my whole life because I gave up the whole dream of being a college professor, which is the good life.
Well, let me comment briefly a little bit about John R. Steelman. He had been a professor of sociology, as I recall, at a small college somewhere in the south. I don't know where. Frances Perkins, then Secretary of Labor, came through and she spotted this young man, and she said, later, I want you come to work in Washington. He headed up at one time what was then called the U.S. Conciliation Service, subsequently renamed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. John R. Steelman was a remarkable man; by any measure of the word, remarkable. He was physically imposing. I think he was well over 6 feet tall. There was an electric quality about his personality. He was quick in everything he did -- in his movements, in his thinking.
My most vivid and lasting memory of John R. Steelman is that he's leaning back in his desk and he has the phone cradled here, and he has cards that he is writing notes on. The secretary is waiting there, and he [Steelman] is smiling as he talks to somebody. He could convey warmth over the telephone like nobody I have ever known. I never saw the man lose his temper. I never saw him angry.
There were three of us in that office. There was Russell Andrews, who had been brought over from the Budget Bureau. Russell Andrews was your classic Bureau of the Budget man from the olden times. He knew every provision of the federal code. He knew how to find anything and everything and anything that Steelman did was checked with Russ to make sure that there was no error in it. It was a function I couldn't have begun to perform. Then, John R. had an economist who worked for him to advise him on economic matters. I don't recall his name. I was never well acquainted with him. I was brought in to focus on the whole issue of emergency labor disputes, wage stabilization, and price stabilization, really the functioning of the stabilization agencies.
The relationship that I had with John R. was -- it was distant, in the sense that you never walked uninvited into his office, and he never walked
across the hall except rarely to step in to see me. He was one of the most efficient persons in the terms of managing his time and his work of anybody I have ever known or worked with. I am having difficulty articulating this because it is such an unusual experience. He was never unfriendly in any way. He was never critical in any way. He never called me in and criticized anything. I communicated exclusively by memos and I sent these memos in about every other day or so. I said I really think the President ought to write a letter, or the President ought to do this or you ought to do this, and he'd say or I'd say, I would like to do this and he'd say "OK, JRS."
Incidentally, he cherished the "doctor" designation -- Steelman did. It was "Doctor Steelman. " He was, of course, The Assistant to the President and he owned the word "The." He gave that "The" a certain umph that you wouldn't believe. To race ahead a little bit in the story, I served there almost two years in his office, at one time going on quick loan over to the Wage Stabilization Board where I served as Assistant to George Taylor who was then Chairman of the Board. He was a very distinguished labor arbitrator from the University of Pennsylvania, a first rate man and a first rate teacher. I learned so much from him because it was a "mentor/mentee" relationship. This was a time when we had not yet learned the mentor/mentee [relationship] but he was kind enough to explain what he was doing at various times. I don't think John R. ever called me in and shared a confidence or gossiped about anything. That was not in his nature. But I want to stress the point that he was always totally friendly. He gave the word affability its distinctive cloth. He was an affable man, with a razor quick mind and the capacity to learn quickly. How this fellow, who came up from a small college where he taught sociology, could adapt to the climate of big pressure groups and deal easily with Ben Fairless, the head of U. S. Steel, and Art Goldberg, who was General Counsel to AFL-CIO, and with Phil Murray of AFL-CIO, I never knew. But
John was not arrogant. He was not presumptuous. He was not overriding. He was not overbearing. He was very much there and he clearly had the confidence of the President from day one and the President had great confidence in him. It was a great learning experience to serve him.
I'll inject one little note on John R.'s methods. Later on, when Eisenhower came in as President, Sherman Adams became, in effect, his chief of staff, because that was the way that Ike operated. And at various times you would read about somebody exercising political influence: somebody would call the White House about this or that and there would be a big fuss about who said what to whom. John R. Steelman had a record system that couldn't be beat. He had 3 x 5 cards and he had three secretaries in his office. They were absolutely totally devoted to him and loyal, and he would jot things down. Let's say you got an inquiry, really a request, for intervention in price stabilization matters and it came from a prominent businessman in Indianapolis and that kind of thing. John R. was superb at saying no, without saying no, or saying I'll look into it, but never making too much of a commitment or comment.
He was an artful dodger and superb at it. He was taking notes at the time and the secretary was taking notes and then when the conversation was concluded he would dictate, "talk with so and so, on such and such a date, tell him I'll get back to him, etc." The action item might have been a "must call to the head of Office of Price Administration," or something like that. So then he had the action taken ultimately. He had a record of every conversation that he had on any official matter, and what happened, and what he said he'd do, and what he said he wouldn't do. That was before the time that we had become so acutely conscious of fraud and deception in high levels.
GESELBRACHT: Did Dr. Steelman restrict his area of interest and activity to the labor relations area and stabilization area?
ENARSON: No, in no way. The way in which the White House operates is inevitably the function of the personality of the President, his or her set of experiences and mind set, and if there is any perfect way to organize the White House, it's not yet been discovered. Centralization has its advantages but you bear with it a terrible price. And the notion that one person can become the exclusive channel to the President is, I think, absurd because, in effect, that person has too much power so I think what you want -- and Dick Neustadt's book deals with that -- let's call it "creative tension" which is a graceful way of camouflaging real tension. But you must never have an exclusive channel into the President. On the other hand, there has to be some degree of order in the damn place as Clinton has to learn repeatedly. There were two centers of power in the White House as far as I could see it. One was Dr. Steelman's office, dealing largely with price and wage stabilization matters, defense, the mobilization effort as we got deeper and deeper into the Korean conflict and as the Chinese marched across the Yalu. Then, there was Charles Murphy, a North Carolinian, who was the President's General Counsel, speech writer and confidant. The arrangement, as far as I could discern from my level, was one of cordiality and easy reactions, easy interaction. I never got any feeling that there was any kind of hostility or antagonism between Charlie Murphy and John R. It always seemed to me they got along splendidly. It was a loose division of function. It was never tight and, of course, the President met wi