Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened January, 1972
January 21, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Roach, would you give me a little of your background for the record: Where were you born, where did you go to school, and what positions did you hold prior to your service with the Democratic National Committee?
ROACH: I was born in Chevy Chase, Montgomery County, Maryland, December 29, 1912. I went to parochial schools in Washington and in Maryland, I completed high school at St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C.
While in St. John's High School, just by accident, I had my first and also very early entrance into national Democratic politics. I obtained a part-time, after-school job, and full-time summer job at the Democratic National Committee. This actually happened in June of 1929. I worked under the then national chairman, John J. Raskob, and had the grand and glorious title of copy boy, working with Charles Michelson, who was then director of publicity
This actually was a fascinating job to me, it helped
me in my school work, and facetiously enough I was the envy of a lot of my classmates, because in 1932, I attended my first Democratic National Convention, had the thrill of being in the basement of the old Chicago stadium at the time that Tom Gary, the famous "voice of the sewer" started the chant, "We want Roosevelt," which was the beginning of the stampede of delegates away from Alfred Smith to Roosevelt, who of course was later nominated.
I had the added thrill of being present when Franklin Roosevelt broke the first precedent by flying into Chicago to accept the nomination on the spot, rather than wait for the usual nominating committee to call on him at his home.
There were many thrills for a young man, more than I can think of at the moment, in connection with that convention, but one of the heartaches in connection with that convention, was that the day immediately after the session ended, the new chairman, James A. Farley, notified all employees of the Democratic National Committee that they were no longer employees and in other words we were actually given pink slips and told to return to our place of origin under our own steam, and we would be reimbursed later. My salary at that time was $6.00 a week. I had to borrow enough money for an upper berth on the
Railroad from Chicago to Washington, it took me about eight months to pay it off. However, much to my pleasure, I was rehired by the Democratic National Committee and served with them until I was loaned to the National Recovery Administration, along with Charles Michelson, the director of publicity, and was given the spot of supervisor of printing and publications, and supervised 400 people. I was a rather young man to have that much responsibility. I served in that capacity for almost a year after the NRA was declared unconstitutional, and it was in 1936 when I returned to the Democratic National Committee as a writer, writing speeches and press releases, and was taken to the 19 36 convention in Philadelphia. After that convention, of course, Roosevelt was re-elected for his second term.
I stayed with the national committee full-time, working in various capacities and fundraising, working on registration drives, and doing some speechwriting. In 1940, I was made assistant to the treasurer who was the director of the 1940 convention in Chicago, and this, of course, gave me added experience both in conventions and in fundraising, which I participated in following the 1940 convention.
In those days our presidential campaigns were run out of New York, so after the convention in Chicago in 1940,
I went to New York and served as chief clerk of the Democratic National Headquarters until the end of the campaign, and of course Roosevelt was re-elected for a third term. In 1940, this was my first experience in having anything to do with a presidential inauguration, in 1941, and at that time I worked with the chairman as liaison with the inaugural committee. In 1944, I was actually director of the convention, although Ed Pauley, who was national treasurer, had the title. He gave me the title of assistant director, and turned all the mechanics of the convention over to me, because I had had some little experience in the past. This was my first meeting with Senator Truman, at the 1944 convention. Shortly after the so-called Wallace stampede on the convention floor the night we were nominating for Vice President, the next day I met Senator Truman for the first time. After the convention, of course, we set up our headquarters in the Biltmore Hotel in New York as we had done in past campaigns. Vice President-elect Truman, came to the Biltmore Hotel one day for the purpose of going to the National Democratic Club, commonly known as Tammany Hall, for a fund-raising luncheon. I had the honor of escorting him to that luncheon. This was my
first real impression of President Truman. As we came out of the Biltmore Hotel, I had a limousine and driver waiting and Mr. Truman said, "How far is it?"
I said, "It's about an eight-block walk."
He said, "Well, let's walk." And as young as I was in those days I had difficulty keeping up with the Vice President-elect. He had as brisk a walk then as he always had, and when we arrived at the Democratic Club, I was breathless.
But on the way he said, "Neale, what do I do at this luncheon? Just ask them for money?"
I said, "No, Mr. Vice President, there will be others there who will ask for money, you just ask for their support in the campaign. We'll handle the crass subject of money in our own way."
He laughed at that and he said, "I know a little bit about fundraising. I've run for office myself before."
I said, "I know you do." I had trouble calling him "Senator" even then. I said, "Senator, you are now a candidate for Vice President and we just can't let you ask for money personally. We'll do the job.
My next experience with the Vice President actually was when he was President in 1948. I had the honor again --
I should say the first time I had the honor of actually being the full manager was during the 1948 convention in Philadelphia. Howard McGrath, the late Senator from Rhode Island was national chairman and the Republicans were holding their convention in Philadelphia.
At the same time I had worked with the Republican group in 1944 in Chicago when the Government asked both political parties, or directors of both political parties, to hold their conventions in Chicago because it was a central location, and it being war time transportation was extremely short. As a matter of fact, delegations had to be certified before they could even get space on trains going into Chicago, and getting more to the point I had worked with the Republicans very closely on that convention, so in 1948 it made my job a lot easier because the same group of Republicans were running their convention which preceded ours by one week.
The Republicans opened their headquarters in Philadelphia in October, 1947, and a few weeks after that, began to berate the Democratic National Chairman, Senator McGrath, to send somebody to Philadelphia because we had a lot of mutual problems. We were sharing expenses on construction work and other matters that had to be closely coordinated between both parties, and Senator McGrath finally
appointed me as convention manager. This was in November of 1947. He asked me then if I should move to Philadelphia.
I said, "I don't see any point in moving to Philadelphia. It's only a short train ride. I can commute whenever the Republicans want to meet."
Actually, I did not open the headquarters in Philadelphia until February of '48. After having opened the headquarters I still commuted back and forth. I would go to Senator McGrath's office and fill him in on what had transpired until he got tired of seeing me and he told me that I knew more about conventions than he did, and not to waste my valuable time or his unvaluable time in bothering him, just go on and do what I thought had to be done.
I went to see Matt Connelly at the White House on several occasions, to ask him if President Truman didn't have some particular desires about the convention's arrangements, and so Matt said, "You've been through this. You run it your way."
From that standpoint it was one of the finest conventions that I've ever had anything to do with, speaking only from a personal standpoint, not in the sense of braggadocio. But not once did the White House staff, or the President himself, or Senator McGrath,, tell me how
to set up the convention. I was told when it was all over it was one of the smoothest that we had ever had.
HESS: What are the duties of managing a convention? What are the different aspects?
ROACH: Since I haven't managed one since 1956, I can only talk about the way I handled it. I handled it in 1944, '48, '52 and '56, up until a couple of months prior to the convention in '56.
I have always operated almost as a one-man show, with a very limited staff. I have had the experience that sometimes when you turn duties over to people unless you're with them every day, they sometimes fall down. It's a bad habit to get into to be a one-man show, because you spread yourself too thin.
But basically, the duties that I took on, number one: The minute that I would set up the convention headquarters, of course, I'd have letterhead printed with the address, phone number, my name as convention director, and I would write a letter to each national committeeman, committeewoman, state chairman, in each state, this of course with prior approval from the national chairman, asking those three state party leaders to designate one person to handle the convention arrangements for that state delegation.
This made a lot of sense because as history shows, not in every state, but in most states, you have several factions, and we do have to look to our national committee members and state chairman to be our voice and our pulse so they would designate one person who would be my contact on housing, particularly on housing, and all other facets of the convention. The housing and the seating of delegates were probably the two most difficult problems, particularly when you're in a city with a few hotel rooms, or few first-class hotels.
In the case of Philadelphia that was a major headache. We housed people in Atlantic City, Wilmington, Delaware, Baltimore, Camden. As a matter of fact, I think we took care of only about fifty percent of the delegates in Philadelphia proper.
I'm getting away from the subject a little bit, but I want to bring in the part about housing because it has a bearing on the immediate present.
One of the things that happened on housing in Philadelphia in '48 was that there was such a shortage that we housed the press, or I should say a great majority of the press and the other news media -- this was the first time that both conventions were being televised nationally, or as far as they could go
nationally. They used the coaxial cable. But it was the first time convention hall was covered and all of its proceedings, both conventions, by television. They had to house these hundreds and hundreds of staff people, and technical people from the networks and wire services, metropolitan dailies, weeklies, magazines, and so on, in dormitories at the University of Pennsylvania.
You can imagine the howl that went up when some of the members of the news media had to sleep in dormitories and bathe in a community shower. Bathing in a community shower for most of the news media was just something that was absolutely obnoxious.
As a result of this, the representatives of all of the news media got together and at the 1952 convention, they passed their own resolution. After the '48 convention they passed their own resolution that all news media would have equal housing with delegates and would have first-class hotel rooms. And of course, this has created a monstrous problem at recent conventions.
The housing problem is, no matter where you are, even in Chicago which boasts the greatest number of hotel rooms, and that's probably accurate insofar as first-class rooms are concerned, it's still quite a job. Our only responsibility, I say ours, I mean the directors of the
conventions, is to house the delegates, the delegations from the various states, by giving them a block of rooms.
Invariably you put them in the wrong hotel, and when they get notification as to which hotel you have assigned them, they put all sorts of pressure on, and you have to sort of stand pat, be a little firm with them, reason with them as pleasantly as you can, make adjustments by juggling housing wherever you can, and so on. With the press, you assign them a block of rooms, not necessarily where they want to go, but where you want them to go.
In the headquarters hotel, of course, you do have to consider the major networks, and the metropolitan press, the daily press, the telegraphic press, so-called, the wire services, and see to it that they have reasonable space within the headqua