Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened September 1969
October 15, 1968
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Judge, in the light of the fact that you held the most important position on the White House staff to be carried over from the Roosevelt administration, could you tell me why Mr. Roosevelt chose you for that position in the first place?
ROSENMAN: I had acted as counsel to the Governor in New York State, during both of his periods as Governor. In that position I had the function not only of being a legal counselor, but also doing a great many things that are
peripheral to the counselorship, such as helping in speeches, helping in drafting statements, general policy advice. I also helped during his campaign for Governor. I met him first in 1928 when he was compelled, or rather drafted by Governor [Al] Smith to run for Governor in New York State while Smith was running for the Presidency. I'm sure Smith realized that with the bigotry which opposed him in a great many parts of the nation it was necessary to carry the larger industrial states, I mean the largest industrial states in the North, and the most important was New York State.
Therefore, he was instrumental in getting Roosevelt to run for Governor, much against Roosevelt's will, but Roosevelt did it primarily in order to help Smith. I met him first in that campaign of 1928. He asked two different people to recommend someone who might go with him on the
campaign who was familiar with the legislative and political history of New York. These were people of very different backgrounds. One was a professional politician, and the other was a close policy assistant of Governor Smith. They both recommended me without consultation with each other. I suppose he thought that if these two diverse sources thought that I could help him, I would be all right, so he asked me to come along on this trip in 1928.
I worked with him on speeches then, and came back to New York with him for his campaign here. He was elected by a very small majority of about 25,000 votes, while Governor Smith lost the state by over 100,000. Governor Roosevelt then asked me to become counsel.
The counsel to the Governor was a statutory position in New York made necessary by the fact that under the New York constitution the attorney general, who is the chief law officer of the state,
could very well be of a different party from the Governor, because they both were elective officials. As a matter of fact, in the election of 1928, one Republican on the state ticket was elected; and that was the attorney general. Therefore the statute had provided for a great many years that the Governor should appoint his own counsel. However, over recent years before 1928, the position had become very much a sinecure; and people held it who performed no function except to endorse their paychecks. I told this to the Governor, and said that I felt I would rather stay where I was; that was as the Democratic member of the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission. I said, "All of the real work around Smith was performed by three outside people," and I mentioned their names, "and the counsel does practically nothing."
He said he realized this, but he intended in the future to do away with any so-called
"kitchen cabinet" and to turn all this work over to the counsel.
I still was a little dubious about taking the post -- in fact, quite dubious, because the Governor's term then was only two years. He had been elected by a thumbnail, practically; and I figured that I ought not to give up a lifetime job such as the one I had, which paid a very good salary, and which provided for legitimate outside activities in drafting legislation -- give that up for a two-year term on the Governor's staff. I was deliberating about it, when one day it appeared in the paper that he had appointed me counsel. On inquiry by me as to whether this was a dope story, he said, no, that he had released it and, as he said, "I thought I'd make up my mind for you."
During the following four years I was very active with the Governor. In 1932, he appointed
me to the Supreme Court bench of the State of New York for the vacancy which then existed. This appointment normally lasts until the end of the year when the place is filled by election for a full term of four years. Without exception the Governor's appointee had always been nominated by his own party. He appointed me in April, 1932; but I continued to do work for him in my spare time. For example, I helped him in the Jimmy Walker hearings. I used to get the daily transcripts of the testimony and I used to go up to Albany weekends. I also organized the so-called "brain trust" in 1932 that worked with him on the campaign. I was unable to go on the campaign train with him because the presiding justice of the court objected, but I sat with the brain trust and we got up the campaign speeches. As a result of that, I guess he came to the conclusion that he could work
with me, that I was helpful. I think above all, as he said in several of his letters, he liked the calmness and deliberateness about me. Times can get rather hectic around the chief executive, people begin to shout and lose their tempers, and he said a number of times that I was the only one that kept his head. I think he liked that.
After he was elected and went down to Washington, I was on the bench, and my visits to Washington were purely social. However, when the campaign of 1936 approached, I don't know whether he was dissatisfied with the people he had or not, he asked me to come down with him, and I was there during the convention, helped work on his acceptance speech, and was generally helpful on the platform and on his communications with the Convention. And then during the campaign, he asked me to come
along with him on the train in the summer, which I did, because I was free from court work. I went around most of the country with him helping on speeches and so forth. And as a result of all this, I think he became impressed by the fact that I could be helpful. Starting after that election and continuing down until October 1943, I used to go down to the White House and work on various speeches, messages and reorganizations of departments. However, I never had an official post. It was always unofficial. This became rather hectic, because I had to sit on the bench and dash down there at 4:30, come back on the sleeper train, and then be in court the next morning.
After the war broke out, it got very hectic indeed. I suggested to him that it might be well if I resigned and came down there for the period of the war. He said he didn't want to
do that unless that was absolutely necessary. He knew that I liked a judicial career. And he said, "No." So I continued these double duties until in March 1943, when I found myself in the hospital in Baltimore with the sight of my left eye completely gone -- with optic nerve exhaustion. It was a rather critical period, because the doctor said he didn't know whether the eye would recover, or if it would spread to the other eye, or what would happen. At any rate, I spent six weeks in bed, and fortunately recovered the full sight of my eye. The doctor, however, said that if I continued this kind of work at that pace that it would hit me again, that I had passed a red light, and I shouldn't try it again. He said, "With you permission, I'd like to call the President and tell him," which he did.
Whereupon the President said that in view
of that fact he thought it would be well for me to resign and come down there full-time. He and I had a talk in Washington about what would happen, what particular things I would do, and then it got around to the title, and he suggested, "Why don't we call you 'Counsel to the President,' the same as you were 'Counsel to the Governor?"'
I said, "I think that's fine. Anything you want is all right with me." I should add that there never had been a counsel to the President. This was the creation of a new job.
In three or four days he called me up and said that the Attorney General, Francis Biddle, had had a talk with him and objected to the title. He said, "The Attorney General is really the Counsel to the President." He said, "I pointed out to him that the counsel to the Governor did much more than legal advice, and that there wouldn't be any competition." But Biddle
persisted in objecting.
I said to the President, "Any title is all right with me. What are you going to do about this?"
He said that he was going to wait until next week when Biddle was slated to attend a conference in Mexico, and while he was away he would announce it; only as a sop to Biddle, instead of "Counsel to the President," he would call it "Special Counsel to the President." And that's what I was called.
From that point on, I was in Washington with an office and with official status. During the summer of '43, I was convalescing from this eye condition, and I took a house up near Hyde Park. As you know, he used to try to get up to Hyde Park as often as Johnson tries to get down to Texas, and we were within a couple of miles of each other so that we had an opportunity to talk. I stayed up there all summer. Then
in October I sent in my formal resignation, and was sworn in as Special Counsel to the President.
I should add this: When I finally succeeded in resigning that post with President Truman -- he first asked me to stay on until V-E Day, then until V-J Day, then for another year, so I had my troubles getting out. But when I did get out, he issued a release about it and he said that I had come down here in a war job, and that he was not going to appoint any successor. The statement was a surprise to me, and I pointed out to him before I left, I said, "Mr. President, I'm sure you're going to find that it will be necessary to have someone take my functions over, no matter what you call him."
He said, "Well, I'm going to try without it." And he tried and he found that this was difficult; and he appointed Clifford as my successor, which is another story, which we
can talk about some other time.
I have several letters from President Roosevelt talking about the help I'd been to him in Albany and during the campaign. I could let you see those letters, but I don't think it's important. The important thing is that he appointed me because he had had long experience with me. And as you know, I was the only one that lasted in Washington until he died. Those that came in in '33 gradually disappeared, as well as others that he later called into the position of speechwriter, policy helper -- they all disappeared from view. I was the only one that lasted. I think the reason for that -- this is repetitious -- but I knew the man very well, I knew very well how he thought. He knew that I was not a "yes" man, and above all he knew that in times of stress that I would keep my head about me.
HESS: When did you first meet Mr. Truman?
ROSENMAN: I met Mr. Truman first in a very casual way, when he came over to the White House and had lunch with the President to discuss the campaign. This was a couple of weeks after the Convention. I went over to the lunch and the President introduced me and I didn't see him again, really, until after the campaign, at the inauguration period.
HESS: On the subject of the campaign, what do you recall about the situation that arose in 1944 over the question of choosing a running-mate for Mr. Roosevelt?
ROSENMAN: That's a very complicated situation. I wrote about it in my book, and before I put it in galley, I brought it to President Truman while he was still in the White House. I brought it down to him and said, "Will you read
this and tell me if this conforms with your recollection?"
And he said, "Yes."
You will find all that in Working With Roosevelt, and I don't see how I can embellish it, it would just be repetitious.
HESS: In his book, Yankee From the West, Burton Wheeler had the following statement:
Was Wheeler under consideration for the Vice-Presidential nomination?
ROSENMAN: Definitely the answer is no. For the life of me, since reading this question, when you first sent this to me, I can bring about no
recollection of that visit, except that I made it. Whether it was done at Roosevelt's suggestion in order to get the so-called "liberal westerners" into his camp by letting them be consulted or not, I do not know. I have the suspicion that that was the reason he asked. I know very well, I would not have gone to see Senator Whe