Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened December, 1979
Oral History Interview with
September 30, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Rowe, when did you join President Roosevelt's staff as an Administrative Assistant?
ROWE: I was on the White House staff before I was an Administrative Assistant. I went over early in 1938 as an assistant to Jimmy Roosevelt who was then the President's secretary. I had been a lawyer in various Government agencies and the last one I was in was the SEC and I was writing occasional speeches for Jimmy because he was very busy, but he was still trying to run for Governor of Massachusetts and when he started to write a speech he tied up large segments of the Government for two or three days, so I
ROWE: '39. There was an act in '37. And I was appointed the first one, the first Administrative Assistant, in July 1939. The President appointed three and I happened to take my oath first so I was number one, in terms of time.
HESS: Who were the other gentlemen at that time?
ROWE: Lauchlin Currie was brought in from the Federal
HESS: Just what were your duties?
ROWE: Well, the President once described my duties as that of a bird dog, which was to do, in effect, whatever he told me to do and occasionally I would do things of my own without being told. I did a variety of things. It was a relatively small staff in those days. This was before the war, when there were the three secretaries. I used to kid some of my friends on the Truman staff after the war when I came back and said I found nine men doing what I used to do. But I did what I would call the political personnel
HESS: How did you carry out your White House congressional liaison work? After the President had decided what measures he wanted to get through Congress, just what steps did he take to get
ROWE: He didn't take them in the involved way we seem to do it now -- the present administration, the Johnson administration, or I suppose the Truman, but I can't remember enough about the Truman administration. In our day, the lead was usually taken by the department concerned, much more than today and much less centralization in the White House. Occasionally he would have someone -- financial legislation was drafted, for instance, by people like Tommy [Thomas] Corcoran, my law partner, and Ben Cohen. I did some work before I went to the White House on these, and they would do the drafting and also carry it through the Hill. So, in effect, you had a functional group in a department or an agency or even some outside who understood the substance very well, drafted it and worked on it, but also did all the political lobbying for it. I would go down on various bills, agriculture occasionally, once in a while, really to
HESS: Did President Roosevelt make calls to the Hill much in the nature of Lyndon Johnson's type of operation?
ROWE: Oh, yes, he did a lot of that. Not, I would assume, as much as Johnson did, but on the important legislation, he would be on the telephone or calling Senators or Congressmen in to see him, that sort of thing. He did that.
HESS: Just how did President Roosevelt conduct his relations with his staff?
ROWE: Very loosely and informally. I'm talking, of course, about the prewar period; I left just before the war broke out. So, I'm not talking about the war period although there was a build-up of staff just the year before that. It was very informal. He did break down the staff duties. He had an appointments secretary, he
HESS: Did he have something in the nature of a daily staff meeting?
ROWE: No, he didn't. The only time the staff ever seemed to get together was before press conferences. He had two press conferences a week, as I remember, on Tuesdays and Fridays. Usually the staff would come in ahead of him, just to sit around. Sometimes he would ask them questions about what he ought to say and shouldn't say but it was very informal. Roosevelt was usually available to each member of the staff. The only problem I ever had was occasionally getting in, when his appointments secretary, who had all the
HESS: What was the relationship between Judge Samuel I. Rosenman and the White House staff during your period of service?
ROWE: He was then a judge in New York. He did appear time to time. I remember mostly he appeared when I was there during the 1940 campaign and that was as a speechwriter. The President had great faith in the Judge as a speechwriter. And the Judge would slip in and out. I think it's fair to say, my memory is not too accurate on this, but on a major speech Sam would appear, irrespective of campaigns. The President had
HESS: What seemed to be the relationship between Sam Rosenman and President Roosevelt?
ROWE: Oh, I think it was a very good one. Sam had been his counsel up in New York when he was Governor and the President had made him a judge. I think that's what Sam wanted. My feeling was the pressures were always with the President in getting Sam, and Sam would have been perfectly content to stay up there and do his work, but the President kept calling him down. When the war came I think he just said you've got to get
HESS: I believe that he was made Special Counsel in 1943, which was after the period of time that you left. Correct?
ROWE: I'm not sure if it was '42 or '43. I went from the White House in November, 1941 to the Department of Justice where I became what was called The Assistant to the Attorney General, which is now called the Deputy Attorney General. And I remember we were very unhappy about Sam getting this job because we felt the Attorney General was the President's lawyer, and I think [Francis] Biddle protested about it. I think I may have even written a memo protesting about it to the President but it didn't do a bit of good. The President wanted it and Sam came down. And then Sam, I think, mostly worked in areas of specific problems. We did not have any legal conflicts between the Department of Justice and Sam once he came. Although we expected we would.
ROWE: No. I wouldn't. I was outside looking at all three of them. My own guess is that, and this is purely in terms of personalities, Charlie Murphy was probably more meticulous and more precise than the other two. I think Clark was probably more on policy than maybe Sam was but Sam was a rather precise fellow. In terms of chasing down all the details, and this is not based on anything other than speculation, I would guess Charlie Murphy was the most precise, Sam Rosenman the next, and Clifford third on working out all the details.
HESS: If you were going to rate them in their political astuteness, and political perception, how would you rate them?
HESS: What do you recall about the relationships both personal and professional, between Louis Brownlow, Harold Smith, and President Roosevelt?
ROWE: Well, Brownie was chairman, of course, as you know, of the Brownlow Commission that studied the Government and made the report, the Brownlow Commission Report, and then was responsible for moving the Budget Bureau out of Treasury into the White House. It was responsible for establishing the Administrative Assistants, and for creating one or two new agencies there. Brownie was a very persistent
Harold, when he came, was really the creator of the new Budget Bureau, a tremendous man, quiet man. The President had done everything he could to keep Danny [Daniel W.] Bell in there. Danny had been an acting Budget Director and always wanted to go back to Treasury and he would never take the title because he wanted to keep his Civil Service status. Danny finally insisted on going back to Treasury, really, and that is why there was a new vacancy at the right time for Harold Smith. Harold came out of Michigan. He, I think, in a way taught all of us how to use staff. I know as time went on, as Administrative Assistant I more and more leaned on the Budget
HESS: Why would you rate Mr. Truman so high on that?
ROWE: Only because all the Budget people told me he was so good. Knew his budget very well, and
HESS: As you know, Mr. Truman ran for reelection to the United States Senate in 1940, during the time that you were at the White House, and I would like to read a short passage from the Memoirs regarding the event. It appears in the Memoirs, Vol. I, page 159:
Were you aware of that offer?
HESS: Do you recall what President Roosevelt's attitude toward Mr. Truman was at this particular time?
ROWE: No. You've got to remember that right at this time Truman was pretty much of a junior Senator. I think, let me see, about this period he was working with Burt [Burton K.] Wheeler on the railroad investigation, and I think that whatever interest we had was what Wheeler and Truman were doing about railroads. I may be a
HESS: The Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program.
ROWE: Yes. Until then he had been regarded as a quiet junior Senator, maybe too much a part of the Pendergast machine.
HESS: Did you ever hear President Roosevelt mention Mr. Truman's connection with Pendergast?
ROWE: No, but that doesn't mean he didn't. I cannot now remember anything. Roosevelt was a realist about the bosses. He played with [Frank] Hague, he played with Pendergast, and the New York crowd. He came up as you know, through that New York machinery and he was not a man to kick the bosses in the face more than once. He might do it publicly, but he didn't do it privately. I wouldn't think -- I just never did hear. I knew Roosevelt had some kind of relationship with Pendergast. You had to
HESS: What do you recall about Mr. Truman's selection as a vice-presidential candidate in 1944?
ROWE: I don't recall anything as I was in the Navy and in the Pacific at the time, but I can tell you of the conversation I had with the President in either December '44 or January '45. I was home on leave and my own opinion as I had sat out on a carrier in the Pacific had been that he would pick Sam Rayburn for Vice President, and I had not thought of Mr. Truman. I had been out of the country for, oh, at least a year and I was a little surprised about where did Truman come from and all that business. Why Truman? So, I .went in to visit the President on leave and he had some time and I, in effect, said, "Mr. President, why did you pick Truman?" And he gave me a very interesting account. He said that he had decided nobody could help him. No vice-presidential candidate could help him and the problem was
HESS: What did he say about Henry Wallace at this time?
ROWE: Well, now, he said that the bosses had been in, Ed Flynn and all the rest. I've forgotten, he told me who they were. They came down and waited on him in effect, and said they just couldn't take Wallace; he would just have to, in effect, get rid of him.
HESS: Did President Roosevelt at this time say anything about Senator Truman's chairmanship of the Truman Committee?
ROWE: I can't remember anything, although as I say, I wasn't following it because I was out in the
HESS: Well, of course, Henry Wallace wanted to get the nomination again. What do you recall about the efforts that he made?
ROWE: I don't recall much because I was away. I think Francis Biddle was for him. I think Judge Rosenman was involved in this some way or another. Now that I think of it, Rosenman originally picked Wallace. He was responsible for Wallace in the first place. I think that the liberal crowd was sort of backing Wallace. But you see we had run into this guru business. I don't know if you know about that.
ROWE: Yes. That had worried Roosevelt a great deal.
HESS: You say Rosenman was responsible for Wallace in '40?
ROWE: That is my memory, yes, that he came up with the Wallace name. And during the campaign we ran into the guru letters and they made us all nervous and they didn't break. I think the President was a little shaky about Wallace from that time on but the other factor about Wallace was that he had been presiding over the Senate for four years and didn't have any allies up there. Rather odd fellow. Competent man. He was a great Secretary of Agriculture. But it was a fact that he didn't have any of these people supporting him.
HESS: Did you ever have occasion to work with the White House staff during the Truman administration?
HESS: What was that work?
ROWE: Well, I did several studies. I did an aviation study for him. At that time, what had happened was, let me see -- I've forgotten the period, I think it was '46 or '47. I had been in Nuremberg and had come back in the fall of '46, the late fall of '46 and I didn't quite know what I wanted to do. I think I was perfectly sure I didn't want to stay in Washington. I was thinking about practicing law in California and Montana where I came from, and I was floating around really doing nothing. Then Jim Webb and I had got to talking somewhere or other about a few things, and before long I was helping him.
The airlines were in as bad a mess as they are now and I think the President gave Jimmy Webb the assignment of taking a look at the whole thing, and getting it straightened out. So he put a task force together, and I remember the
Later, the other things that I did with the White House were really through Webb. I did two studies. I did one on jobs. I can give you a copy of both of them. Here's one. These are both political studies and the first one I see is called "Cooperation or Conflict? The President's relationships with an opposition Congress."* In effect, how does a President handle the Congress when you have both houses against him as Truman did? It was a historical study, but really it was a REALPOLITIK study. I see it's dated December '46, and was about
*See Appendix A for copy of this memorandum.
HESS: How important do you think that his handling of the 80th Congress matter was to his eventual victory?
ROWE: I think it elected him. But I don't want to suggest too much for this memo that I haven't read for a number of years...
HESS: Do you recall if he followed this suggestion?
ROWE: My memory is that he did. But I think the best thing to do is to let you have a copy, which I will get photostated and mail to you, and you make up your own mind on that one.
The other thing I did was this.*
HESS: We can include this in an appendix to our oral history interview.
ROWE: Good, you can do that. Now, I think Jimmy Webb told me that both this, and his own copy of this other memorandum, are in his papers in the Truman Library, and I'm not certain. I'll have a copy of this made and...
HESS: What is the other memorandum?
ROWE: The other memorandum is called the "Politics of 1948." Now, this gets a little complicated. I wrote this and it went to Clark Clifford. It's really a memorandum on how to handle the political campaign of 1948. Clark and I have since discussed what happened to this one. I happened
*See Appendix B for a copy of this memorandum entitled "The Politics of 1948," written by Mr. Rowe and dated September 18, 1947.
When I first wrote this memo, I mentioned it to a couple of people, and Clark heard about it, and gave me a ring. I guess that is what always does happen. I gave it to Clifford and I assumed that my name would be on it. What Clifford did, what he said he did, was that he took this memo and he took some other memos and he put his ideas all together and then gave the President an overall memorandum including, I think, most of this one.
HESS: Would you go so far as to say that the majority, or the largest part of the memo that he turned over to the President was taken from your memo?
HESS: All right, fine.
ROWE: That's a covering letter to Webb -- I guess with
HESS: And this is dated September 18 of '47.
And in the book The Truman Presidency by Cabell Phillips on page 197, Mr. Phillips refers to an analysis of the political situation that was submitted to the President by Clark Clifford in November of '47.
ROWE: Yes. This was probably the basis or the seed corn for it.
HESS: All right. We will include this also in the appendix to your interview.
ROWE: Now what Clark added to this I don't know. It's out there somewhere in the Truman Library.
HESS: Have you ever seen a copy of his memo?
ROWE: No, I haven't.
HESS: Here is a copy.
I don't want to disturb you while you're
HESS: That was?
ROWE: I think you will find that these were very much the same. The beginning doesn't seem that way. You can take a look at it.
HESS: Another point that I want to ask about is on page 40 of the 43-page memo where it mentions setting up a small working committee to coordinate the political program in and out of the administration. Do you recall if that was your suggestion?
ROWE: It was, yes.
ROWE: I haven't any idea. I gave the memo to Clifford and what was done with it after that I don't know. At one stage Clifford had asked me to come over, back to the White House, to be an Administrative Assistant.
HESS: This was before '48?
ROWE: I'm sure it was before '48. I said, no; I had been an Administrative Assistant, and I didn't come back. In the '48 campaign, there is a fellow whose name I've forgotten, from California. I'm sure you're familiar with it, who came in to work on the campaign.
HESS: Dave Noyes?
ROWE: Dave Noyes. He asked me to come in and help him on the speechwriting and that sort of thing and I didn't do it for a variety of reasons. I was busy. But I do remember it was my suggestion that he get Dave Lloyd. Dave was a classmate of
HESS: Do you recall if he was working with the Research Division of the Democratic National Committee at that particular time?
ROWE: I don't remember. I assume maybe somebody was paying him. It might have been that division. I think he was working with Noyes the first time he went over there.
HESS: Concerning the events of 1948. Were you involved in the decisions that were made, political decisions?
ROWE: No, I was not. There was only one thing that I did in the '48 campaign. Howard McGrath
I do remember one interesting point regarding that meeting that stands out. In the middle of it Howard McGrath got a telephone call saying that he had to put up so much money to get the President of the United States to speak on radio. Howard didn't have the money, and didn't know where he was going to get it. I can remember his thumping the desk and saying if Truman wins, by God I'll make sure the President of the United States can speak to the country whenever he wishes. Of course Truman won and Howard forgot all about the pledge, but it was true at that moment that Truman didn't have enough money to make a radio speech.
HESS: They did have a bit of trouble raising funds now and then, didn't they?
ROWE: They had a terrible time raising funds. I
HESS: What was your opinion?
ROWE: I didn't think he had a chance. I thought he was dead. Oscar Chapman and Les Biffle were the only two people of any political background that thought he had a chance. They both went out talking to the people while the rest of us politicians were sitting around doing nothing.
HESS: I understand that Leslie Biffle dressed up as a chicken farmer and went out. Did you ever hear him speak of that?
ROWE: Yes, I talked with Le