Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened May, 1976
Oral History Interview with
February 16, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin this evening Mrs. Short, will you give me a little of your personal background? We need not go into this too far as we have found a very nice resume of your background at the Truman Library in the official files. But tell me a little bit about your background, some of the jobs that you've held, and then moving up to the position that you hold at the present time.
SHORT: Immediately after graduating from the University of Oklahoma (Oklahoma was the state where I was born), I went to work on a newspaper in Missouri, the Springfield Leader. I moved from there to the
Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City after five years. After two years there I joined the Associated Press Washington Bureau. At that time there were eighty-seven men on the AP general news staff, and me. I covered Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who did not permit men at her press conferences. Unlike Ruby Black, who covered Mrs. Roosevelt for the United Press on a part-time basis, I had a general assignment beat in addition.
I was married a year later to Joe Short, who then was an editor on the AP day desk. I continued covering all sorts of things in Washington until I resigned and we had our first child in 1940. We have three children. And during the period when they were small I did some freelancing. A couple of times -- after Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt's death -- I got a trained nurse and went back to work briefly, but the first time that I had held a full-time job again was the one at the White House as President Truman's Correspondence Secretary from
September 1952 until January 20, 1953.
After that, from 1953 to 1956, I was the first publicity director, then acting director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. I had found a housekeeper the children liked so that I could be away. Then in 1957, January, I went to work for Senator A.S. Mike Monroney as his press secretary. I stayed ten years. Often, the Senate was in session late and hours were long, but they could be adjusted to chauffeur children to the doctor or for other emergencies. I loved it. I resigned -- or transferred really from the legislative over to the executive branch -- in November 1966. And that is the job I have now. By that time, the last two children were in college. I am the Special Assistant to the Assistant Commissioner of Social Security for Research and Statistics. And my particular assignment is research development and training. And that is it.
HESS: What are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?
SHORT: They are very vague really because somehow, perhaps I had a small baby at the time, I missed his outstanding performance as chairman of the committee which investigated the war industry problems. I later came to understand what a marvelous job he had done there. But I didn't know it at the time and I just -- I saw him as you do when you live in Washington.
The first time I met him was under really rather amusing circumstances. My husband just before he was Press Secretary, had been a Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun for eight years. He traveled on the campaign train when the then Senator Truman was running for Vice President. As a matter of fact, Joe was the one who, against odds, arranged for correspondents to cover that trip. But he didn't know Senator Truman very well. He had covered the House of Representatives for the Associated Press, and the White House for both AP and the Sun, but never the Senate, so had missed
At any rate, he did travel on the 1944 trip. At Providence, Rhode Island, Senator Truman had a press conference for the newsmen on the train, and those in town. And when there was sort of a lull, Joe said, "Mr. Senator, what is the difference between those nine isolationist Senators that you've been trying to get Tom Dewey to repudiate across several states, and Senator [David I.] Walsh with whom you rode across the State of Massachusetts today."
And Senator Truman said very quickly, "Well, there isn't any difference, but Dave Walsh has four more years to serve and we have a chance to reform him."
Well, this created havoc every place. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- and I don't know who else -- met Senator Truman in New York as soon as the party got in there, and apparently there was a great deal of excitement over his comment.
Eventually, President Roosevelt, who hadn't planned to go outside the White House, made a trip to Massachusetts, and himself appeared with Senator Walsh. But at any rate, when I really met Vice President Truman and shook hands with him for the first time, he said to me, "So you're the wife of the guy who asked me that question at Providence, Rhode Island."
HESS: And got him in all that trouble?
SHORT: Well, he was Vice President then, and I met him at several other parties. Invariably the conversation would get around to the fact that I was the wife of the guy who had gotten him in trouble in Providence, Rhode Island.
HESS: All right, moving on in time, how did your husband become Press Secretary?
SHORT: Well, I...
HESS: That's December of 1950.
SHORT: I don't know exactly. I know that Joe called me and said, "I have made my first important decision since our marriage without even discussing it with you, and I hope you don't mind too much." He said, "President Truman asked me to be Press Secretary, and," he said, "I'm sure that you would feel as I do, that if the President of the United States asked you to do a job, and you think you can do it, you have to say yes, and," he said, "I did."
Actually they were not close personal friends then. Joe had covered him for five years by that time, and admired him. I know that President Truman had real respect for Joe as a newspaperman. He was the first Press Secretary, first White House Press Secretary, ever appointed directly from the press corps covering the President to the job.
I remember Joe said, "You know he didn't even
ask me if I was a Republican or a Democrat." Of course, Joe had asked him questions, and in press conferences and interviews, I'm sure Presidents get an impression of the men who ask questions just as the newspapermen get impressions of any President. Joe also had seen him on some social occasions. And Joe had come to respect him very much. He had gone immediately to the White House for the Baltimore Sun as its correspondent when President Truman took over as President after President Roosevelt's death. And he had been there covering everything that had happened since. And every single day his estimate of the President went up. Every single experience. It was really amazing, when he'd come home at night, and whatever part of the day that he would tell me about, it would be something else to prove that Harry Truman was a great man, or a good President, or an honest man, or a fine boss.
HESS: Do you recall anything in particular that he said that might help illustrate this point? Anything
that he saw the President doing, perhaps improving upon, perhaps doing in some way that he had not expected him to do?
SHORT: Well, I can't think of a good illustration. I can give you generalities. One was that he, President Truman, had been described as a little man. Joe often said, "That's not a little man, he is one of the wisest men I've seen in public office." Or he would say, "I don't know how in the world I, as a newspaperman, and all of us could have known so little about this man. He has such courage."
I think Joe worried when President Truman first took office, as I did, about the Pendergast thing. But at some point along the line, while still a newspaperman, he talked to President Truman about that and told me; "That machine doesn't need to worry you any more, or me either," he said. "He never was -- they supported him, but he didn't run
their errands, he was always his own man."
We were on vacation in Springfield, Missouri, in June, 1950, when President Truman decided to send planes and ships to South Korea. Asked by the local paper if he thought Truman was a wise player in the deadly serious game with Russia, Joe replied: "I think he's the best man we could have up there right now."
After he became Press Secretary, Joe's esteem for the President continued to grow. He spoke of the way he handled an appointment, the accuracy with which he sized up men. Joe had to speak to him many times a day, as a Press Secretary (not every day, but lots of days), and Truman had to make a decision about what to tell the press. Remember this was right as we were in the Korean war. Joe was impressed with his ability to handle decisions -- to listen to arguments pro and con, make up his mind and take the consequences himself. If convinced later he was wrong, Joe said he would try to
correct it, but if there was nothing to do about it, he was able to dismiss it -- not to worry -- but to admit that he just made a mistake and go on.
HESS: Now the man that your husband replaced was Charles Ross, who died on December the 5th of 1950. He and Mr. Truman had been boyhood friends. They were in the same class in high school, had known each other for years. Did your husband ever express anything along the lines that he felt that he had somewhat less rapport with the President than his predecessor Charles Ross had had because they had been friends for so long, whereas your husband had not been a friend of the President before the time that he had been called into the White House? Did he say anything along those lines?
SHORT: Yes. He didn't say what you said. When he took the job he thought there might be difficulty, because he knew Charlie Ross very well, when he was the head of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch bureau here and an
editorial writer. And Joe said, "You know, I never could build the kind of a lifelong relationship with the President that Charlie had, and I wonder if I'll be able to be as useful to him." But then later he said, "You know, the President is such a direct man it doesn't matter that he hasn't known me forever. We seem to transact business very easily."
HESS: So he felt that he had established the same rapport?
SHORT: Well not the same, but one of his own that was just as useful.
HESS: Fine. Good.
All right, how did you come to be Correspondence Secretary to Mr. Truman?
SHORT: Well, Joe, my husband, had a heart attack on September the 18th, 1952, and two days later I had a call from the White House, Matt [Matthew] Connelly,
saying that President Truman would like for me to take the Bill [William D.] Hassett job as Correspondence Secretary. I hesitated, you can imagine what it was like. I had three small children. I was shocked and lost. Joe's death was very sudden. But I did say, "Matt, I feel like Joe did, that you take a job when the President of the United States offers it to you, but I can't if he doesn't really mean for me to do the job. If he wants me to really do that job, and it's a hard one, then I will take it, but if it's some kind of a way of honoring Joe, I can't do it, because I couldn't be a figurehead."
And he called me back and said the President said that you must know that he wanted you to do the job or he wouldn't have asked you and that he needs you very badly and needs you right away because everybody else at the White House is going out on a "whistlestop" tour in a few days and you have to get your feet wet before we leave. So,
could you come tomorrow or the next day? And he said, "If you'll think, you'll remember that Joe has been trying to help the President replace Bill Hassett who resigned last July, but it's been a difficult spot because we want someone of top caliber, but we don't want to take anyone away from a good job for only four months. So, the President asked, will you do it?"
And I said, "Yes."
HESS: What do you recall about the first few days on the job and just how did you go about equipping yourself? What did you do to find out what were the requirements of the job?
SHORT: Well, I hoped to talk to Bill Hassett immediately, I had to wait I think about a week, because he was up in Northfield, Vermont where he had gone to retire. But I did re-read, before I went to the White House, one of my favorite books on President Truman, Mr. President, which has another man as
author, but which was written principally by Harry S. Truman. I read that book because it had wonderful examples of his writing style and I discovered that he was an excellent writer, whether he was writing a sort of a sophisticated thing like the New Yorker in a description of his lonely lunch one day, or a pastoral thing like a [David Henry] Thoreau, in a story of his watching the ball game with Mrs. Truman from the balcony. This was the first way; I tried to understand how he wrote.
Now, I had visions of doing a lot more writing for his signature than it turned out that the Correspondence Secretary did at the time. Almost all of the letters that went out from the White House were signed by the Correspondence Secretary, who had been Bill Hassett, William D. Hassett, Secretary to the President. And after I was there I signed about 500 a day, "Beth C. Short, Secretary to the