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Richard L. Strout Oral History Interview

Richard L. Strout

Oral History Interview with
Richard L. Strout

Served as a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, 1921-84 (with the Washington Bureau, 1925-84), and writer of a weekly column (signed "T.R.B.") in the New Republic magazine, 1943-83.

Washington, D.C.
February 5, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]


Notice
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened February, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]



Oral History Interview with
Richard L. Strout

Washington, D.C.
February 5, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess

 

[1]

HESS: To begin this afternoon Mr. Strout, would you give me a little of your personal background?

STROUT: Yes, I've been a newspaperman now for almost 50 years. I came down to Washington from Boston on the Monitor in 1923, I think it was, and I have been to practically every presidential press conference between now and then. I have been on the Monitor all that time, and the last 27 years I have also, in addition, written a weekly column in The New Republic magazine called "TRB." I went to, I suppose, practically every press conference that Mr. Truman ever had.

HESS: Would you tell me a little about Mr. Truman's press conferences? Just in general, how skillful was he at fielding the questions that came up?

STROUT: President Truman had the disadvantage, of course, of following a famous President, and we all tended to decry

 

[2]

him and minimize him, and I think also certainly underestimate him, until in his own right in 1948 he won this amazing election.

The jokes that reporters usually make about Presidents (they were a rather cynical group), I remember on one occasion we had to wait for about an hour to get into the press conference. In those days we stood around the desk just the way we had done under Franklin Roosevelt. And I just remember an amusing little scurrilous remark, "What are they doing? Why do we have to wait?" "They are trying to get his foot out of his mouth," that was the comment. Well, you know, you have total recall of some absurd little thing of that sort. That sort of puts it in perspective.

HESS: Well, he was accused of "shooting from the hip."

STROUT: That's right.

HESS: Did you think that was a fair accusation?

STROUT: Yes, I think so. I think he did and his personality has been pretty well identified and will be by others who will be interviewed by you.

Yes, that was a charm and of the same time the awe-inspiring personality that he had. He was perfectly direct like somebody driving a nail in a piece of wood,

 

[3]

and you knew just where he was and he said what came into his head.

HESS: Is it always best for a President to be so forthright?

STROUT: It certainly is not always best, but at the same time, I think under these circumstances in the great '48 campaign which I'm going to try to talk about, I think it was probably the thing that finally elected him, because I think the public -- he established his personality, his character. That was Harry Truman and Harry Truman was a man who said what he thought. He would always -- there wasn't any credibility gap about him. I believe he was saying what he had in his mind.

HESS: Do you think that he used the press conferences in the most effective manner to educate the public and influence congressional action?

STROUT: I think he did that as well as he could. He was not a past master as Franklin Roosevelt was, or later on perhaps as Ted Kennedy was. But yes, they came as I recollect, about once a week, and I think it was a magnificent method of carrying things over to the public.

HESS: You mentioned the location of the press conferences, and they were held in the Oval Room until April the 27th of 1950, and then switched over to the Indian

 

[4]

Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building.

STROUT: Well, you've done your homework on that, yes.

HESS: What location did you prefer?

STROUT: Well, the character of the press conference has evolved. In Franklin Roosevelt's days it was a group perhaps of 50 or 100 people. They were wedged so tightly that just before I went to World War II as a war correspondent, they filled me up with millions and millions of bacilli of antitoxin shots and I fainted right there. It was the only time in my life I ever fainted, but we were so packed, so close, I always remember, that I never hit the ground, and I woke up on a sofa outside. Never fainted in my life before, and for awhile it was...

HESS: Too crowded to fall down.

STROUT: It was. That was the most informal, ideal way, but then it got so big and the press corps multiplied many times and it had to be moved out.

HESS: Since you have mentioned Mr. Roosevelt, how would you compare the two men that were his two principal press agents, Press Secretaries: Steven Early, and then at the latter part, it was Jonathan Daniels. How would you compare these with Charles Ross and Joe Short?

 

[5]

STROUT: Well, it takes quite a long time. You've sprung this on me suddenly. Steve Early was very, very good, and he was more a -- I would have to stop and -- they were both good. Charlie Ross I knew and loved him, he was a lovable person, very high moral character (if that isn't something that you say derogatorily), he was as...

HESS: That used to be in a complimental way, didn't it?

STROUT: ...direct and...yes...and loving and they had complete rapport, that's the big thing. The press officer must know the President very well.

HESS: Did you feel that Joseph Short lacked some of that rapport?

STROUT: Yes, he wasn't as good. He was -- and he had physical difficulties too. I think he -- didn't he die on the job? I believe he had some…

HESS: September the 18th of 1952, during the campaign.

STROUT: Yes, well he had -- that was an example of Harry Truman. When he liked somebody he just gave them complete confidence. I don't mean to say that Joe wasn't very good, but he was not, he was not a professional man who would aid his principal all the time. He was a good man, but he didn't quite come up to the others,

 

[6]

I would say, on this particular job.

HESS: After Mr. Short's death there were two men who were Acting Press Secretaries: Roger Tubby...

STROUT: Yes.

HESS: ...and Irving Perlmeter. What do you recall about those two men?

STROUT: I don't recall Irving Perlmeter at all. Roger Tubby I knew pretty well. He was a nice, I'd say rather -- he was a nice little fellow, and was not really much of a personality in his own right. I would -- he was an awfully good man, but that's really a story in itself, the art of being a public relations man for -- you have to be intimate with the press, but not too intimate.

HESS: You've been in Washington for a good many years. Who's the best presidential Press Secretary you've ever known?

STROUT: Well, I think Steve Early was as good as any, and then...

HESS: How does James Hagerty stack up against those?

STROUT: Then -- you take the words out of my mouth, it was sometimes a little hard to tell whether he was President or whether Eisenhower was President. He was more than a press, he was a politician and you might even say a

 

[7]

statesman. He influenced history. Yes -- well, that's another story.

HESS: All right, moving on to the events of 1948, what do you recall about that very eventful year?

STROUT: Well, it begins with my going over to Union Station with my wife in June and waiting there. The sixteen car special was waiting below, and it was kind of pathetic, there was no crowd there. There were about, oh, I guess maybe twelve people, mostly wives. I was talking about this to my wife just last night. She said it was -- the mood she got was sort of the pathos of this little man who was -- we all accepted the fact that he had insuperable obstacles, he couldn't possibly win, but he was going out in a game fight.

Then I'd like to say a thing about living on one of these special trains. It was like a traveling circus. The only thing is you can't take a bath, you get kind of high after the third week, you know, but it was a traveling circus. You knew everybody, and everybody was moving up and down. You got a feeling of intimacy with the President.

He worked awfully hard. No President has ever made as many speeches in a day as he did. He would make

 

[8]

from twelve to fifteen appearances in speeches. He'd come out on the back of the -- I think the train was called the Ferdinand Magellan, wasn't it? I think that was...

HESS: That was his car.

STROUT: We called it the Magellan, I think.

HESS: That was his special car.

STROUT: And of all these electronic devices that was new then, I don't think there was a tape recorder on the train. I don't think the recorder came in until Nixon's -- in Nixon's time. And it was all -- the train would whistle, and you'd jump out. We'd learned to jump out like a train man. And we'd fix up the train, and fix up the door and get out and then we'd wait until the train came -- the train came to us and then we'd have our yellow copy paper. We'd see a Western Union boy with a big Western Union sign he holds in his hand, and we'd send off a new lead. And then we'd wait to see if he said some indiscreet thing and then we'd make a new lead and quick send it to the Western Union and we'd have ten or fifteen minutes to do it.

HESS: During those whistlestops, did you ever have a chance to talk to the people who were there?

 

[9]

STROUT: Oh yes, we'd always try to do that. There'd always be one squalling child, and there'd be a -- people were friendly. They came out very largely to see the President, and everybody -- that was -- this thing grew. It was like a developing character, this whole -- it was a drama, it changed as we went along. First it was curiosity and they came out to see the President, to show Johnny the President, and that sort of thing. And then he began this business of attacking the "no-good do-nothing 80th Congress." And then it became -- well, I don't like to make a comparison about Mr. [Spiro] Agnew, but I suppose you do now in a different way, but Agnew suddenly electrified the people and got on the front page. Now, it wasn't like that, because I think it was -- there was a little more high-toned, let us say, in his attack and he had a great deal to say about this 80th Congress, a good many criticisms.

Now just at the start, a great issue was was he going to -- was he a spent bolt? Was he a burnt out ember? Was he going to be able to attract people to come? And very early in the campaign (I don't have the date but you have it here), he went to this Omaha, Nebraska; the Ak-Sar-Ben amphitheater, which held 10,000 people. And

 

[10]

we went in there -- let's see, these are the actual notes that I took on the June 5th, '48. I wrote, "amphitheater brick, cement, good functional arena stage, got American flag as backdrops sides of stage, and rather ugly wallpaper, sign from the top Ak-Sar-Ben." But the point was that nobody was there. The first - as I'm holding now in front of you a picture of this thing which is…

HESS: That appeared in Life Magazine.

STROUT: ...taken from Life Magazine on June 21, 1948. They were having a convention of Truman's old buddies from the Army and these boys didn't want to go down and hear a political speech and they were out on the town. And so we were right up here to the right (the press that is), the photographers were right here. The cameras were up here. He was half-way through his speech (here's his speech here), see if I can find the place where I noted it down. "Six great tables of press men were in front, then a gap of six empty rows, and then about a thousand people," writer says 22,000, you couldn't possibly say there was two thousand people. "There was about a thousand people, and behind that emptiness." There were reporters -- whispered to each other. We were

 

[11]

kind of awed by this horrible flop.

HESS: All of the empty seats.

STROUT: Here it is here. "A gasp of amazement as reporters entered the place and saw this thing and the spotlights were on Truman's face at first." (In this picture you see they are on him.) "Halfway through the speech the spotlights lifted from Harry Truman, and like a finger swept slowly all around this great amphitheater on the empty seats." And as I wrote down at the time in my black pencil, "There was a brutal, there was an affront." Harry was then reading his speeches (I'm going to come back to that), in an uninspired voice with no resonance. He couldn't read his speech. "The audience is frozen," and so forth. Well, that's about the point -- well, that was a horrible beginning.

I think nothing has ever been as bad as that. The Life magazine on this June 21, 1948 has this article "The Truman Train Stumbles West." It was a very sharp piece in which they just, "The most impressive thing last week about Mr. Truman's trip to the West was his incredible ability to pretend that nothing at all was wrong."

Then you go to Cheyenne, that was the next day as I recollect it. And this was the picture in Life. This

 

[12]

was a series of pictures that irritated me. The crowd -- he had a good-sized crowd and they had all gone up to the mansion up here and so this was just a fraud. I took it upon myself...

HESS: That shows a soldier, just standing there and no one around.

STROUT: Yes. No -- yes, yes, his back is toward us and he is looking up toward the mansion. The trees hide the crowd, so it looks just empty and it says, "A lonely soldier faces outwards towards what should have been crowds along President's route in Cheyenne. Crowds were small nearly everywhere." And the fact is that there was a fairly big crowd there.

I took it upon myself -- I suppose the reporters tended to identify themselves. I sent a -- I wrote to Life magazine and two weeks later they published an apology, which I have the date of it, maybe I can find it later. And they explain that -- I thought that I had the date, but I -- oh yes, my letter to Life appeared on page 7, July 19, 1948, and there was an explanation by Life that they had been able to cover it only half of the trip, and were not aware of the good crowds and, "Life regrets that the time element caused a one-sided picture

 

[13]

of the tour as a whole." Well, that was I suppose, a reasonable enough explanation. There was no question about resentment. We were just -- I try to speak, as I say, for forty or fifty reporters on just that one particular item.

Ah, let's see, then he -- then he went on and what he did was he dropped -- with the thick lenses of his glasses, he could never read a speech successfully. He finally dropped the speech reading and took up his famous direct speech, in which he was utterly himself, and he had a short jerky right-hand motion up and down

HESS: Just a chopping motion.

STROUT: A chopping motion. And he got it over and I look back through my notes, and I say this at my own expense, because we were all utterly convinced that he didn't have a prayer. And the great question that we all asked ourselves was, "Does he know it?" And we never really knew whether he knew it or not and we don't know it to the end.

Another untoward occurrence (which is terribly funny), at the Carey, Idaho airport, where he -- I don't blame that on Charlie Ross, and Charlie Ross was my dear

 

[14]

friend, and how he did it I don't know. Maybe he had stayed up too late the night before playing poker, maybe he had one or two too many, although he was not a drinking man. But anyway, he had been told by long distance telephone about the circumstances and he gave the circumstances.

Truman was out to dedicate an airport. He thought the airport was for a brave soldier who had lost his life for his country and when he got there he began by saying, "I'm honored to dedicate this airport, and present this wreath to the parents of the brave boy." Somebody told him that it wasn't a brave boy. Wilma was a girl. And then he went on, wandered on, he said it was someone that gave -- she had given her life for the country, and she died in an ordinary airplane accident. Well, that was a horrible thing to happen to anybody, and when you think of the -- really of the disadvantages of the problems that he had when he started out to -- of course we all know he won, but he overcame this hideous beginning.

They say...

HESS: One other question on the Carey, Idaho incident: That took place the morning after you were at Sun Valley.

 

[15]

Do you recall being at Sun Valley?

STROUT: Yes, but not very much. Sun Valley, of course, I think it was Harriman's place and he went there I think probably to help Harriman out and it was a great luxury spot. The only day I can remember is Harry Truman coming down -- they had one of these ski lifts, and he was -- the shock that he gave to the Secret Service men as he came down. The ski lift at one place crossed a drop that was about, I guess, three stories high and he was just on a little parachute seat. He well could have fallen down and broken his neck, but I don't have any other recollections.

HESS: Do you recall if that day got underway before you got any breakfast; the Carey, Idaho day?

STROUT: Oh well, if you want to go in for broad -- he was a farmer and we had a standing running joke about it that he overslept this morning and he got up at 6:30. That was a standard joke and people were saying, "This is the last time I'll ever work for a farmer."

I don't know, was it Carey that he got up at 5:00? Well, he was -- it was not merely Carey, but many other places. Yes, there was a running joke.

You develop a life of your own, this little circus

 

[16]

of vaudeville troop that goes around the country. You have your own jokes and you have your in phrases and so forth. I'm going to come to that because it produced one of the funniest campaign special songs that was ever written I think, one of the best. Every campaign special in those days produced its own song and then years and years after, we'd start singing them. Like a Gridiron Club affair you know, a parody.

And I'd like just to refresh myself. I'd like to -- could I now go onto the emphasis about how convinced we all were that the little man didn't have a chance?

HESS: Fine.

STROUT: And I look back over the pieces I'd been sending to my paper, The Christian Science Monitor, and I just in glancing through them, October 8th, "The politicians are baffled. They cannot figure it out, and some places registration figures are the highest in history, in others they are low to the point of apathy." We thought the apathy later on was, "Well, we know who is going to win, so why spoil the record." There was a great deal of apathy and it was obviously his job to go out, try to break that up and get them -- there were more Democrats in the country at that time, I think there still are, if you

 

[17]

could just get them to come out. And his job is to get out some liveliness and excitement.

On October 14th I wrote to my paper -- oh no, I switched over to the Dewey train at this time and I wrote this: Then I say it with blushes, "October 14. It is now as certain as anything can be in the course of American politics that Governor Dewey is elected and the nation knows it, and yawns over the final three weeks of the campaign, whose outcome was certain before it began."

I've jumped as you see from June. I'm coming back to June, and to October, because that was what we were writing. We're a respectable, reputable paper like the Christian Science Monitor, just sort of taken for granted.

On a little later, October 15th, I said, "Governor Dewey on his side is blandly continuing his chosen course, which is apparently carrying him straight for the White House."

And that was what really apparently ruined Mr. Dewey, because he accepted that he was going to be elected, so he -- was not a -- Dewey was a sort of an artificial person. He was -- the famous story about him was that he was like a little bridegroom on the wedding cake, you know, and he

 

[18]

was rather cold. He had a sonorous, beautiful voice. He had been trained one time, I think he had thought of going into the opera, and a beautiful voice, but he didn't have any passion, nor did he feel that he needs to elicit any passion.

HESS: How did the crowds react to Governor Dewey as compared to the crowd reaction to President Truman?

STROUT: Every newspaperman watched that and that's why you switch from one train to another. At first I would say there was not much difference between the two. At the end though, without any doubt, and I'm going to come to that, the Truman crowds had just changed in the last three weeks. They had changed enormously and part of -- reading through this to me is like a Sherlock Holmes story. I had all of the evidence here in my own writing as to what was happening, and yet I was, like everybody else, I was so mesmerized by what everybody was saying that I didn't take the logical conclusion of the evidence that I was writing about.

HESS: Just why were you convinced that Mr. Truman was going to lose?

STROUT: Well, I think probably it was due to the polls. I think the polls hadn't -- I don't know that they have

 

[19]

perfected it now, but they had -- they were not merely the Gallup Poll, but the Crossley Poll and all the other polls and they all unanimously said that it was all over. And what can you do, what can a reporter do if the polls say that it is just -- it's all happened. And yet here as I'm coming down -- this is again from the Dewey trip, "Dewey's speeches are so generalized that accompanying newsmen find difficulty in picking out a salient news item for the lead in the stories." Every newsman has to say in the first sentence the lead of his story, but you'd get these speeches where there wasn't any lead.

HESS: You have to head your story with something.

STROUT: Yes, you have to star something.

Then October 21. Now see this is about three weeks before the election. "There's no doubt about it any longer, that shuffling you hear is the sound of the wide Democratic hopes over their prospects in House and Senatorial election contests." See, I was coming closer to it, but I wasn't quite getting it. But, I said, "A combination of recent evidence indicates that a mild 'trend' may be developing in many areas for Democratic congressional and state candidates and if any such result

 

[20]

actually occurs it may complicate the problems of interpreting the 1948 election. Your reporter notes a slight increase in Truman sentiment in one of the national opinion polling groups."

Of course, "he was defeated," but he was coming up a little bit, they were subtle enough to catch that, "But nothing that would give them a chance at capturing victory," I add.

Well, what a relief it was to get away from the Dewey artificiality and getting back into the bubbling hard-hitting naturalness of this little Harry Truman's campaign. I mean I would defy anybody, even people who were ardently for Dewey, not to find it more entertaining to be with Truman because he put on a better show.

HESS: Do you think Mr. Herbert Brownell would have even enjoyed Truman more?

STROUT: And I want to make the point that what Truman said in a way made sense. To Congress he had presented a plan for (way back then), for nationalized health insurance; they just turned it down and a whole series of things. And, oh, so that he was not -- he had some basis for attacking them in the campaign.

Now, if I can switch back to this first initial June

 

[21]

trip. One of the jokes about the Truman trip was that the further West he got the more his western vernacular increased. He started out for California. They wanted a good reason for a "non-political" trip to go out to California. And somebody, [Dr. Robert G.] Sproul; the president of the university offered to give him a degree if he came out there. You can tell little, in their corniness that today would -- well, there's no cornier than Lyndon Johnson when he tells about his grandpas! All the way across the West as his vernacular got thicker he told about Grandpa's covered wagon trip to Oregon and produced an historical relative or two in virtually every area where he spoke. Furthermore, as he advanced, denouncing the 80th Congress with more brilliant flights of language he would just -- he would fetch out these grandpas.

Now, if you will permit me, I'll glance through a piece that I wrote for my paper at the time. As you can see, we were having just a wonderful time on this picnic. I will say in all my almost 50 years of traveling, I never enjoyed a trip more, with one exception, and that was going across the country with the Russian, Mr. [Nikita Sergeyevich] Khrushchev, and that was very much like it

 

[22]

It was a burlesque. Anything would happen and it practically did.

I say in this piece that, "President Truman carried the savor of his two grandpas through the West with him on his recent trip." This was written in the past tense, because -- "there seemed to be hardly a rear stop sometimes when Grandfather Young or Grandfather Truman weren't brought up. Generally they had an adventure in the vicinity." The incident was told in semi-humorous, intimate fashion and the rear platform audience seemed to like them; the President getting up and telling about Grandpa, you know, and as I say, you couldn't help loving the little fellow...

"Generally they linked Mr. Truman up with the neighborhood, by inheritance anyway. It was maternal Grandfather Solomon Young who popped up in the introductory remarks of the President in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City." Now, that was hardly a place for Grandfather to come in. "The President's grandfather he said had been a trader," trader apparently was a technical word, "and it had come up to Salt Lake City with a consignment of merchandise which the consignee refused to accept. His grandfather appealed directly to Brigham Young." He

 

[23]

wouldn't have said grandfather; grandpa. He’d reached the grandpa stage then. "Mr. Truman told the audience Brigham Young had helped him get justice. This pleased the big crowd a good deal. It was another score for the Truman grandfather."

"It was down at Shelbyville, Kentucky that the grandparents really went to work, however, it was here that a love interest entered the story. Nobody could tell a romantic affair better than candidate Truman himself. And so let it be recorded that at 8:45 a.m. on October 1st, Mr. Truman greeted several thousand Shelbyvillers from a rear platform of his special train, with the customary friendly good mornings, and went on from there." And then I'd tell it. I apparently have a verbatim transcript of what he said, which I think I will skip if you want to transcribe it sometime. Anyway, they...

HESS: It's probably recorded in his other papers.

STROUT: It very probably will be, yes. And then I go on, "Well, that was the Shelbyville incident as Mr. Truman told it. He added that he was proud of his Kentucky ancestry, naturally, and the audience seemed flattered and pleased."

 

[24]

Lyndon Johnson did just the same thing as this when he was running as a vice-presidential candidate with Mr. Kennedy. He went right through the South telling in a very southern accent...

HESS: Relatives all over the place.

STROUT: ...very, very slow.

"As the train pulled out of Shelbyville the reporters could hear Mr. Truman on the loudspeaker, which they had forgotten to cut off, good naturedly challenging his daughter, Margaret. The people of Shelbyville were well-acquainted with her he insisted because she had come up here to make certain investigations of her own as to the validity of his runaway grandparents marriage lines."

"Later on Charles, Charlie Ross, hurried back into the press car," that's where we had one big car where the typewriters were, "with a self-conscious and anxious expression on his face to make sure the reporters understood the President had been facetious in his remarks."

HESS: Just kidding?

STROUT: That's a job, you know, that's the job of a Press Secretary.

And now may I just add this. I hadn't read this

 

[25]

thing, for heaven's sakes, for 25 years or so. This is written from Washington. "What is causing correspondents aboard the presidential train some anxiety as to what is going to happen to the grandparents when Mr. Truman leaves the West and starts an intensive drive of the East. He has made a preliminary trip to Philadelphia, through upstate New York this week...no grandparents. Correspondents had grown familiar with the group and wanted to hear more about them, but what will happen when he gets to work, say, in New England. Is President Truman running short of grandparents? In this genealogical crisis it is believed, however, that Mr. Truman has virtually untapped stores of great grandparents, almost certainly one or more of them came from the East. Then again, from Mr. Truman's own admission, Grandmother -- Grandma Young was one of thirteen children. If one of them doesn't turn out to have settled in Roxbury, Mass. and made the long trek home to Freesport, Long Island before the campaign is over, this correspondent will be surprised and disappointed."

Well, okay, that is an introduction to the campaign song that we built up.

HESS: How did that song go? (see Appendix)

 

[26]

STROUT: Well, that's what I wanted to get into. He had got these two lines, he would tell these crowds, not the formal audiences, but generally the whistlestop crowds, "I am going to Berkeley fur to get me a degree." I am going down, you see, if you put the down in it begins to scan. "I am going down to Berkeley fur to get me a degree."

The Republicans I think had started out a truth squad special (I'm not sure whether that had been invented yet or not), anyway, they were denouncing Truman vigorously and naturally, up and down the country. And Truman at one point said, "They can't prove nothing, they ain't got a thing on me."

Well, my dear friend and one of the finest newspapermen I ever knew in my life was the syndicated columnist Thomas Stokes. He had written many songs and parodies for Gridiron Clubs and he got us together one time. He said, "We've got to have a song for this trip." And he sat down in somebody's cubbyhole. Each one of us had a little room we sat in and I remember he began pounding on the table to get the rhythm, and he said, "'Oh Suzanna,' that would be a good tune." And then just by a flash of genius it came to him right all of a sudden

 

[27]

Tom Stokes (and I'm not in a singing voice today and I can't carry a tune, but you can get):

They can't prove nothin', they ain't got a thing on me
I'm goin' down to Berkeley fur to git me a degree.

If you've got a chorus like that, why you don't -- anything falls into place. Well, the -- it began:

Old Grandpaw went to Oregon, the dough was on his knee
Grandpaw went to Oregon, the west coast fur to see
He got himself a partner in Californiay
They bought up Sacramento on a lovely summer day.

Now actually Grandpaw was no businessman, and he went right on the rocks. Just the way Harry's haberdashery store went bankrupt.

Grandpaw warn't no businessman, he went right on the rocks
So grandson went to old KC to peddle drawers and socks
The curse was strong right down the line, no profit could he see
So Harry quit and folded up his haberdashery.

And then you go on that same one:

They ain't got nothing...

The next line:

I went to work for Pendergast, he made a judge of me
Before I knew what happened I was picked by Franklin D
I got my boots and saddles on and started for the sea
I made a lot of speeches and I plugged for Sun Valley

 

[28]

It all comes back to me as I recite it, the gang -- and then somebody would want to -- we all felt this was going to be an immortal song, so each would compose a little quatrain to go into it (see Appendix for more lyrics). And you'd kid above the bounce of the train and the smell of cinders and the rattle of the typewriters and so forth. And some people were taking drinks and holding beer and singing a new stanza that somebody had just written. Yes.

HESS: Did you write sentences yourself?

STROUT: I don't recall. I don't recall that, but Tom Stokes really was the one who organized it. I suppose we probably did. One would think of a precious line and then try to make it rhyme with something. And you kind of went in with the sound of wheels, you know, going around below. Truman talked at one point about "a light-foot Baptist" and none of us had known what a "light-foot Baptist" was. I think he had gone out to -- what was it, yes. Oh yes, this immortalizes that.

One Sabbath bright he campaigned right through Texas bonny breast
He laid a wreath at Alamo and there the heroes blessed
He met Rayburn, a Hard Shell man, a Baptist to the root
And there revealed, though one himself, he claimed to be light foot.

They can't prove nothin', they ain't got a thing on me.
I'm goin' down to Berkeley fur to git me a degree.

 

[29]

Well, I think that's...

HESS: How many verses was there to the song?

STROUT: I think I've got the whole thing here.

HESS: Also on the June trip at one of his stops in Eugene, Oregon, he said, "I like old Joe." Do you recall that?

STROUT: Oh, yes, that caused him a lot of trouble. It had a qualifying phrase to it. "I like old Joe, the only thing he's -- or you can't believe a word he says," or "He's a terrible liar." But first he said, "I like," yeah, that was just poison to say a thing of that sort.

HESS: And also on the June trip, in Irwin Ross' book The Loneliest Campaign, Ross quotes part of an article that you wrote. He said, "The bombast made effective political vaudeville," and then he quotes you: "His reception has been uniformly cordial, Richard L. Strout recorded in the Christian Science Monitor."

"Most reporters on board feel that his warmth has increased as the journey progressed. Just why is a matter of speculation, but it may be that word has gone around that a scrappy fighter is making an uphill fight."

STROUT: Well, that - yes, I would say it colloquially a little bit more. First he made his attack on Congress and that caught on. Then he abandoned the prepared speeches for

 

[30]

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