Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened February, 1972
Oral History Interview with
February 5, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
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
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,
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
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?
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,
I would say, on this particular job.
HESS: After Mr. Short's death there were two men who were Acting Press Secretaries: Roger Tubby...
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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