Oral History Interview with
Worked for the International News Service in its Pittsburgh bureau, 1933-35, and its Harrisburg (PA) bureau as legislative correspondent and later bureau manager, 1935-39. Became Pennsylvania state manager for INS in 1939 until transferred to the Washington (D.C.) bureau as a reporter in May 1942. Washington correspondent for INS, 1942-58, and chief of the INS Senate staff, 1945-58, and of the United Press International Senate staff, 1958-68. Bureau chief of the Hearst Newspapers, 1968 to the present.
J. William Theis
February 8, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
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. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
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Oral History Interview with
J. William Theis
February 8, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin Mr. Theis, will you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born, where were you educated and what positions have you held?
THEIS: Well, I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, educated in the public schools there, except for a period when at junior high school age, I lived for about two years in a small town north of Pittsburgh, called Zelienople, which is a name of its own. Graduated from high school in Pittsburgh, attended the University of Pittsburgh after a year of working to try to accumulate the first year expenses.
I got my first newspaper experience while in school. I was editor of the Pitt newspaper in my senior year, and during my last three summers while a student, worked for International News Service in the
Pittsburgh bureau. After graduation in 1933 I was able to go to work for INS in the Pittsburgh bureau, and in 1935 was transferred to Harrisburg, where I became the legislative correspondent, and shortly thereafter, the bureau manager. Then returned to Pittsburgh in January 1939 as the state manager of International News Service, and was in that position directing the news coverage for INS in Pennsylvania until the late spring of 1942, when I requested a transfer to Washington so I could get back to the business of being essentially a reporter rather than a bureau manager with all the little executive chores that take your time away from the news, and came to Washington in May of 1942.
My first assignment was to take charge of the House of Representatives' news staff for INS, and except for periods, brief periods, downtown covering the White House, the Navy Department, occasionally the State Department, and for a short period of being a desk editor, I spent most of the ensuing three years from 1942 through the summer of 1945 covering the House of Representatives and running the INS staff there.
In September of '45, after having been out at the United Nations charter conference at San Francisco,
where I spent a great deal of time covering members of the Senate who were on the delegation, I went over to the Senate side and took charge of the INS Senate staff.
My contacts with Mr. Truman during that period were at some distance. I really had no direct contacts with him except more or less by observation, with the possible exception of the United Nations Conference activity in San Francisco. And even there, of course, he was at some distance because he came out there for the conference right after he had become President. But when I returned I saw a great deal more of him by reason of his Senate relationship and his contacts through Leslie Biffle, who was his principal contact with the Senate after he left the Senate -- left the vice-presidency.
I must backtrack a moment, to recall (this is a sidelight of this period), that while I was on the House staff or in the House press gallery, the day that Franklin Roosevelt died, Mr. Truman had been with Speaker [Sam] Rayburn that afternoon until he received the now well-known telephone call to, "Please come to the White House."
When I got the information that President Roosevelt
had died (that came in a call from my bureau chief, the late William K. Hutchinson), my first move was to try to locate Mr. Truman. I called the Senate side and found that he had been with the Speaker. And I called the Speaker's office, found through one of the staff members that Mr. Truman had left, and then tried to reach the Speaker. I did manage to get Mr. Rayburn to the telephone. He and Mr. Truman had been down in his private hideaway, which is so affectionately known as the "Board of Education," and I told the Speaker that the word had come of Mr. Roosevelt's death. And there was merely a small groan from the other end of the phone. I have reason to believe that this was the first word that he had of what actually had transpired, because it was a matter of minutes after the flash was sent on the wires with the announcement from the White House that this took place.
Then to go back, my contacts with President Truman were intermittent, except through press conferences, in which I was merely one of many asking questions as he held his press conferences. Occasionally he would come back to the Senate, and always go through Biffle's office, perhaps be up there for lunch on several occasions when on the floor of the Senate. But his
relationship with Les Biffle was most unique for a President, because Les Biffle talked to Mr. Truman with great frequency. I'm sure he was on the phone every day. The President felt that he had here, I believe, someone whom he could trust, whose judgment about things in the Senate, in particular he valued, and perhaps on other things. They were close friends and I know the relationship flourished during that period.
And as reporters, those of us who had been around there any length of time knew Les Biffle well, and who could, he thought, be trusted with information, he talked with most freely. And when we wanted to know what was happening downtown, particularly if we had a story to check, as to what might be going on either in the White House or a matter which had meaning both in the White House or in Congress, Biffle was most helpful. I think there may have been times when we might have overvalued his knowledge of what was going on, but that, if anything, might have been a matter of poor judgment on our part. We may have tended, because of his unique relationship, perhaps at times to put more importance in the information we got from him than an actual instance
might have justified.
But I think across the board, overall, I know he was a most invaluable news source, and I think generally gave a most accurate reflection of what he knew to be going on or what he thought was going on. There may well have been times when his judgment on some things, or his information, might not have been as complete as he thought.
HESS: In the matter of White House congressional liaison just what role did Mr. Biffle play? Was he more or less a head counter for the President to go around and find out what people were thinking, or did he take messages from the President and go to the Senators and try to influence votes?
THEIS: Well, I think it was some of both, inevitably. Leslie I don't think was -- I don't think he was regarded by Senators as a policymaker. I think he was regarded more as a conduit of thinking downtown, thinking of Mr. Truman's and other people around the President, but he certainly was a head counter. He certainly was, to put it bluntly, he was an errand boy for the President in many instances, but that's not necessarily as the meaning of it might sound because he was, many times, carrying out what would be regarded as important errands.
I think he had Mr. Truman's complete confidence, and I suspect that was based on the President's knowledge that Les Biffle really didn't aspire for anything higher than what he already had. I think he felt he had the best job he ever could have gotten in Washington being Secretary of the Senate. And the degree to which he might have influenced policy, or thought he was influencing policy, is something that would be hard to judge at this point.
HESS: At the time that Mr. Truman became President, there was some speculation in town that Mr. Biffle might come down to the White House and join the White House staff. Do you recall hearing anything of that nature?
THEIS: I don't recall specifically, but I have -- I just have a vague feeling that this automatically came up, but some people may have assumed that because of their close personal relationship, that this might have been an automatic thing, that perhaps Les might have come down to be a sort of Sherman Adams or something like that, or perhaps something of a lower level. But it never, to my recollection, it never proceeded beyond brief speculation, because I don't think Leslie Biffle wanted to leave the Senate for anything.
HESS: To go back in time just a bit to the time when Mr.
Truman was in the Senate, did you attend any of the hearings of the so-called Truman Committee, the National Defense Committee?
THEIS: No, I think I stuck my head in there a time or two, but...
HESS: You were busy on the House side.
THEIS: I was on the House side during that period and there was a (as you might imagine), a great shortage of reporter personnel. There was an awful lot of news going on and we had our share on the House side. We had other people covering the Senate at that point so I didn't have occasion to.
HESS: What seemed to be the general relationship between Mr. Truman and the other members of the Senate at this time, as you recall?
THEIS: Well, again, I'm not the best witness on that, because I wasn't observing it every day. I was not co