Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened July, 1985
Oral History Interview with
February 20, 1980
by Hugh Heclo and Anna Nelson
HH: Maybe we ought to begin by talking a little bit about the period before some of you came to the White House or to the administration as such. One interpretation that has a great deal of support in the historical record is the idea that there were two phases in the Truman Administration: the first phase a period of rather substantial disorder, and the second phase a period after things had shaken down and were well organized. It is the second phase which tends to be identified with some of the names around this table. To what extent is that an accurate interpretation? Was there that prevailing disorder before you got there? How would you know?
MURPHY: Well, I think there was prevailing disorder before some of us got there. I think that Jim Webb, who got there before I did and Dave Stowe, who was in the Bureau of the Budget at that time would know more about this than I would. In fact I know they know more about it than I do.
WEBB: I do not know what happened, not very much of what happened, before I went over to the Budget (Bureau). I was working in the Treasury as executive assistant to the Undersecretary, and had known Fred Vinson, the Secretary, and Max Gardner, the Undersecretary for a long period of time and had had fairly intimate discussions with them. We had a little group that used to meet about once a month. Some people from New York, from various parts of the country including Senator Walter George and Fred Vinson and Governor Gardner,
would meet to have a few drinks and talk about the state of the world. So I had known a little bit about the government and how things were going, because there was a good deal of discussion of President Truman and how he was approaching the presidency and so forth -- in those early days.
But my personal knowledge really stems from August of 1946, when President Truman asked me to take over the Budget. So while I am aware there was a period in which there appeared to be some confusion, I became aware as soon as I got to Bureau of the Budget, that a good many of the papers that we were sending over for the President's consideration were being -- or -- pawed over by the people around the White House before they got to the President, and I made a very clear determination that I was going to deal directly with the President. I wasn't going to take second hand instructions, say from Harry Vaughan or anybody else in the White House on the important matters that were my responsibility; but that I would deal in the White House with anyone the President appointed to handle the matter just as if he were the President; that I would give him the same service from the Bureau that we would give the President were he personally doing it; and that we would look forward to try to forecast from our knowledge of government, the problems that he was likely to face in the months ahead, so that we could start staff work in advance of having the matter
presented to us. This went far beyond just the preparation of the budget.
Now we did develop, I think a fairly orderly arrangement with the President. We would usually have a fifteen minute period so we didn't take a lot of his time. We'd cover about 15 items in 15 minutes; everything was prepared very carefully. We would go with the people who were most knowledgeable so there was this direct interchange with the President which eliminated the possibility of misunderstanding. And then I would excuse them toward the end of the 15 minutes, and sit there alone with the President and say, 'Now Mr. President, have we given you what you need? Do you have some concerns that you didn't want to express here?' In other words, he could tell me of a political problem he had without having to express it in front of these non-political staff people. Now, I was not going to get into the political business, but I needed to know his problems politically.
MURPHY: Well, let me interrupt to say that I think probably Jim Webb's coming had a lot to do with things beginning to get straightened out. Jim was interested in public administration and he's not a reticent person at all, and he doesn't particularly bother to stay in the channels that are assigned to him. This is one reason the President called on him to do things, because he was willing. I think there had undoubtedly been some
improvement by the time I got there in January of 1947, and I think it continued to improve after that.
STOWE: I had an interesting introduction to the White House. Jim may recall, he may have forgotten it. Steelman asked me to come over as his deputy in 1946 and I wasn't particularly interested in going at that time and did not go. He came back to me in September of 1947. At that particular time, I was a little more interested and I went to Jim WEBB to chat with him, since my father-in-law and his father were great friends and I've always looked on Jim as a friend as well as boss. I talked to Jim and he said, 'Well now, this might not be a bad idea because John Steelman's getting into some of my business.'
WEBB: I don't remember that. I thought it would be a good idea because he could use your services --
STOWE: So I went over to John Steelman and I found that this was true. As a matter of fact, after about three months, when these problems would come up, I would suggest to Dr. Steelman, 'Maybe you might want to talk to Jim WEBB before you do anything on it.' Three months later, Jim said to me, 'Hey, you can cut those off. I'm getting all the business I need.'
I think that when I went there, Charlie was there at the time, and working for Steelman, my impression of confusion -- which is quoted in the little paper you sent out -- might have been somewhat more than was true
because Steelman at that time was taking down the Office of War Reconversion or Reconstruction --
WEBB: Mobilization and Reconversion.
STOWE: So he was wearing two hats, and he had a very big staff. We had staff over there larger than the President had, and between the confusion in taking that staff down and trying to work within the inside, in the White House context rather than OWMR, it seemed to me that there was considerable division between the West Wing and the East Wing.
I think that during that year, when I was working for Steelman, the thing that helped considerably was the fact that George Elsey was working with Clark Clifford, Charlie Murphy worked independently and I working with Steelman did perhaps more coordinating than we were really aware of at the time. Each of us knew what we were trying to do and (each tried) to avoid any conflict, which there never really was, but there was always the potential at that time.
It did appear to me that there were a lot of people going in different directions on the same problem. Again, it may have been overstated because after I became administrative assistant to the President and was asked to attend the morning staff meetings, I found there one of the most interesting coordinating devices that I think has ever been used. Each morning we'd go in there, and for 30 minutes the President would go around the room twice, making assignments or listing to reports (not long
reports or anything else because if you had anything long you wouldn't take up the time of the entire staff. We'd make appointments and later in the day go in to see him) But after you sit there day after day and year after year you have a tremendous sense -- just a cumulative sense -- of what the President wanted done and who was doing it. And so that original impression of mine that there was a certain amount of discord, became quite different a year or two later. Now whether that was an improvement in the situation, Charlie, or whether it was where I was sitting as opposed to where I sat earlier, I don't know.
MURPHY: Well, when I first went there Steelman had just become The Assistant to the President, spelled with a capital "T." And (in) this capacity he was winding up the affairs of OWMR and still had a good-sized staff, as Dave has just said, and quite an able staff. And I found out that Steelman had staff meetings everyday and I asked Steelman if I could come to his staff meetings. Well, he was delighted, so I went regularly to John Steelman's staff meetings and I found out a good deal that way about what was going on over in the East Wing at that time. But Steelman and I always got along beautifully.
HH: But there was that phase when OWMR could have become something else, and it didn't. The Budget Bureau seemed to fill in the gap but maybe it didn't quite fill in all of it.