Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum


Oral History Interview with
Eben A. Ayers

Seventeen year veteran with the Associated Press. Later news editor and acting managing editor of the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal-Bulletin, after which he served in the White House as liaison for the press-radio division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. In January, l945, he became part of the White House staff as a press officer until he retired at the end of the Truman administration.

Washington, DC
January 12, 1967
Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts | 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed | Top of the Page]



[1]

HESS: Mr. Ayers, would you for the record give me a little of your personal background, where were you born, where were you educated, and what positions did you hold before you became a member of the White House staff?

AYERS: I was born in the city of Watertown in northern New York, that's nearly up to the Canadian border, a small city and I lived there with my parents until I was about five years old when my father died, and I went to live with my grandparents who lived in the country about six miles out, a small community named Rices. My grandfather was not actually a farmer; he owned quite a lot of land, but he was a cheesemaker. He owned a couple of cheese factories. That country at that time was the largest cheese producing area in the United States, and he was very active in that industry, if you want to call it that. He owned two cheese factories. These were country cheese factories. One was there at Rices, and one was five or

[2]

six miles away. I was named after my grandfather, and he was quite prominent in that northern section. While he was still a cheesemaker, he was employed by the state, the State Department of Agriculture, I believe, as an instructor and went through the north country there instructing in cheese. As a matter of fact, I have a medal and a certificate for awards made for his cheese at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. That's immaterial. My grandfather died within the next year or so and I was finally left with my two aunts and they were quite progressive people. One of them was a schoolteacher, she became the head of the mathematics department in a high school in the city of Watertown. My grandfather had been the postmaster in Rices, a small rural community. My other aunt succeeded to that office as postmistress, and she became a telegraph operator at the railroad station there, station agent, and all the other agents: freight agent, passenger agent, and everything in this small railroad station. She had a house built for her near the station and after my grandparents' deaths she finished this house, I lived there with her and grew up, largely in that railroad station. There were very few other boys or girls in that area except a mile or two miles away on farms. So, I went to a one-room country school, and also hung around in the railroad station, learning telegraphy.

[3]

< p>I didn't have many companions so I was pretty much alone, and I read everything in the world, I think. My aunts were pretty liberal and nothing was ever censored.

There was a railroad library in New York City, by which books were sent on the trains, and we had a list and we could make selections and send that in and they would send up books from the list. I got everything, read everything, did all sorts of things as a boy. That's where I learned to read, I guess, and I learned a great deal that way. I know my aunt bought an encyclopedia; she bought an unabridged dictionary, and they bought me books, until they thought it was time for me to get a little better education than the one-room schoolhouse; so, I went into the city of Watertown, which was about six miles away, and commuted every day. I went to the last year in the grade school and then into high school. I went to the high school, and about six weeks before I was due to graduate, the city editor on one of the two daily papers in the city of Watertown, came and offered me a job as a reporter. That was the result of my having attended a high school football game, and, on my own, writing about it on a Sunday after the Saturday game, and then when I had written it--which I did, as I say on my own--I took it in the next morning and dropped it in that newspaper office. That was in November, and the piece

[4]

came out, a full column in the paper on Monday and that is all there was to it until the city editor came up to the school the next spring and got hold of me and wanted to know if I wanted a job as a reporter. Well, I hadn't graduated, but I talked to the principal--I guess I didn't have any remarkable record as a student, I was president of my class--so, I knew the principal and he said, "If you can pass your examinations, go ahead and take the job, if you think you can pass them six weeks from now."

So, I took the job--and I did pass my examinations, and that's the way I got started as a newspaperman, a cub reporter on this evening paper; and, I was a newspaperman the rest of my life, as a result. I worked on that paper off and on for about three years; I worked on the other evening paper--which was one which still exists, which eventually absorbed that paper. I worked there for about three years, and I served as a correspondent and bureau manager for the Syracuse morning paper, the Post Standard, for about three years.

Then along about that time we got into the First World War; so, you see I didn't get any college education, and I never attended college. The war came along and with others of my friends, we all tried to get into the Army, and nearly all made it into the officers training camp, but I got turned down for physical reasons. My name came up the first day

[5]

in the draft, and I thought, "Well, I'll make it now," and darned if they didn't turn me down.

So, I tried for the second officers training camp and I got turned down again and I got called in the draft the second time and got turned down, and I was getting pretty much stirred up and at that time I tried everything I could think of, everything I'd see or hear of, I'd try. These fellows that I went to the first officers training camp examination with, practically all got in, four or five of them were killed--my closest friends, one of them was killed and one of them was shot, and there I was trying to get in the Army. I made it, finally, thanks to a doctor who didn't know what the rules were and he said, "I'll pass you if you can get another examination later."

I never got another regular physical examination and I was in France in three weeks. I spent a year in France, and came back all right, and was out after the end of the war, of course.

I went back to newspaper work, and about six months later, I landed with the Associated Press in New York City, and I was with the Associated Press for seventeen years--in New York and then in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I started and built the first Associated Press bureau they had had there--legislative, and that sort of thing--at the capital. Then they offered me the Boston bureau and I

[6]

served there as bureau chief for ten years. I left that at the solicitation of the Providence, Rhode Island Journal-Bulletin--a combination--and went there as news editor and acting managing editor. I was very unhappy there. I stayed two years and a half and then I resigned. I came to Washington in the Government--I think I was actually sworn in about a week or ten days after Pearl Harbor as an employee in the press-radio division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, which was headed by Nelson Rockefeller; and, that came about because I had known Frank Jamieson who was in the Associated Press when I was, and he had left the Associated Press and was the public relations man and adviser to the Rockefeller brothers. After I went in with him, within two or three days, he asked me to go to the White House as a reporter--and, whatever you wanted to call it, liaison with the White House, and I did. And I stayed there throughout the war. Stephen Early, who was press secretary to President Roosevelt, had been in the Associated Press when I was. Although I had met him, I didn't know him well, but he knew me. So, in January l945 (the war was still on), he called me in one day and without any preliminaries, said, "You're coming in here with me."

I had no desire to go in, or to be a press officer. But I did, of course, and I stayed there. Steve went to Yalta and also stayed in Europe for awhile to advise Eisenhower;

[7]

to assist him in his press arrangements, and Jonathan Daniels, who was an administrative assistant to President Roosevelt came in on the same day I did, which was the day that Roosevelt left for Yalta. Jonathan was to act as press secretary, and after Roosevelt came back, Jonathan became press secretary as Early had presented his resignation to take effect along the next June or July, I believe. Meanwhile, Early was made appointments secretary by Roosevelt to succeed General [Edwin N.] Watson, who died aboard ship on the return trip from Yalta. Steve took that job and Jonathan was appointed press secretary, and he and I carried on the work of the press office, and Jonathan stayed on until Roosevelt died, when he wanted to get out. And I stayed on after Roosevelt died--I won't go into the details of that now, I don't want to take up the various steps in there .

HESS: Whatever you want to say about the subject will be fine.

AYERS: Upon the death of Roosevelt there was, of course, great uncertainty as to what was going to happen with that new administration . I'd like to go separately into the swearing-in of Truman, so I'll just take the press office for the moment.

HESS: Mr. Ayers, thinking back, could you tell me about your first meeting with Mr. Truman?

AYERS: My first actual meeting with Mr. Truman was, I think,

[8]

on January 30 of '45, which, of course, was after his election as Vice President. I believe that was at the luncheon for movie stars, which was part of the infantile paralysis drive each year, and my wife and I were invited to that. There was something of a reception with Mrs. Roosevelt and Mr. Truman and Mrs. Truman, and we shook hands with them, but that was not really a meeting other than to say I had shaken hands with him. The next time I met Mr. Truman was about five minutes after he became President of the United States. He had been sworn in in the Cabinet Room, as everybody knows today, at 7:09 p.m., about three or four hours after Mr. Roosevelt's death. And there was considerable milling about in the Cabinet Room with the Cabinet members and the others who were there and the newsreel and other photographers at the opposite end of the room. Mr. Truman had been in the White House proper prior to that with Mrs. Roosevelt and had been escorted over to the Cabinet Room for the swearing-in. Now, with the ceremony over, Steve Early, who was working with the family and others on the arrangements, wanted to get Mr. Truman out of the crowd and he said, "Eben, get the President out!"

So, I reached through, among this throng, and got him by the arm, I think, and said, "Mr. President, will you come with me." Or something like that.

[9]

Well, I suppose he didn't know me from any other person around there, but he came and Steve took him out and back to the White House proper. I didn't meet Mr. Truman again I think from then until the Monday morning following the burial of Mr. Roosevelt at Hyde Park. He had kept out of sight; had been very considerate not to do anything that would draw attention to him. I had not seen him and very few of the people I think in the White House staff, employees, had seen him at all. So, it was not until that Monday morning that I saw him again and that is when I actually met him.

HESS: Could you tell me about that time?

AYERS: I'll have to go back a little to go into that.

HESS: Fine.

AYERS: Sometime between the announcement of the death of Mr. Roosevelt and Monday morning or Sunday night--sometime in that interval--a number of people showed up. I shouldn't use the word "showed," but apparently they arrived in Washington from various places--like James F. Byrnes, and a man whom I had never heard of, J. Leonard Reinsch, who as I did subsequently learn, was employed in the radio enterprises of former Governor [James M.] Cox of Ohio. I think that Reinsch was connected with a station in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Roosevelt's funeral was held on Saturday, the fourteenth of April. My wife and I

[10]

attended the funeral in the House, and many of the people went on the train, when it left Saturday night with Mr. Roosevelt's body for Hyde Park, and some of them, I believe, if not most of them, returned on Sunday night.

Sometime on Sunday evening I got a telephone call from Mr. Reinsch, and he said he wanted to talk with me the next morning about the address which the new President was to deliver. He evidently was referring to plans for the President to go, at the earliest moment, before Congress. I had no idea what was going to happen to me or what I would want to do at that time. But on Monday morning I went into my office with nothing planned. I had no idea, and nobody else around of the old staff had any idea of what was going to happen next. And I hadn't been in there long before I got a telephone call from Mr. Reinsch asking me if I would come into a little office which had been occupied by Mr. Roosevelt's secretary, Miss Grace Tully. I went in there, and her office was divided into two rather small rooms, and in the smaller of the two there was a small settee, and Reinsch was there and I sat down with him. He clearly didn't know anything about the operations of the Presidency or of the White House, and he began to ask questions about, as I recall now, about holding a presidential press conference, things of that sort. Of course, I could tell him nothing because

[11]

I hadn't met the new President and I didn't know what his desires might be; I made that clear, I think. Anyway, he finally said, "Well, let's talk to the President."

So, we got up and we walked through the other part of Miss Tully's office where it is connected to a door leading into the President's office; went in, and the President was seated at the desk--Mr. Roosevelt's old desk. There were two men in the room whom I didn't know at all; I neither knew them nor knew who they were; and Reinsch introduced me to Mr. Truman. Now, that was my first real actual meeting with him; and the question immediately was raised about holding a presidential press conference, so the press could meet him and he could get started. Neither he nor Reinsch had any definite ideas other than that he ought to hold one, and various suggestions were made by them which seemed to me impractical; one, the possibility of holding it in the lobby of the office wing, and I asked if the President would want to subject himself to that sort of an open affair, and it was finally left open as to how it would be held. As a matter of fact, it was held later in his office as Roosevelt had held them. The two men who were present, as I later learned, were John Snyder, who eventually became Secretary of the Treasury, and was then in the Government; and Edward McKim who was, I believe, an insurance man in Omaha,

[12]

Nebraska, and, I think, had served in the Army with Mr. Truman.

HESS: Was Mr. Reinsch press secretary at this time?

AYERS: Mr. Reinsch never was press secretary at any time. Mr. Reinsch thought he was going to be press secretary, but what happened was that on the seventeenth of April--that was the following Tuesday--the President held his first press conference, and it was the largest press conference that had ever been held by a President up to that time, that is, in his office. There were 340 people present, and the office, I don't know exactly what it would hold, but they spilled out into the terrace, and on the outside, some of them so far away that, I am sure, they never heard anything that was said.

HESS: Is that the President's Oval Office?

AYERS: Yes. Many of the visitors--there were always some visitors who were admitted -- I think all of them were taken out around through the Cabinet Room onto the terrace.

Later that morning Reinsch held a press conference. Now, he held that in the press secretary's office; that is, what had been Early's office, which was occupied by Daniels. The press offices comprised a small suite just off the lobby of the West Wing as we called it--the office wing. There was one large room that the press secretary occupied and an adjoining room in which there were the three or four

[13]

girl secretaries and typists, and then a smaller office which I occupied with a door from each of those three rooms into a small entrance foyer in which there was one girl. Daniels introduced Reinsch to the newspapermen at this Reinsch press conference; and that was held after the President's press conference. At the President's press conference, he had announced that his appointments secretary would be Matthew Connelly and that Reinsch would serve as a press and radio adviser. He didn't say that he would be a secretary to the President which Connelly would be. And newspapermen at this Reinsch conference, at which I was present, asked Daniels if Reinsch would be the press secretary. Daniels said that he wasn't making the President's appointments for him, but he presumed Reinsch would act as if he was the President's secretary. Now, whether that was intentionally phrased that way or not, I don't know, but knowing Jonathan Daniels I think he didn't make it unintentionally. Reinsch confirmed his own opinion that he would be; that is, he told the plans and answered the questions and all about himself. He was asked what title should be used in referring to him, and he replied, "Secretary to the President."

HESS: This is what Mr. Reinsch said?

AYERS: Mr. Reinsch said, "Secretary to the President, according to the announcement this morning." Whatever the President

[14]

said to use would be the one naturally. And Daniels stepped in and pointed out that the President merely said that Reinsch was going to assist in press and radio matters. The newspapermen were, I think, a little bit confused, and a little bit amused, at some of the things that were said. I think it was at that time that Reinsch, in giving some of his biographical data, said he had been called "Lucky Len," which didn't impress too much. Then there were later press conferences with Connelly and Harry Vaughan. Vaughan was then colonel and the President was appointing him as military aide, and each of them gave some biographical data about himself. At that time, I think Connelly made the best impression with the newspapermen, and he always was, I think, liked by them very much, as he was by all the White House staff. They all had great regard for Connelly, thought a great deal of him.

Also present in this press conference at which Reinsch and the others appeared, although he wasn't in the foreground at all, was another man whom I never had seen as far as I knew, but he was sitting on a divan over to one side. Who brought him in, or why, wasn't very clear -- nobody seemed to know--but I made inquiry of, I think, the Secret Service men as to who the man was and they said he was a fellow by the name of Maragon, John Maragon, and that was the only information we had at the time. Now

[15]

that is a beginning of the Truman administration so far as the press office was concerned.

HESS: Who had invited Reinsch to come in in the first place?

AYERS: I don't know. I assumed that somebody in the Truman staff who I think knew him from the campaign days when Truman was running for Vice President; that's what I've assumed always because of his connection with Governor Cox, and so on. I believe that he did some radio work for them in that campaign, although I am not too clear on that, I wouldn't want to go into it.

HESS: Now, he left shortly after that. Why?

AYERS: Yes, I couldn't be too specific as to why. He was trying to act as press secretary. Jonathan Daniels was still on the job as press secretary, and Steve Early was still around as a sort of an assistant trying to help get things organized; although he was not, of course, a press secretary, he had been made .

HESS: Administrative assistant at that time, hadn't he?

AYERS: I don't know what his official title was, I think that may have been it. Roosevelt had appointed him to be--I say appointed, he was a secretary--none of those secretarial posts bore any other designations than secretary. I don't think the commissions ever said "press secretary" or "appointments secretary" or anything. It is "secretary to the President."

[16]

HESS: Secretary to the President.

AYERS: They are assigned to the job. There wasn't, as long as I was in the White House, officially, any such position as press secretary or assistant press secretary. I was called an assistant press secretary. Actually, I was never on any payroll under that title. I was an information specialist or something of that sort, which was, I suppose, a civil service designation or something of the kind. And Reinsch, it was obvious, had no experience in the work he was trying to do. He had had, if any, very little newspaper experience. He had radio experience, but I don't know whether he was ever a commentator or a news gatherer in it, or what his work was in that. And there was some friction, I think. It wasn't until Friday--the following Friday--on April 20, when the President suddenly had a special press conference in his office, and announced that former Governor Cox, the newspaper and radio owner for whom Reinsch had worked, had asked to have Reinsch released and allowed to go back to his old job, and he departed from--so far as the White House was concerned--he departed from that press office.

HESS: One more question on Mr. Reinsch and then I want to go back a ways and cover some things. In the l964-65 Who's Who, Mr. Reinsch is listed as being radio adviser to the White House, l945 to 1952. Do you know anything about that?

[17]

AYERS: Well, I think that that is probably accurate, although that advisory capacity did not relate to the press office; but he did appear on various occasions when the President was making an important speech, which was being carried on radio. Specifically, I recall when the President went to New York on Navy Day, which was later in the year--I've forgotten the exact date, although I was there--and he spoke then; he spoke from the carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was commissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and he spoke in Central Park to a huge gathering. And I know--I can still see him in my mind--that Reinsch was present there and quite conspicuous in back of the President, apparently on the radio part. I don't recall his ever having anything to do with the press office, but I know even up to the last political national convention, he was working from time to time. He was on the platform, I think, in the last one, and I think he worked for the committee, the Democratic National Committee perhaps. I don't know who employed him, but he showed up on some of those. But I don't think the press office--not to my knowledge did the press secretary in my period, ever call upon Reinsch. I don't think Charlie Ross ever did. Whether anybody did after I left the press office or not, I don't know.

[18]

HESS: All right, a question on Mr. Roosevelt. Just what seemed to be the relationship between Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Truman during the time when Mr. Truman was Vice President? Do you recall anything about that?

AYERS: I've got a record here of when they saw each other, yes. Wait a moment until I find it. I looked that up quite awhile ago.

HESS: Did they seem to get along pretty well during that time?

AYERS: Oh, I think they did, as far as I know. I, of course, don't know too much about it. I don't find it here--I've got it somewhere.

HESS: Maybe we can find it later on.

Could you contrast the ways the two men carried out the job as President? That's an awful big subject.

AYERS: That's an awful big subject.

HESS: What were the major ways in which they were different, perhaps?

AYERS: Well, they were different types of men to begin with. I would like to think about that a little more.

HESS: A couple of questions on Mr. Roosevelt's press secretaries, since you worked for them both, before we get off of the Roosevelt period. Could you contrast the ways in which Stephen Early and Jonathan Daniels operated as press secretary? Was there anything that stands out there?

[19]

AYERS: Well, I don't think that any two press secretaries, no matter whom you might pick out would be found to have operated in the same way, because it all depends on so many different factors: the personalities of the men themselves; and the manner in which the men with whom they were working (the Presidents) carried on; their relations in each case with the men whom they were serving. If you attempted to contrast the operations of Steve Early under Roosevelt and Charlie Ross under Truman you would have to take into consideration the differences in Roosevelt and Truman as well as the differences in the personalities of Early and Ross. So, it is a little hard when you say, can I contrast them.

Now, Steve Early was, I think, taken in the overall, one of the best, if not the best press secretary that I knew; yet, I could say almost the same thing about Charlie Ross and his relationship with Truman and his method of operation, yet they operated differently. Steve was in the position for a long time; longer than Charlie Ross. After all, Roosevelt was in for twelve years; Steve wasn't officially the press secretary in those first years, but he became that. Steve had a different background than Charlie Ross. Steve had years

[20]

of press association experience. Charlie never had any of that. Charlie had been an editorial writer as well as a reporter and a Washington correspondent; Steve, of course, had been a Washington correspondent and a reporter, but for a press association. Steve though, also had some experience with the photographic end. Both had, I think, excellent relations with the men with whom they were serving, except possibly Steve's relations with Mr. Roosevelt in the last year or so may have deteriorated somewhat. That, I don't know too much about and I don't think anybody could speak very authoritatively about it outside of possibly one or two persons who were very close to one or the other of them. Steve perhaps found it easier to answer some questions than Charlie would, because Steve could talk pretty well and still not tell too much--Mr. Roosevelt was a wonder at that. Mr. Roosevelt could hold a press conference in which the newspapermen would come running out, as they always did, and then after they got out somebody would say, "Well, what did he say?"

And then they would find they didn't have actually much news. I don't mean that so much, but Steve could answer questions pretty well. He was pretty well informed on what the President was doing. Steve had a very quick

[21]

temper; now, that rarely showed itself with the newspapermen--oh, it did occasionally--but, he would blow up in his office sometimes with his secretarial help, girls--oh, way up--the next day he would be so apologetic. Charlie could be irritated with things, but he didn't blow up like that, but Steve would get occasionally too prejudiced--or something--against one individual or another. I have had, in the days when I was around, a newspaperman, a good one, come and say, "What's the matter with Steve? What's he got against me?" And nobody would know the answer. It wasn't a serious thing actually because the newspapermen all did like Steve very much.

Now, Charlie Ross was a different type of man. He was a kind of scholarly person. He had less patience in some respects than Steve, but not the fiery temper that Steve had. He might afterwards sound off to me about some of those "birds" or something like that, but he rarely took it out on any of them directly. He didn't in the operations of the office; he had slight patience with the newsmen in their concern over delays or anything. He couldn't see the reason for one man wanting to be a minute ahead of another. He didn't understand the press association operation; where the press association man--having been both a newspaperman and a press association man, I knew their

[22]

viewpoint and understood them. I might not have thought there was much sense to it myself even when I was a press association man, but the explanation of it was sound enough. The press association that is a minute ahead of the other press association if they went into a city and served competing papers--we will say in Kankakee or some other place, each one serving a paper--two separate papers--the one that got there first with an important bulletin might deliver that so that the paper that got it, even only a minute or so ahead, was on the street ahead of the other one and that might make a great difference. But so far as you or I are concerned, we wouldn't be concerned here whether the Star came out five minutes ahead of the News with a story or not, but that's why the press association men are always under pressure to be there first. Charlie couldn't understand that, and when these fellows would come in and complain he would get irritated. But I think that Charlie's relationship with President Truman, couldn't have been better. I think he kept Charlie pretty well informed. I don't think Steve ever considered himself a policymaker, or attempted to do any policymaking. I don't think Charlie did, although I think Charlie was often consulted on things. Such differences as there were

[23]

were primarily obviously differences in the personality of the men. The fellows all liked Charlie, but I think maybe Steve trusted some of them more than Charlie did, but I doubt it. I don't know that that is true either.

HESS: How often did Mr. Roosevelt have a press conference?

AYERS: Normally he held two a week. One on Tuesday, as I recall, and one on Friday. One would be for the morning papers; he gave a break to the morning papers and the evening papers -- an even break for the week.

HESS: Did the press secretary meet with him in a pre-press conference, such as later was held with Mr. Truman?

AYERS: I don't know how much of that there was. Not in any such way I think as with Mr. Truman. Steve may have gone in for a few minutes, I don't really know because I never had enough contact with Mr. Roosevelt directly.

HESS: He was in Yalta and then in Warm Springs quite a lot in '45, for the three months and twelve days that he lived in l945.

At the time of Mr. Roosevelt's death, who handled the official announcements from the White House?

AYERS: That is an interesting thing, I think--interesting to me perhaps but not to anybody else. Let me say a little before that. The last time I saw Mr. Roosevelt was the day that he left for Warm Springs. As I say, I

[24]

hadn't had any real opportunities to meet with him other than being introduced to him, first with Jonathan Daniels on one occasion and then on that same day when -- I think, it was the day he left--when Steve Early introduced me after the ceremony when Daniels was commissioned as press secretary; that was the last time I saw him. He had been down there and we knew he was not up to his onetime physical condition; he was obviously very tired, but on that last occasion when I saw him, he was peppy, quick-on-the-trigger with the remarks he made; so, we weren't expecting anything like that. We were concerned about his health. We would see when he signed some letters maybe his signature wasn't as good as it used to be. While he was away, once he was out of the White House, as it always is, it was fairly quiet. I know that on that day, that afternoon of his death, I had practically everything cleaned up in my part of the office, and I think Anna Rosenberg was in with Daniels in his part of it. I think I had given the newspapermen "the lid" as we used to say, that is that we would have nothing more, and they could leave if they wanted to. Anyway, I know I was sitting in my office; my secretary was there, and we had practically nothing to do except answer any calls that might come in. And then there occurred a small incident

[25]

that at the moment aroused only my curiosity, but by the events that followed, was impressed on my mind so vividly that it still stands out like a photograph. My office, I must explain, was almost directly opposite the driveway from the Pennsylvania northwest entrance to the White House grounds and from my desk I had a straight view of anyone coming up the drive to the office wing or of anyone coming from the State Department, then located in the old State, War and Navy Building (now called the Executive Office Building, I believe), across West Executive Avenue, and in the side entrance to the office wing, where the President's office and our offices were. So, on this afternoon as I sat at my desk, glancing out the window, I saw the then Secretary of State Stettinius suddenlyopposite my office window and heading toward the front entrance of the White House proper. He obviously had come from the State Department through the west entrance to the White House grounds. He stopped suddenly, almost directly in front of me, and stood for a moment. Then he started again toward the house. I did not see him again and it was not until later that I learned what had brought him there.

Before this, Early had been in the White House proper, with Admiral Ross McIntire (the President's doctor), whose office was in the House itself. The first word of Roosevelt's

[26]

collapse had come to McIntire and he and Early had been keeping in touch with Warm Springs from then on until the word of the President's death. Steve then had the task of notifying those who had to be informed before the news got out to the public--Mrs. Roosevelt and Vice President Truman, for instance. This has all been printed and is on record, so I'll not go into it. But it was during this period that Early telephoned Stettinius to come to the White House. I don't recall whether he told Stettinius of FDR's death then or not, but I do not think he did tell him until he reached the White House.

It must have been some little time after this that quite suddenly Early and Admiral McIntire came out of Daniel's office, followed by Jonathan. Steve stopped at my door and asked if there were any newspapermen around. I said I thought they had all left, they had come in to me earlier and asked if there was anything in sight, and when I told them there was not they had left. Early, however, started toward the press room and I followed him only to meet Steve, the Admiral and Jonathan coming back. Nothing was said and they went back into Jonathan's office. I knew something had happened and I am sure that I knew in my own mind what it was. I went back into my office and my secretary asked me why I did not go into Jonathan's office

[27]

with them. I said I was not going. No one up to then had said anything to me.

Some minutes went by. There was a telephone call. It was an inquiry as to whether the report that the President was dead was true. A moment later Jonathan's secretary looked into his office and nodded; it was true. What had happened was that Early, who had been in the White House, had come to Jonathan's office with McIntire and after they found no newspapermen Steve made a conference call to the press associations. We did this occasionally when we had something and they weren't all there; we would make a conference call putting the press associations, the Associated Press, the United Press, and INS, which then existed, all on the phone at the same time. Steve put in the conference call, and announced Roosevelt's death. Jonathan perhaps should have been the one to do it, but Steve took that upon himself.

HESS: Why?

AYERS: I can only surmise as to that.

HESS: What would be your conjecture?

AYERS: Well, of course, he had been press secretary so long; that is, one thing with Roosevelt. And I suppose, too, he wanted to do it. He had already announced that he was going to resign in June. After all those years with

[28]

Roosevelt he may have felt, "I'm going to announce his death."

HESS: Do you think that Jonathan Daniels had the feeling that someone else was coming in and taking over what he should be doing at that time?

AYERS: I don't think so.

HESS: It didn't really affect him that way.

AYERS: I don't think so. He was always quite close to the Roosevelt family because his father had been the Secretary of the Navy over Roosevelt, years before, of course. And Jonathan was close, particularly in those latter days, to Anna, Anna Roosevelt Boettiger. And, I think, that perhaps they wanted him to be press secretary, and as soon as Roosevelt died he didn't want to stay, no matter who might be around. He wanted to go back to his home in Raleigh, where he could be the editor of the family paper, and he had a beautiful home--has a beautiful home down there--and his brother is with the paper, too.

HESS: He came back to Washington during the 1948 campaign didn't he?

AYERS: Yes, for part of it at least; I don't know whether he went through all of it or not, but through part of it, yes.

HESS: We can cover that a little later when we get up to the campaign. Thinking back, what was your impression of

[29]

Mr. Truman at that time? A man whom you had met, as you say, at the function before, but what was your impression of our new President at that time?

AYERS: Well, I hadn't formed any impression. As I say, I knew very little about him. I had seen him, long before I went on the President's staff, once or twice, when he came in as a Senator to see President Roosevelt, but like all the others coming in, there wasn't too much attention paid to that. And I hadn't formed any impression either, one way or the other. I hadn't seen anything of him and I just didn't know anything about him.

HESS: The President brought in some people soon after he took office. You mentioned that Mr. Snyder and Edward McKim were in the President's office. Now, Mr. McKim didn't stay very long.

AYERS: No, he didn't.

HESS: Do you recall very much about him?

AYERS: He came in--I think he was actually commissioned as an administrative assistant or something. He was going to be, he thought, chief administrative assistant.

HESS: That, supposedly, was the title that he had.

AYERS: I think he was given that title. And he was very busy around there.

HESS: What did he do? He was there for about two months;

[30]

I have it on my records. What did he do? What was his job?

AYERS: Darned if I know what his job was supposed to be, but he started out, he was going to reorganize the whole office setup in there, and he spent considerable time, I know, making charts--organizational charts and things. I don't think they ever got any farther than his office desk. He worried some of the people around the office; of course, they're always worried when a sudden change comes, or when any political change may come, or a sudden change such as that. They didn't know what he was there for or what he was going to do. I surely didn't know.

HESS: Why did he stay there such a short time, do you know?

AYERS: I don't know for sure. I believe there was a magazine piece appeared in some little magazine telling about Harry Truman playing poker, and it was signed by Eddie McKim, and I don't think that enhanced his popularity perhaps with the President if he saw it.

HESS: And you mentioned Matthew Connelly came in at this time.

AYERS: He was appointed to be appointments secretary. He took that over in good shape.

HESS: What was his background? What had been his connection

[31]

with President Truman?

AYERS: I'm not too clear. I think it was as an investigator for that committee.

HESS: For the Truman Committee.

AYERS: The Truman Committee. I believe that was it.

HESS: You mentioned Harry Vaughan, too.

AYERS: Yes. Of course, he had been with the President, been his secretary at one time. He had done a great deal of work, I believe, in the early campaigns for the Senate. I think he was a colonel--a Reserve colonel.

HESS: And you mentioned Mr. Maragon was there, and Mr. Maragon never did get a position did he?

AYERS: No. From all we could gather, Maragon was trying to get the job of transportation officer, which had been held for years by a career employee in the White House, Dewey Long.

HESS: And he thought he could land that job?

AYERS: I guess he had done some of that work up on the Hill. Then there was another fellow who appeared, his name was [George C.] Drescher, he was a Secret Service man. Now, Mike [Michael F.] Reilly had been the chief of the White House Secret Service detail through the Roosevelt days--Mike was an extremely popular man and a very able man. This Drescher suddenly appeared and he seemed to be

[32]

taking over as the chief of the detail. Now when Mike was still there, I know on those first days--I've forgotten how long a period it was when the Trumans lived at Blair House, until Mrs. Roosevelt got moved out--and the President would have to go back and forth and, of course, the Secret Service went with him. A rather peculiar situation seemed to have developed. Of course, we didn't have anything to do with the Secret Service from a press standpoint, but we had plenty to do with them on day to day relations, and you would see the Secret Service boys coming back or going over with the President, and among them would be the two, each apparently trying to be the head of the detail. Well, it wound up eventually in Mike losing out. I don't think I want to go into details on that. We all felt very badly that it happened. And Drescher came in as head of that detail. He was a different type, I don't know how to describe him; he was rather somewhat arrogant, hard, not the smooth, suave, pleasant type that Mike was. Nobody, I think, cared for him very much around there. I believe someone told me that he had once been on the White House detail, and had been under Mike Reilly, and Mike had had him transferred at some time and he was out to reciprocate. I don't know the truth of that, but I think there was some

[33]

basis for it. I never talked to Mike about it very much. He lasted--he went to the Potsdam Conference with the President, then came back, and he was there for a while, then he was suddenly transferred; where he went to, I don't know. He was succeeded, I think, then by Jim [James J.] Rowley, who now is Chief of the Secret Service, head of the whole Secret Service.

HESS: Who else came in in those early days?

AYERS: Fred Canfil. Did you ever get his name from anybody? He was marshal of Kansas City; big bull of a man. I think he went to Potsdam, too.

HESS: What were his duties?

AYERS: That was a question. I don't know. I guess he thought he was helping to guard the President. I don't know whether he had any prescribed duties. There was a great deal of uncertainty in that first period.

HESS: There were a couple of men who worked on the Truman Committee that did not make the move to the White House. I'll just throw these names out and see if you can tell me if you heard why they did not; Hugh Fulton and Charles Patrick Clark.

AYERS: I don't know anything about Clark and very little about Fulton. I have heard of them both though. I won't attempt to answer only part of that question. Fulton,

[34]

I believe, was up at the Truman apartment on that first morning after Roosevelt was buried. I think that he expected to be in a position. Something happened. Now, I think I heard at the time, but I don't recall just what it was and I wouldn't attempt . . . but apparently the relationship, officially at least, ended then or shortly after that, at least he never came into the White House in any position, and I never knew anything about Clark.

HESS: Let's get back to the press office then. After Mr. Leonard Reinsch left town, then Charles Ross was appointed. When did Ross come in?

AYERS: You see, the President offered the position to him, and I don't know just when.

HESS: I have it that he officially took the post on May 15, but I am not sure if he was there before then or not.

AYERS: May 15. When was the San Francisco conference. I think he had been offered the position before. Charlie came in the first time, I think, on May 15, succeeding Jonathan Daniels at that time. I don't know when it was offered to him, but I think that, at the time, he had planned to go to the San Francisco conference--the United Nations Conference--and he wanted to go through with that before he took office, and I think that is what delayed him somehow.

[35]

HESS: Why was Charles Ross chosen for the position?

AYERS: As far as I know, solely on the fact that the President knew him, had gone to school with him; they had been in school together at least; and he knew him and I think had high regard for him. They had not been, I believe, particularly intimate ever, but he knew him then, and he knew him, of course, later when Charlie was correspondent here. Charlie had written about him, very objectively I believe, for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch while doing editorial work. I think the Post-Dispatch opposed--didn't they oppose Truman when he ran for the Senate the first time--I believe they did, or maybe the second. But anyway, I think it was on a purely personal basis; he knew Charlie, he had high regard for him, I think, whether he did know him well or not.

HESS: Did they have a pretty good relationship?

AYERS: Yes. I know they did. A very good relationship, always. I think the President thought a great deal of Charlie. And I know he felt bad when Charlie died and how much he regretted that he couldn't live to go on through. In fact, I ran onto, somewhere in my notes, some reference to that. I know I thought it was a loss to the President when Charlie died, and I've always said that I thought that Mr. Truman's standing in the polls would have been higher

[36]

the last year or so if Charlie had lived.

HESS: Why?

AYERS: Why? Because I think it would have helped--well, it is hard to put it in words. After all, the press office does help in the presentation of the President to the people, no matter how accurate and careful they may be not to be doing anything improper and there certainly was none of that in his time. I think he would have helped the President in many ways--advice and such.

HESS: Could you tell me about the operations of the White House press office? What were its functions, who performed them and just how successful were they in carrying out those functions; starting with Charles Ross. Now, we have talked about the two men who had the position under Roosevelt.

AYERS: What are the functions of it--well, to deal with the press, the public, making available the news, news developments, acting as a medium through which the press and the other news media reach the President day to day; that's in a broad way the whole story. To be such help to the President as they can in his relations with the press.

HESS: President Truman held one press conference a week, usually on Thursday, and before they had the press conference they usually had a pre-press conference; or could I use the word always, did they always have a

[37]

pre-press conference? Was that standard procedure?

AYERS: We always had a briefing session.

HESS: Could you tell me about how those were run? How was a pre-press conference run?

AYERS: Well, it wasn't a pre-press conference. It was simply a briefing session to try and cover the ground that was likely to come up at the press conference--the President's press conference. Of course, the number who participated varied but it had increased over the years because of the size of the staff which attended the morning staff meetings had grown. You see, under Roosevelt, in the morning Steve Early used to go, and I don't know whether anybody else went .

HESS: To Roosevelt's morning conferences.

AYERS: No, I mean they went over to his bedroom. They did that every morning. With Truman, at his morning staff meetings to begin with were the two or three of us, but they kept growing larger as other people were brought in. Well, when he was going to have a press conference it got to a point where practically the same crowd would come in about half an hour before the press conference, whether it was to be held at three o'clock or whatever time it was to be held, we would come in half an hour before that. And most of us, particularly Charlie and I, would try to

[38]

think of every question that was likely to be asked. Once in a while a newspaperman might tip us off ahead of time that he was going to ask a certain question or about a certain thing, but most of the time we tried to think up everything and as newspapermen we could hit it pretty well; or as former newspapermen; not always everything, of course, but most of the important things, we could figure out, and we would bring them up and sometimes there might be a discussion as to what the President should say, and maybe there would be some suggestions about that.

HESS: Who usually attended besides Mr. Ross and yourself?

AYERS: The group varied over the years, but it would be my recollection offhand that most of those who were there in the morning attended.

HESS: Did those men try to think of questions that might come up or did they try to formulate what the President should answer if the question came up?

AYERS: Both.

HESS: There was nothing really formal about it?

AYERS: Oh, they were extremely informal, extremely informal. Go around and anybody who had a thought would present it. I think most of them came from Charlie; myself; maybe John Steelman, who dealt with so many different subjects

[39]

that we rarely had anything to do with, that is, outside of any announcement that grew out of some of his work. The same way with others.

HESS: Did the people who attended those briefing sessions go with the President to the press conference usually? Or, if they were held in his office, I should say, did they stay in the office when the reporters were let in?

AYERS: Yes. In that case they did, but I don't think most of them always went to the press conference when the location was changed.

HESS: To the Indian Treaty Room in April of 1950.

AYERS: Wherever it was, we held it then.

HESS: Over in the Executive Office Building.

AYERS: And then, of course, they were different in those days. I wouldn't attempt to talk about the ones afterwards. You see, we had no television. The first television of a President was during the Truman administration, but they didn't have any televised press conferences.

HESS: Now, you mentioned the morning staff conferences. Were those held each day? Who attended those?

AYERS: Well, about the same probably. You will find a good story on that done by John Hersey for the New Yorker. Then, in the last of those that I attended--I didn't attend them after I left the press office, I think I

[40]

went about once or twice is all, when he asked me to come in for something. Why there was John Steelman, Matt Connelly--oh, yes, I said Matt Connelly on the other sessions--Donald Dawson, David Stowe, Admiral [Robert L.] Dennison, Harry Vaughan, [Robert B.] Landry, the Air Force aide, Clark Clifford, Charlie Ross, I guess that's about it. Just trying to picture them going around the table.

HESS: How were those conducted?

AYERS: Very informally. Usually there might be some kidding or something before and then finally the President would start and he would go around the table.

HESS: He would just go around to see what each man had to say?

AYERS: If anybody had anything to discuss that morning, or something like that . And they would bring up anything they might have. Usually we sat around the table like the President there, I sat here, Charlie Ross there, John Steelman on my left, Matt Connelly on his left, and there was a divan over here with Dawson, Stowe; then the President, Clark Clifford. Of course, Clifford was succeeded by Charlie Murphy; Charlie Murphy and Vaughan, and that's about it.

HESS: Was Dave Miles active at that time?

AYERS: Dave Miles never was, as far as I know, in any of

[41]

those meetings under Truman. You see, he didn't spend the weekends in Washington. Dave Miles, in my time, only spent two or three days a week in Washington. He had an office in the Executive Office Building there, but that's it, and Philleo Nash was with him and eventually in the very last months or two he was made administrative assistant.

 

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