Oral History Interview with
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.
Eben A. Ayers
January 12, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview
Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts
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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
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 It may not be published in full except by permission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 August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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;
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
HESS: This is what Mr. Reinsch said?
AYERS: Mr. Reinsch said, "Secretary to the President, according to the
announcement this morning." Whatever the President
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
that is a beginning of the Truman administration so far as the press office
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."
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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;
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
with President Truman?
AYERS: I'm not too clear. I think it was as an investigator for that
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
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
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,
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.
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
the last year or so if Charlie had lived.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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