Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"The Buck Stops Here"


On the evening of January 15, 1953, President Harry Truman broadcast a farewell address to the nation.  Most of the remarks summarized the events during his presidential tenure, but he also talked about how he conducted himself in office.  At one point he said, “The greatest part of the President’s job is to make decisions—big ones and small ones, dozens of them almost every day.”  And, he added, “The President—whoever he is—has to decide.  He can’t pass the buck to anybody.”

Indeed, the slogan “The Buck Stops Here,” is the one most commonly associated with Truman.  He had a desk sign which said just that.  The sign was made at the federal penitentiary at El Reno, Oklahoma, and was given to him in 1945. 

The idea that Truman expressed in this plaque was echoed in a different, but similar, way by President Kennedy in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  At a news conference in 1961 he remarked, “There’s an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.”  

Understanding that the buck stopped with him for the ill-fated adventure, he added, “Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government.”

Truman and Kennedy articulated a good reminder for any president.

Here’s my copy of the famous sign, which was obtained at the Truman Library a number of years ago. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

J.F.K. Runs for President


John F. Kennedy launched his presidential candidacy fifty-nine years ago today in the Senate Caucus Room at the Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. 

In concluding his brief remarks, he said:  For 18 years, I have been in the service of the United States, first as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II and for the past 14 years as a member of the Congress. In the last 20 years, I have traveled in nearly every continent and country--from Leningrad to Saigon, from Bucharest to Lima. From all of this, I have developed an image of America as fulfilling a noble and historic role as the defender of freedom in a time of maximum peril--and of the American people as confident, courageous and persevering.

That room, where Robert F. Kennedy also began his presidential campaign in 1968, is now known as the Kennedy Caucus Room.  Since 1972 the building has been identified as the Russell Senate Office Building.

Theodore H. White’s first foray into presidential post-mortems, “The Making of the President, 1960,” has become a classic of the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns.  But also noteworthy is Tom Oliphant and Curtis Willkie’s excellent book, “The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign.”  This book tells how the Kennedys methodically laid the groundwork for the 1960 nomination after JFK’s defeat for the vice-presidential nomination in 1956. 

The photo here is a recreation of a 1960 campaign headquarters, which is on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Happy Birthday, Al Smith


Al Smith, the New Yorker who rose from humble origins to become a successful governor and unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee, was born on this day 145 years ago.  Smith, who quipped that his education was restricted to the Fulton Fish Market, made a run for president in 1924 and was his party’s standard bearer four years later.  The resulting loss was attributed to a number of reasons, including his Catholicism, his position on temperance (he was a “wet”), and perhaps his gravely-voiced New York persona. 

Smith’s presidential campaign opened up the New York governorship, and he encouraged Franklin Roosevelt to run in 1928.  Smith thought FDR weak, physically and politically, and expected that he would be able to control him.  He was wrong.  The onetime friendship became a bitter rivalry, especially after Roosevelt defeated him for the presidential nomination in 1932.  The bitterness continued for another decade when they more or less patched things up.

Most know of the close relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill during World War II.  Smith also had a cordial relationship with the British prime minister.  Here is a telegram from Churchill to Smith in 1941.  Churchill also spoke by phone to the second Al Smith Dinner in 1947.  During that fifteen-minute talk, he revealed that he had once offered a political slogan for Smith:  “All for Al and Al for All.”

Monday, December 24, 2018

Ava Helen Pauling, 1903-1981


Ava Helen Pauling, the wife of Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and a noted activist in her own right, was born on this day in 1903.  In writing Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, I came to know her and I was impressed by her life.

Ava Helen—she was always known that way—was Linus Pauling’s student at Oregon Agricultural College (later Oregon State) and her influence on him was enormous.  In addition to taking control of his medical treatment when he was seriously ill with Bright’s Disease in 1941, she prodded her scientist-husband into engaging in the social protest for which he became well known. 

She was involved in a wide range of social and political causes, including civil and women’s rights, world government, and the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  While Linus was badgering  President Kennedy on a stalled nuclear test ban treaty, Ava Helen wrote a stern letter to Mrs. Kennedy.  “Your children, like all other children in the world, are laying down in their bones, along with the calcium, Strontium 90,” she said, adding, “I urge you to use your influence to safeguard your children as well as the children of the world by keeping the United States Government from resuming nuclear testing under any circumstances.”

The Paulings were protesting President Kennedy outside the White House before going into the executive mansion for the Nobel Prize honorees dinner in April 1962.  At the dinner, Ava Helen was forced to spar with a rude Arthur Schlesinger, one of the leading intellectuals of the Kennedy administration and a Kennedy apologist, at her dinner table; she more than held her own.

She did not particularly like President Kennedy—her husband was ambivalent toward him—but she was very excited to be invited to the White House.  In addition to recording her observations of that evening, she kept a stained menu as a memento.  She died in 1981.

The photograph is of Ava Helen Pauling speaking at a peace rally.  Source:  Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, Oregon State Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

New England and Secession: 1814


The first serious effort at secession in the United States came not from the South, but from New England.  As a result of the economic impact of the War of 1812 and the seeming stranglehold that the southern states held in the national government, the Federalists from several states met at Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss their grievances. 

The Hartford Convention began on December 15, 1814 and lasted nearly three weeks.  There were representatives from Connecticut, Massachusetts (the largest delegation), New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  They urged several constitutional amendments that they felt would strengthen their regions’ influence.  Secession was discussed.

But timing is everything.  The War of 1812 ended almost immediately after the convention and the Federalists, already dwindling in number, were discredited.  The Hartford Convention sounded the death knell for the nation’s first ruling political party.  Their last presidential candidate competed in 1816 and he was soundly defeated.

Theodore Dwight, a prominent Federalist and journalist, served as the convention’s secretary.  He later wrote a defensive account of the proceedings. He said, for example, that “the Hartford Convention, from the time of its coming together to the present hour, has been the general topic of reproach and calumny, as well as of the most unfounded and unprincipled misrepresentation and falsehood.”  Not surprisingly, he was critical of Democratic-Republicans Jefferson and Madison.