Saturday, February 07, 2004

Since we're in the middle of the primary season in the States and heading for a general election in March in Spain, here's one of my favorite political stories. It shows how much big events can depend on little things and how, whenever there's a big screwup of some sort, alcohol is often involved.

It was the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago and a group of powerful party insiders decided that Henry Wallace, the incumbent Vice-President, was a dangerous radical, and had to be removed from the ticket. They managed to get semi-approval for their plan from Franklin Roosevelt, who was clearly dying but who was to be reelected anyway. These party leaders knew that Wallace was not fit to be President, and they decided that Missouri Senator Harry Truman was their man, someone they could trust to take over as President when Roosevelt died.

At the Blackstone (Hotel), (party chairman Bob) Hannegan told Truman he might have to be nominated that night, depending whether they had the votes. They would have to be ready to move fast. Bennett Clark (the other Senator from Missouri) was supposed to nominate Truman, but no one knew where he was. Clark, whose wife had died the year before, was drinking more than usual. Truman went to look for him. Hannegan started for the convention hall.

The Wallace supporters tried to stampede the convention that night. Wallace gave a fine speech and momentum began to build on the convention floor for his renomination as VP. Bob Hannegan and Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly got to the convention chairman and convinced him to adjourn before Wallace's name could be placed in nomination by liberal Congressman Claude Pepper of Florida, who was jumping up and down on a chair while waving a flag in an intent to get the chairman's attention and the floor. Henry Wallace might well have been nominated for Vice President that night, and he would have succeeded Roosevelt as President. He also might have lost us the Cold War before it began.

Harry Truman had witnessed none of this. He had spent the night in search of Bennett Clark, finding him finally in a room where he was not supposed to be, at the Sherman (Hotel), and too drunk to say much more than hello. By then it was past midnight. "So I called Bob Hannegan," Truman remembered, "and said 'I found your boy. He's cockeyed. I don't know whether I can get him ready or not, and I hope to Christ I can't.'"

Truman and Hannegan sobered Clark up, more or less, and they got him to the convention the next day where he nominated Truman for VP.

But his speech for Truman was short and had none of his usual flair.

Ah, those were the days when politics was really fun. (Quotations from Truman by David McCullough.)

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