“Right Hand Man”: The People Around the President

By Kaleena Fraga

In the hit broadway play Hamilton, George Washington sings about his need for a right hand man. Washington has a point–presidencies can either thrive or wilt depending on who the president choses to include in his inner circle.

Often the focus is on the chief of staff–Chris Whipple wrote an excellent book detailing the make-or-break relationships presidents have had with their COS. This includes Bob Haldeman, who knew better than other aides when to listen to Nixon, and when to ignore his commands as venting.

Yet the president can draw strength on people other than their chiefs of staff–a relatively new position, anyway. We take a look at members of presidential political circles who–through their absence–proved their importance to the presidency.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant entered the White House as war hero after the Civil War. Grant was a military genius in his own right, creating and executing battle plans that eventually defeated the Confederacy. Upon hearing suggestion that his victory was due only to the overwhelming manpower he possessed in comparison to the South, Grant objected–after all, generals before him had had just as many men, and yet failed.

grant and rawlins
Rawlins, left, and Grant, center

Grant owed some of his success to his aide, John A. Rawlins. As the war slogged on, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest to being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” Rawlins, writes Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “could confront [Grant] with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgement…with his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature.”

Rawlins, along with Grant’s wife, Julia, also largely succeeded in suppressing Grant’s alcoholism during the war. Rawlins had Grant pledge he would not drink at all until the war ended, and he himself took a pledge to remain sober. Rawlins also organized Grant’s affairs, and helped him to maintain a positive relationship with politicians in Washington D.C. Rawlins kept Grant sober with mixed success–he always reacted with disappointment and alarm when he learned that his friend had gone on a bender. When Grant drank, he got drunk. But thanks to Rawlin’s watchful eye, he drank rarely during the war.

When Grant became president in 1869, Rawlins was one of many loyal army friends who followed Grant to the White House. But the war had worn heavily on Rawlins, and he had suffered with health problems for years. At the age of thirty-eight, he died of tuberculosis.

Grant possessed battle savvy but little business acumen, and he was more trusting of men than his late friend. Rawlins’ loss was devastating to the Grant Administration. Chernow writes: “Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption…with Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser…”

Grant and his administration would be plagued by charges of corruption, as the easily trusting Grant let people into his inner circle that Rawlins would have likely barred.

Harry S Truman

When Truman unexpectedly became president in 1945, he reached out to his old high school friend, Charlie Ross, to be his press secretary. Ross accompanied the president all over the world, even playing poker with Truman and Winston Churchill. David McCullough details their close relationship in his biography of Truman.

truman and ross
Truman, Ross, and Eisenhower

Aside from his duties as press secretary, Ross was a friend and a shoulder for the president to lean on. When Truman started talking walks on doctor’s orders, he confided in Ross that it helped him sleep better. On Ross’ counsel, Truman learned to better respond to “smarty questions” at press conferences, answering “No comment”, “your guess is as good as mine”, or, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Ross also played a crucial role in cooling down the president, especially as an editor. When railroad workers threatened to strike, Truman was furious. He wrote a seven page speech, which he gave to Ross to read. Ross told him he needed to rework it, so they did, with the help of several other aides.

In a letter Ross wrote to Truman in 1947, he said:

“There is nothing in life, I think, more satisfying than friendship, and to have yours is a rare satisfaction indeed…the greatest inspiration, Mr. President, has been the character of you–you as a President, you as a human being. Perhaps I can say best what is in my heart by telling you that my admiration for you, and my deep affection, have grown steadily since the day you honored me with your trust.”

When Ross died unexpectedly of a coronary occlusion in 1950, Truman was devastated by his loss. He wrote a tribute describing Ross as “the friend of my youth…a tower of strength…patriotism and integrity, honor and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were his guides…” Truman could not bring himself to give the statement to the press without breaking down. “Aw hell,” he said to a group of reporters. “I can’t read this thing. You fellows know how I feel, anyway…”

That night, Truman’s daughter sang at Constitution Hall, prompting a journalist named Paul Hume to write a scathing review. Truman responded the next day, calling Hume a “frustrated old man”, the review “lousy”, and suggested that he’d like to beat Hume up.

The country, reeling under an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Korea, reacted with fury. Telegrams to the White House were 2:1 against Truman. One such telegram read:

“How can you put your trivial personal affairs before those of one hundred and sixty million people. Our boys while your infantile mind was on your daughter’s review. Inadvertently you showed the whole world what you are. Nothing but a little selfish pipsqueak.”

George Elsey, a Truman speechwriter, noted sadly that “Charlie Ross would never have let the Paul Hume letter get out…Charlie was…a calming fine influence on Truman, a tempering influence…much more than a press secretary.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

lbj and jenkins
Jenkins (far left), LBJ, and Lady Bird

Walter Jenkins had long been an LBJ loyalist, joining his staff in 1939 while Johnson was still in Congress. He was close with both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, and had been a political aide of Johnson’s through good times and bad. One of Jenkins’ children was named “Lyndon.” In her book on Lady Bird and the Johnson marriage, Betty Boyd Caroli writes that the Johnsons loved Jenkins “like a blood relative.”  By 1964, he had worked for LBJ for 25 years, “[working] eighteen hour days, [canceling] critical medical appointments, and doggedly [tackling] all of LBJ’s assignments, even those delivered in such condescending, abusive terms that Jenkin’s face flushed red,” writes Caroli.

So it came as a shock to Lyndon and Lady Bird when they received a call that Jenkins–a married father of six–had been arrested on a “morals charge.” Jenkins had been caught in a homosexual encounter in a public restroom.

The subsequent conversation between LBJ and Lady Bird was recorded–known only to the president–and captures a fascinating moment in their marriage. Lady Bird wanted to help Jenkins–if he could no longer work at the White House, she wanted to offer him a job with one of the family’s television stations in Texas. LBJ refused.

“I don’t think that’s right,” Lady Bird said. “When questioned, and I will be questioned, I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband.”

Lady Bird told the president he should make some gesture of support to his longtime aide. LBJ refused.

“We just can’t win this,” the president said. “The average farmer just can’t understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it.”

Because Johnson refused to issue a statement of support, Lady Bird wrote one herself, which she gave to The Washington Post. 

(Their full conversation is available online, and is a look at the dynamics of their marriage.)

Aides to Johnson later speculated that Jenkins’ absence was detrimental to LBJ and his presidency. Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, thought that Jenkins’ “counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, agreed, later saying, “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”

                           

When it comes to a presidency, those in the inner circle can make a real difference on the president’s success. But often their impact is not felt until they’ve vanished.

Harry Truman & the Creation of NATO: A Brief History

By Kaleena Fraga

President Trump is in Europe this week, stirring up animosity among European allies as he rages on Twitter about their contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Trump has taken a decidedly different approach to NATO than his predecessors, and many European leaders seem to be at a loss when it comes to dealing with the new American policy. The European Council president, Donald Tusk, even went as far as to say, “Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many.”

TRUMP NATO
Photo Credit: Politico.com (Matt Wuerker)

For many Americans of a certain generation, NATO has always existed. So where did it come from? To answer this, we must look to Harry Truman.

Following WWII, many European and American leaders were alarmed by Soviet aggression. This led to several alliances and pacts among European countries, seeking to combine Western European defenses with the United States’ policy of containment. NATO, then, was born in part from Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” which pledged support to nations threatened by communism and sought to counter Soviet expansion.

The twelve original countries (the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Great Britain) signed an agreement that stated “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” President Truman called NATO “a shield against HST NATO 2aggression.”

NATO wasn’t a universally accepted idea in the United States. Just as isolationists had opposed President Wilson’s League of Nations, they rejected the idea of involving the United States in a multinational alliance. This push was led by Robert Taft, the son of the former president William Howard Taft, who said that NATO “was not a peace program, but a war program.” The Soviet Union felt threaten by the alliance, and created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 as their own version of NATO.

After a lengthy confirmation process in the Senate, the NATO treaty was confirmed.

When Harry Truman signed the treaty on August 24, 1949 he declared:

“By this treaty, we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.”

Since it’s founding, NATO has fought ISIS and helped to broker peace in Bosnia. After the two world wars of the 20th century, it has maintained relative peace among European nations. In the aftermath of 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time–this being the clause that declares that an attack on one nation is an attack on them all–in order to deliver assistance to the United States.

The world is very different than the 1940s and 1950s when NATO was born. And so is the man in the White House. Whether or not Trump continues to engage with NATO or removes the United States from the alliance all together has yet to be seen.

Truman, Eisenhower, and the Roots of the Korean War

By Kaleena Fraga

This week marked a historic chapter in relations between the United States and North Korea. We take a look back on how the initial conflict began and ended, under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations:

Harry Truman: 

The United States first joined the Korean War in 1950, when Harry Truman ordered American troops to help the Democratic South repel an invasion from the Communistic North. Truman did not rule out using the atomic bomb, stating that the hst koreaUnited States would “take whatever steps were necessary” to stop the communists. He added that he never wanted to use the bomb again, acknowledging, “it is a terrible weapon, and it should not be used on innocent men, women and children.”

Public approval of the war quickly dovetailed, and one of Truman’s generals, Omar Bradley, testified in Congress in 1951 that any expansion of the war to include China would put the United States “in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.”

Truman received a letter from a bereaved father who’d lost his son, including the son’s purple heart, which read:

“Mr. Truman

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might just as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds.

Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.

Signed

William Banning”

Truman reportedly kept this letter in his desk.

Dwight D. Eisenhower 

eisenhower korea.jpgIn 1952, Korea was a vital part of Eisenhower’s campaign. He argued that as a military man, he would be better equipped to handle the conflict than Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate. When Harry Truman challenged Eisenhower to come up with a better policy than what the Truman administration was pursing, Eisenhower responded in a speech detailing his foreign policy goals. He said that, if elected, he would personally visit Korea in order to understand how to win the war. He also promised the American people that there would be no appeasement from his administration–indicating that lessons from WWII still lay heavily on American policymakers.

In response, Truman said that if Eisenhower knew how to end the war, he should tell the country. “Let’s save a lot of lives and not wait…if he can do it after he is elected, we can do it now.”

The month after he was elected president, Eisenhower made good on his word and flew to Korea. (Truman offered the use of his plane, Independence, adding “if you still desire to go to Korea.” Eisenhower refused the offer). Seven months after he was inaugurated, despite pressure from within his cabinet and within his party (and even from the South Koreans) Eisenhower pushed through the signing of the armistice, which would bring the conflict to a close.

As of the day of its signing–July 27, 1953–33,629 Americans had been killed, another 103,284 had been wounded, and 5,178 were missing.

In an announcement to the American people Eisenhower said: “And so at long last the carnage of war is to cease…” he finished his short address by quoting Lincoln. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on…to do all which may achieve and cherish a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

In the next eight years, not a single American serviceman would die. But then came Vietnam. Despite provocations from North Korea, it largely took a backseat to the Vietnam conflict. In this light the Korean War became, as it is oft-referred to, the “forgotten war.” American presidents after Truman and Eisenhower focused less on Korea than they did on other conflicts in the region and around the world.

It’s not yet clear what may change now that President Trump has met with Kim Jong-un. As of this writing, there is still no peace treaty which means that, despite Eisenhower’s armistice, the Korean War never ended.

American Presidents & Royal Weddings

By Kaleena Fraga

Royal wedding fever swept the world last week as Prince Harry of England married Meghan Markle, an American actress. Alongside the nuptials were questions in the United States surrounding the invitations–would Donald Trump merit an invite? Would former president (and friend to the groom) Barack Obama?

In the end, neither attended. This in itself isn’t unusual. Over the past several royal weddings, American presidents have sent notes of congratulations or perhaps a high-level envoy, but have never attended  themselves.

In 1947, President Harry Truman sent a notes of congratulations following the engagement of Elizabeth & Phillip to both the bride-to-be and her parents, the King and Queen of England. There’s no indication that Truman was invited or sought to attend.

truman telegram to king

Instead, Truman assigned an envoy to represent the U.S. government at the wedding, the ambassador to Great Britain Lewis Douglas.

Neither President Eisenhower or his wife Mamie were invited to the next royal wedding, that of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, in 1960. The American ambassador to the U.K had to convince the president to send a gift. Eisenhower objected because he’d never received any formal notification, but eventually followed his ambassador’s advice and sent a “small wedding ring ashtray.”

The next royal wedding was in 1981, when Queen Elizabeth’s son Charles married Diana Spencer. Ronald Reagan did not attend, although it appears he was invited. He sent the first lady, Nancy Reagan, to represent his administration. The New York Times speculated that President Reagan did not want the wedding to be his first trip to Europe.

Nancy Reagan created a bit of a stir in Great Britain, where one tabloid dedicated its Royal wedding 1981 - Nancy Reaganfront page to her decision to not bow to the Queen. The Guardian expressed irritation at her refusal to reveal any details about her wedding outfit until 24 hours before Diana released hers. And Nancy Reagan’s presence also prompted speculation of where she would sit during the ceremony. “I can’t image she’d be in the front row,” said a palace spokeswoman at the time. “Obviously, there are lots of other people besides Nancy Reagan coming.”

At Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, no heads of state were invited, so the Obamas did not attend. However, the lack of invitation did release a fury of speculation as to whether or not it was a “snub” of the American president. The Daily Mail noted that since Prince William was not yet heir to the throne, his wedding was not a state occasion. As such, it was normal that heads of state were not invited.

There does seem to be somewhat of a tradition regarding gifts–President Truman and President Reagan both sent the respective newlyweds Steuben glass bowls. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, however, requested donations to seven charities of their choice in lieu of gifts. Accordingly, Donald & Melania Trump confirmed via a White House spokeswoman that they will be making such a donation.

William McKinley & the Red Carnation

By Kaleena Fraga

William McKinley believed in luck. Specifically, he believed in luck derived from red carnations.

The nation’s 25th president had been given a red carnation by a friend and a political opponent as they ran against each other for the seat of Ohio’s 18th congressional district. McKinley’s opponent, L.L. Lamborn, was the first to grow carnations out West.

After he won the contest, McKinley became convinced of the carnation’s good luck. He wore it on his lapel, and, once elected president, he kept bouquets of red carnations on his desk in the Oval Office.

McKinley was known to give out carnations while he greeted supporters. On a hot day in September, he greeted supporters in Buffalo, New York, outside Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. His team was nervous about the exercise, and his personal secretary had tried to cancel the reception twice. As McKinley greeted a little girl, she asked if she could have the carnation from his lapel. Although he was not in the habit of unpinning the carnation, McKinley granted her wish. A few handshakes down the line, McKinley found himself face to face with Leon Czolgosz, who shot him in the abdomen.

McKinley died eight days later. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, became the youngest executive in history at the age of 42.

All in all, presidents don’t seem to be an overly superstitious group. Aside from FDR’s fear of the number thirteen, and Harry Truman’s belief in the power of horse shoes, there don’t seem to be many examples of presidents relying on charms as McKinley did with his carnations. And, given how his presidency turned out, perhaps that’s for the best.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Harry Truman Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

The United States’ 33rd president lived in an age before twitter. Unlike Donald Trump, Harry Truman didn’t have the easy access of the internet to hit back against alleged slights. He did, however, have the old fashioned method of strongly worded letters, which is exactly what he employed after a reviewer panned his daughter Margaret’s singing performance performance.

The reviewer, Paul Hume, wrote for the Washington Postthat Margaret Truman “could not sing very well” and was “flat a good deal of the time.”

In celebration of Truman’s 134th birthday, we’ve printed Truman’s fiery response in full:

“Mr. Hume:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

H.S.T.”

Hume, hardly an old man at 34, kept the letter for a few years and eventually sold it.

While many Americans sympathized with the president as a father defending his daughter, many more were outraged that Truman had decided to focus his anger on Hume and not on the ongoing war in Korea. David McCullough notes in his tome about the president, Truman, that the Chicago Tribune at the time wondered if the letter indicated that Truman’s “mental competence and emotional stability” were cracking under pressure.

The original letter was eventually purchased by the Harlan Crow Library, in Highland Park, Texas. A copy of the letter, however, hung in the office of President Bill Clinton during his two terms in the White House.

Truman, Roosevelt, and the Day that Changed History

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. President since 1933, Roosevelt was only a few months into his fourth term in office.

He was spending some time in Warm Springs, Georgia, hoping that the the temperate climate and hot springs could restore his health. Roosevelt had another reason to visit Warm Springs–he’d planned a rendezvous with his long time mistress, Lucy (Mercer) Rutherford. Rutherford had arranged for her friend, Elizabeth Schoumatoff, to paint a portrait of the president.

unfinished portraitSchoumatoff was standing at her easel painting the president when something in his demeanor changed. She later recalled: “He looked at me, his forehead furrowed in pain, and tried to smile. He put his left hand up to the back of his head and said, ‘I have a terrible pain in the back of my head.’ And then he collapsed.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt died a few hours later. He was 63.

In Washington D.C., Vice President Harry Truman arrived at the White House, where he was greeted by the president’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. She told him that the president had died. Truman, stunned, was silent. Then he asked if there was anything he could do for her.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Eleanor replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

For many people, Roosevelt had been the only president they had ever known. He died as WWII had begun to come to an end. In David McCullough’s Truman, McCullough writes that the similarities of Lincoln and FDR’s death were not unappreciated–both had died in April, both died as the wars they’d fought ended, and both would be remembered as great men. “But implicit,” McCullough writes, “was also the thought that Lincoln, too, had been succeeded by a lackluster, so-called ‘common man,’ the ill-fated Andrew Johnson.”

Truman, for his part, told a crowd of reporters:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Truman’s premature ascension to the presidency prompts one of the what-ifs of presidential history. It was Truman, not Roosevelt, that guided the country through the last stages of WWII, including the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Today’s historians have to wonder what FDR might have done in his stead.

Still, Truman finished the three years of Roosevelt’s term and (narrowly) won reelection Harry Trumanin his own right. Although his approval rating hovered in the thirties at the end of his term, history later came to regard Truman as one of the nation’s best presidents. Per McCullough, his legacy includes “the creation of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the recognition of Israel, NATO; for committing American forces in Korea and for upholding the principle of civilian control over the military.”

Truman certainly had big shoes to fill. When FDR died 73 years ago today, the New York Times eulogized him by writing:

“Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House…it was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone, now, is this talent and skill…Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.”