Monthly Archives: November 2014

Harry Truman, Merriman Smith and a darkened room

Merriman Smith wrote five books about presidents and the White House. After he died in 1970, his son, Tim Smith, put together a sixth book that was a compendium of Smith’s writings.

Look elsewhere for deep analysis of what was going on in the White House or in national politics. Smith’s books are breezy and anecdotal, and full of life. His second book, 1948’s A President Is Many Men, conveyed an insightful anecdote about President Harry Truman’s personality readers could not learn from official announcements. The anecdote also speaks to Smith’s sources and enterprise.

During a time of White House crisis in 1946, Smith wrote, Truman took a bit of time off to watch a short movie documentary about the presidency. The opening scene showed a young mother rolling a baby carriage past the White House. She stopped, gazed at the North Portico, and looked down at her infant son.

President Truman presides at one of his weekly press conferences in May 1950

President Truman presides at his weekly press conference in May 1950

“The narrator of the movie intoned, ‘Yes, she realizes that her child, like anybody in this great country, can become President!’”

“Mr. Truman, sitting in the dark, chuckled and nudged his wife who was beside him.

“ ‘I’m living proof of that,’” he said.”

The story says a lot about Truman’s personality, how he viewed himself and how he viewed his ascendance upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death to a job Smith was convinced he never wanted. But any reporter would want to know: Who told Smith what the President said to the First Lady in a darkened room? The book doesn’t say.

Smith never got used to Truman’s early-rising habits. In 1949, when Truman was vacationing in Key West, Fla., Smith showed up at a surprise morning news conference “in blue pajamas with burgundy spots,” the official transcript noted. “Have you ever seen anything like the dead still walking!” said someone not identified in the transcript. “I stayed up all night working on official papers,” Smitty explained.

Here’s a gem of a Truman quote, from an exit interview he gave to Smith in 1952, a few weeks before he left office:

“Mr. Truman, when asked whether he would need protection after he leaves the White House, snorted and said, ‘If any nut tries to shoot me, I’ll take the pistol away from him, ram it down his throat and pull the trigger.’”

Truman had a reputation for salty language. You have to figure Smith omitted a couple of colorful words from that quote.

It’s hard to imagine any reporter today getting such a quote out of any politician, let alone a sitting president. It’s one reason Smith was so good. It’s also hard to imagine any president other than Truman saying such a thing. President Obama sure wouldn’t, even amid the fuss over the Secret Service right now.

The legend of Merriman Smith and the wire car

So much news happened in November and December 1963 that it was several weeks before word got out of how Merriman Smith of United Press International beat the Associated Press in reporting the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.1963-12-18 Leonard Lyons column on Merriman Smith's scoop
Leonard Lyons, a columnist for the New York Post, was the first to tell the story in print. Lyons wrote an “item” column – it usually included several interesting newsy or gossipy items about celebrities and news events. He described Smith’s beat in his lead item on Dec. 18, 1963.

According to Lyons, Smith and one other reporter were riding in a radiotelephone-equipped car several car lengths behind President Kennedy’s open limousine in downtown Dallas. “When the assassin’s rifle shots rang out, Smith reached for the mobile telephone in front of him, phoned his Dallas office and started dictating the bulletin … The other pool reporter kept demanding the phone, and tried reaching over Smith’s shoulder to grab it. Smith held on … The other reporter started pawing and pummeling Smith – who ducked under the dashboard to avoid the blows.”

Actually, there were four reporters in the “wire car,” which got its name from the fact that it always carried reporters from the AP and UPI wire services. Smith’s Associated Press competitor that day was Jack Bell, who usually covered the U.S. Senate. The other reporters in the car were Robert Baskin of The Dallas Morning News and Bob Clark of ABC News.

Bell was the reporter who took swings at Smith. “They’re good friends, the two correspondents, but in the competition for getting the news first, friendships vanish,” Lyons wrote. Then he quoted Smith saying of Bell: “He’d have done what I did, and I’d have done what he did.”

Actually, Bell and Smith were not good friends – certainly not after November 22. Bell took his anger over this incident to his grave.

Lyons’ column was the first report of a story that became journalism legend. By hanging on to the phone in the car, Smith kept the AP from getting the story. He also helped UPI build up a lead of several minutes in reporting one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century.