When I spotted Presidents Who Have Known Me on the shelves of the Montana Valley Bookstore, I knew I had to get it. With a title like that, the book was either going to turn out to be a classic of egocentric bombast or an enjoyable exercise in self-mockery, something along the lines of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.
Instead, it turns out to be a little of each and not enough of either to recommend to anyone but a historian desperate for an anecdote about some figure or other from midcentury American politics. George E. Allen’s Wikipedia entry describes him as a “political operative,” and based on his book, it’s a good way to sum him up. A Mississippian who had a few unsuccessful years as a small-town lawyer, Allen managed to work his way through a variety of jobs, including lobbyist and hotel manager, until he became a staffer for Pat Harrison, the senior Democratic senator from Mississippi and a key Roosevelt ally in Congress. With Harrison’s support, along with that of FDR’s press secretary, Steve Early, he managed to get appointed as one of the commissioners running the District of Columbia–a post he held for most of the 1930s.
He also wangled his way into a variety of official and unofficial positions in the Democratic Party, which led him to work (if mostly intermittently and on the margins) with FDR and Truman. His were one of a number of hands through which the notorious series of hand-written notes from FDR that eventually led to Truman’s selection of the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944. Later, he became involved with Truman’s re-election campaign in 1948. One recollection of this experience manages to illustrate how Allen attempts to be self-deprecating and self-celebrating at the same time and manages to flub the whole thing:
Almost all the political experts, both professional and amateur, were wrong in their predictions about the outcome of the last Presidential election [1948–Ed.]. But not one of them was more wrong than I. Indeed, I was even wronger than George Gallup.
To make it worse, I was, at the time of the campaign, a sort of self-appointed unofficial advisor to President Harry S. Truman. I was in a position to tell him how is campaign should be run, and I did so. All through the campaign Mr. Truman ignored my advice, and all through the campaign I kep promising myself that when he lost to Thomas E. Dewey I would remember to be generous and not say, “I told you so.” When it was all over and he had won, I told him that I had been supremely confident of his defeat.
“So was everybody else,” he confided, “but you’re the first one who’s admitted it.”
In case we fail to get his point, Allen makes it again, and as obviously as humanly possible: “My point is that whereas almost everybody was wrong on this occasion I managed to rise above the pack and get credit for being outstandingly wrong.” Why do I get the feeling that George Allen had a tendency to repeat the punch line when a joke failed to get a big enough laugh?
Allen–whose chief assets appear to have been an endless supply of jokes and ready availability as an extra hand at poker and bridge–didn’t come from Missouri, but that aside, exemplified the band of card-playing buddies Truman kept close at hand for advice and support. Allen fit in well with the likes of Truman’s old World War One Army pal, Harry Vaughan, who was promoted to General and appointed as the President’s Military Aide on the strength of similar achievements.
Indeed, when Truman appointed Allen to a seat on the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Washington Star broke the news with the headline, “Appointment of Allen to RFC Board Called Worst Choice Made by Truman.” Allen’s face made the cover of Time magazine, with the caption, “George E. Allen: For the President: jokes, cheers.” Despite the outcry of influential columnists such as Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann, all of whom noted that Allen was utterly unqualified for the job, a circle of Democratic Party supporters, led by Senator Alben Barkley (who went on to become Truman’s running mate in 1948), arranged to get the appointment confirmed. Allen acknowledges his lack of qualifications but insists that he had to go through it for Truman’s sake. In the end, he resigned the post after a year, having done almost nothing. This he seems to consider an illustration of his personal integrity and loyalty to the President. One wonders why he didn’t try harder to talk Truman out of making the appointment in the first place.
No, actually, by the time one reaches this point in the book, the whole affair seems to sum up Allen’s character. After all, he uses the Time magazine portrait for the cover of his own book.
Allen’s ambiguous role in Washington politics seems to have rapidly grown smaller after the RFC stint, and the book may have been an earnest attempt to keep his name in the spotlight a bit longer. Although he assures his readers that, looking ahead to the growing struggle between democracy and communism, “the men who emerge as our leaders will have the incalculable advantage of knowing me,” the evidence shows that his principal patron after 1950 was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, with whom he regularly lunched and went to the horse races. One may take some consolation that other American leaders failed to take advantage of Allen’s acquaintance.