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When Harry gave us hell

Here’s a well-worn nugget of Spokane lore: In 1948, President Harry Truman called The Spokesman-Review one of the “two worst” papers in the United States.

Oh, come on. Did a sitting president actually say that?

You bet he did. And not just once, but twice, the second time four years later.

Apparently, Truman truly did despise the newspaper you are holding.

Yet to understand why he would single out The Spokesman-Review in the same breath as the Chicago Tribune, the nation’s “other” worst paper, you have to hear the story in its full context, from beginning to end. So, assuming you can trust an S-R writer on this, read on:

It all began when U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.) hopped on Truman’s train in either Montana or Spokane (accounts vary) to be part of what the president called a “nonpolitical” tour of the country. On the morning of June 9, 1948, just after the train pulled in to Spokane’s Northern Pacific depot, Magnuson (or someone else) handed Truman a copy of that morning’s S-R. Truman probably knew little or nothing about The Spokesman-Review, which – let’s face it – was not exactly required reading in Washington, D.C. So Truman asked Maggie, as Magnuson was universally called, what he thought of it.

“I told Truman it was the second-worst paper in the U.S., politically, after the Chicago Tribune,” Maggie told S-R reporter Jim Camden in a 1988 interview.

What Maggie meant was that the S-R’s editorial stance was rock-ribbed Republican. The paper was founded as a Republican paper and had been particularly tough on Magnuson. It had once implied that Magnuson had shirked his patriotic duty by resigning from the Navy to run for Congress. The editorial page had also been consistently critical of Truman’s policies and was a reliable backer of Republican congressional candidates. At the time, the heavily Republican Congress was a particular thorn in Truman’s Democratic side.

The Chicago Tribune, another staunchly Republican paper, was another particular Truman irritant. This was, after all, the paper soon to become notorious for the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. So when Maggie compared the S-R to the Tribune – well, that was not calculated as an endearment.

So when Truman stepped out onto the train’s observation platform at Spokane’s Northern Pacific depot for an impromptu chat with the press, he was in a feisty mood. He and saw only one reporter standing there, Rhea (Ray) Felknor of the S-R, because the other reporters were gathered elsewhere.

Felknor began by asking Truman how it felt to “invade a Republican stronghold,” which probably got the session off on the wrong foot. According to Felknor’s own story the next day in the S-R, Truman glared down at the lone newspaperman, brandished a copy of the S-R and asked, “Do you work for this paper, young man?”

The reporter nodded – and probably gulped, as well.

Truman declared, “The Chicago Tribune and this paper are the worst in the United States.”

Maggie had a moment of panic.

“I thought, oh, Jesus! The next line is going to be, ‘Because Maggie told me so,’ ” Magnuson confided in that 1988 interview.

Truman, to Magnuson’s relief, left Maggie out of it. But the president wasn’t finished yet.

“You’ve got just what you ought to have,” continued the commander-in-chief, as the reporter furiously scribbled notes. “You’ve got the worst Congress in the United States you’ve ever had. And the papers – this paper – are responsible for it.”

Then Truman was whisked away to the first of a number of official appearances in Spokane and the Grand Coulee Dam.

Felknor said he must have looked crestfallen and a little surprised, since the headline on the paper Truman was holding was hardly inflammatory. It read: “Thousands Give Truman Gala Western Welcome in Butte.” Even that morning’s editorial was uncommonly friendly, headlined, “Spokane Honors the President,” which concluded by saying, “Spokane’s hope is that President Truman may enjoy his Spokane visit in proportion to the pleasure that the people of Spokane have in welcoming him.”

A little bit later, as Truman’s motorcade rolled out of the train station, the president waved to the reporter and grinned out the open window, “Nothing personal to you, young man.” That made Felknor feel better.

“The thing that impressed me was his humanity and his kindness,” said Felknor, 83, now a freelance writer in New Jersey.

Of course, Truman’s real message, which he hammered on tirelessly during this Western tour, was that the voters had elected the “worst Congress in American history.” One reason: The voters had been bamboozled by the conservative press.

Both Congress and press immediately expressed outrage over the President’s remarks. The Republican Speaker of the House said that there were people who were applying that “worst” label to the president. The acting Senate Republican leader noted that Truman sounded more like a ward politician than a president on a “nonpolitical, bipartisan investigation trip.” Yet the thin-skinned press was feeling particularly put upon.

“Scribes baffled by blast at S-R” said a headline in the S-R the next day, which said that the national correspondents traveling with the president all rushed off to buy copies of the S-R to see what the fuss was about. They were said to be uniformly “bewildered” that the president would pick on the paper.

Editorial writers from around the region rushed to the defense of the S-R. The Oregon Statesman in Salem declared that Truman “showed petulance as well as ignorance” in attacking the S-R.

“The Spokesman-Review is a very fine newspaper, honestly edited,” opined the Salem paper. “It doesn’t warp its news reports; and its editorial policy, while conservative, is also constructive.”

The Idaho Statesman in Boise felt it had irrefutable proof that Truman was wrong. In a piece headlined “The Figures Dispute Him,” it said that “according to audit figures, the 1,187,861 subscribers to these two newspapers hardly agree.”

Almost 1.1 million of those nearly 1.2 million subscribers were the Tribune’s, which may explain why the S-R made such a big deal about Truman’s remarks. The S-R may have been a little offended, but it was more than a little flattered.

The S-R’s editorial the next day acknowledged the “distinction accorded it by the president.” Then it addressed the twin charges that it was (1) one of the nation’s worst papers and (2) responsible for a Republican Congress.

“The Spokesman-Review can only dismiss the first charge as having been made in a moment of heated partisanship and the second as a tribute to the newspaper’s influence, albeit, we fear, at least in part undeserved,” said the S-R editorial.

Significantly, the Spokane Daily Chronicle, the S-R’s fierce journalistic rival despite shared ownership, remained completely silent on the issue. For the Chronicle, it was a nonstory.

Truman, however, had clearly relished this little scrap, so much so that he immediately brought it up again when he arrived in town for a speech more than four years later, on Oct. 1, 1952. While Truman and Magnuson were sitting in a convertible, waiting to drive to the Spokane Armory, an S-R reporter asked the president if he wanted a copy of the S-R.

“No, I don’t like that damn paper,” snapped Truman.

Truman finally accepted a copy of the paper and admitted that he did like one story, the front page story about Truman’s speech the day before. Yet when photographers started snapping his photo, he flung the paper aside.

“I don’t want that damn paper in the picture,” he barked.

When the reporter pressed him for a more detailed opinion, Truman said he would talk more about it in his speech.

“Is that a promise?” asked the reporter.

“Yes, I’ll tell you about it tonight,” said the president.

He kept his promise.

In the crowded Armory that night, he delivered his standard stump line about how his administration had reduced the national debt, but “you’d never guess it by reading the papers.”

Then he departed from his prepared text, looked up at the crowd and delivered this ad-lib: “Especially, if you read that second-worst newspaper in the United States, The Spokesman-Review. That paper never told the truth in politics in its life and it wouldn’t know the truth if it met it coming down the road.”

The S-R reported that Truman received a “goodly amount of applause,” for his speech in general, although it didn’t specifically mention the reaction to that line.

So we’ll just have to guess as to whether that was the point at which a raucous Spokane crowd shouted, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!”

 

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