In the summer of 1967 I was working on my master’s degree at the University of South Carolina, and I had to take a high-powered seminar on twentieth-century American history, about which I was abysmally ignorant. At the time, James F. (“Jimmy”) Byrnes, the man who had been expected to be nominated for Vice President in 1944 instead of Harry Truman, was living in Columbia, and although he had not been in politics since his term as South Carolina’s governor had ended, in 1954, he was still much revered in the state. Anyone growing up in South Carolina in those days knew how he had almost become Vice President, and therefore almost President, and how he had so crassly been denied the office.
After serving for a time as Truman’s Secretary of State, Byrnes had returned to South Carolina and been elected governor in 1950. During his term he persuaded a hesitant state legislature to impose a sales tax to build black schools. After 1954 he had retired from public life, and he now lived quietly, going downtown each day to an office that was provided for him near the state capitol. Once I had crossed the street in front of his limousine. He had given me a broad grin and a politician’s friendly wave as he passed by.
Eager to produce a coup for my seminar, I decided to try to meet and have a chat with “Good Governor Byrnes” and dazzle my professor and my classmates with some inside stories on FDR. Instead of writing or calling his office, however, I decided simply to appear, confident that this popular man would be eager to share his inside knowledge with a student of history.
That morning I put on a suit and tie and headed downtown to the Wade Hampton Office Building, anticipating an edifying conversation with a man who had been at the very center of national power. With what seems to me now an incredible absence of reserve, I knocked on his office door and entered without waiting for an answer.
I remember being struck by how small and simple the office suite was. I could immediately see all of it: a tiny secretary’s office, which opened into an equally tiny office, which was Mr. Byrnes’s. His door was open, and I could see every corner of his office. It was bare of furniture except for a metal chair or two and a battered Colonial card table, which served as his desk. The windows had no curtains, and the walls were devoid of pictures, plaques, or any decoration. The floor was bare linoleum tile. This was a very puny setup for one who had moved with the world’s leaders and had come within a hair of being President himself.
The secretary was not there. But seated rather inelegantly beside the Colonial card table was Byrnes himself. He was reading U.S. News & World Report .
He looked up from his magazine with a glare of stark annoyance. There was no trace of the smile he had given me that day on the street. I knew that I had made a very big mistake in coming to see him without an appointment. Suddenly all my naive confidence left me, and I wanted to run.
“Yes?” His voice displayed the same impatience as his piercing look.
Retreat was impossible at this point. Thoroughly rattled, I passed the secretary’s desk and entered his bare cloister. With all the casual friendliness I could muster I explained that I was a graduate student at the university and wanted to talk to him about Roosevelt, to give my fellow students some fresh, first-hand information on the great President.
The annoyance on his face turned to anger, and his voice rose several decibels. “Of course Roosevelt was a great man,” he said sharply. “Have you read my book?”
I had to admit that I hadn’t. My knees now shaking, I sat on the edge of one of the Spartan chairs in his office, poised to make my exit at the first opportunity.
“Then read my book,” he barked. “I said in there all that I have to say about Roosevelt.”
At this point I was prepared to thank him and eagerly depart, but he was not finished with me.
“How many students are there in the university?” he snapped.
I was telling him that I thought there were about ten thousand when he cut me off with “Suppose all of them came through my office. I’d never get anything done!”
My mind immediately went to the completely bare table and the U.S. News in his hand. It was fairly obvious that he had nothing better to do than to talk to this inquiring mind, but I could hardly argue his point.
I have only the vaguest recollection of my exit. I think I stammered out some sort of apology for disturbing him and rose to leave. As I did, the door to the outer office opened, and in came the heretofore absent secretary. Not knowing that I was an unwelcome guest, she smiled and spoke warmly as I fled. I remember how grateful I was for that one ray of friendliness. Had she not appeared when she did, I am to this day certain that I could have gotten under that door unopened.
Such was my feckless encounter with a man who was in his day one of the most powerful figures in the United States and the only twentieth-century South Carolinian to come close to being President. I still get a sick feeling at the pit of my stomach when I think of my visit. How often Byrnes must have been forced to tell the story of his betrayal by Roosevelt, a man he had considered a close friend. How painful it must have been for him to have it brought up again by an unknown, upstart graduate student who had crashed his office uninvited.