Remembering Truman's 'Veep' Alben Barkley served in Congress for close to 40 years and was Harry Truman's vice president from 1948-1952. He too might have been forgotten like other vice presidents except for two things: his nickname and the remarkable circumstance of his death.

Remembering Truman's 'Veep'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

V: his nickname and the circumstances of his death.

Producers Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries bring us this audio portrait of the first vice president known as The Veep.

BLOCK: May name is Steve Truitt. I am the grandson of Alben W. Barkley. My grandfather was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. And he loved to talk and tell stories. And he loved singing, and you can barely restrain him. It seems like he came from a different era.


BLOCK: Well, this is a song that I have remembered from my boyhood days, and it's come down with me for half a century.

(Singing) See that diamond(ph) coming down the line, my baby. See that diamond coming down the line this evening. See that diamond coming down the line, he had to run sideways to keep from flying, my baby.

BLOCK: My grandfather was very much in favor of assisting the poor and not particularly sympathetic to the wealthier classes. So his concept of government was of Uncle Sam, as he used to say, not some lazy guy sitting back on the cushion some place, but rolling up his sleeves and actually getting things done.


BLOCK: In my 40 years of public life in Washington, I have advanced that theory for the opposition of the great many people who believe in just stand and still - that Uncle Sam or the government ought to be (unintelligible) post and not withstanding improvements in every other field, like egg (unintelligible) and medicine and education, transportation that government and politics (unintelligible) all stand still. I don't believe that.

(Singing) (Unintelligible) shove them in this evening.

BLOCK: In 1948, the Democrat's convention is in Philadelphia. And Truman hadn't made up his mind who to select as vice president. And the convention was going to go with whoever Truman decided.



U: Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky delivered the keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention.

BLOCK: the Declaration of Independence.

BLOCK: My grandfather gave a impassioned keynote address to rouse the Democrats off their bottoms or on their feet.


BLOCK: Thomas Jefferson did not proclaim that all white men, all black men, or red or yellow men, are equal, that all rich or poor men are equal, that all good or bad men are equal, what he declared was that all men are equal.


BLOCK: And that was that. He was selected as Harry Truman's vice president.


BLOCK: Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make this Republicans like it. Don't you forget that.

U: Harry Truman's blunt challenge in 1948 was the opening gun of a fighting campaign that accelerated the electorate and dazed the experts.

BLOCK: When he was vice president, my grandfather lived two and a half blocks where we lived. So he was over in our house all the time. And one evening, he was talking about his form of address, which he thought Mr. Vice President was too wordy and longwinded.


BLOCK: So wherever I went, people were saying, what should we call you? Well, one night, I was out at with my daughters, and she has four boys, and the youngest kid says to me, he said, gramps, why not put a little, two little Es in that, between those two big letters and call it veep?

BLOCK: He did so the next day to the pres corps, and that's what entered the lexicon.


U: Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the self-designated veep, the honorable Alben W. Barkley, vice president of the United States.


BLOCK: My grandfather wanted to be president a lot. It was the logical term of his entire life. So in 1952, my grandfather actively sought the nomination, but at that time, he was a lot older than anybody else who'd ever run for president and he did not get the support of labor. United Auto Workers felt that he was too old. So he withdrew his name. He was bitterly disappointed, but he moved on. My grandfather returned to the Senate and sat on the back row for the remainder of his term there.



U: On April 30, 1956, Alben Barkley, back in the Senate again at the age of 78, was making the speech at Washington and Lee University.

BLOCK: I have served my country and my people for half a century as a Democrat.

BLOCK: He was going through his standard speech and then digressed and talked about that people asked him did he mind being in the back row - the place reserved for the most junior senators, having spent many, many years as majority leader in the front row. And he had said that no, he did not mind that because, as he used to say, the race is not always to the clique.


BLOCK: I was a junior congressman, then I became a senior congressman, and then I went to the Senate and became a junior senator. And then I became a senior senator, and then majority leader of the Senate, and then vice president of the United States. And now, I'm back again as a junior senator.


BLOCK: And I'm willing to be a junior. I'm glad to sit on the back row, for I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty.


BLOCK: The next sound we hear was thump.


U: Senator Barkley just collapsed as he finished saying, I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than in the seats of the mighty.

U: Get a doctor. Somebody call a doctor.

BLOCK: And he died on the spot. And that's the way it turned out.


BLOCK: (Singing) See that diamond coming down the line, my baby. See that diamond coming down the line this evening. See that diamond coming down the line, he had to run sideways to keep from flying, my baby.

SIEGEL: The voice of Alben Barkley, the veep. Our story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries with help from Deborah George.

BLOCK: (Singing) ...shove them in this evening. See these diamonds in my breast, my baby. See these diamonds in my breast this evening. See these diamonds in my breast, tell all my women I'm going to rest, my baby.

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