U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) said in a 1988 interview that he unwittingly prompted Truman's 1948 remark. Magnuson said he was on Truman's campaign train that morning when Truman asked him what he thought of the Spokane morning newspaper. "I told Truman it was the second-worst paper in the U.S., politically, after the Chicago Tribune," said Magnuson (Camden).
He meant, essentially, that the paper's editorial stance was firmly Republican. The paper had been particularly tough on Magnuson, a Democrat, and had also been a reliable backer of Republican congressional candidates. At the time, the heavily Republican Congress was a thorn in Truman's Democratic side. The Chicago Tribune, another staunchly Republican paper, was another particular Truman irritant (it would later be responsible for the infamous headline that erroneously blared "Dewey Defeats Truman" on election night in 1948).
Shortly after chatting with Magnuson, Truman stepped out onto the train's observation platform at Spokane's Northern Pacific depot and saw only one reporter standing there, Rhea "Ray" Felknor of The Spokesman-Review. The other reporters were gathered elsewhere.
Felknor probably got the session off on the wrong foot by asking Truman how it felt to "invade a Republican stronghold" (Felknor). Truman glared down at him, brandished a copy of The Spokesman-Review and asked, "Do you work for this paper, young man?" (Felknor).
The reporter nodded and Truman then told him, "The Chicago Tribune and this paper are the worst in the United States."
Magnuson's Moment of Panic
Magnuson later said he experienced had a moment of panic. "I thought, oh, Jesus! The next line is going to be, 'Because Maggie told me so'" (Camden). To Magnuson's relief, Truman left Magnuson out of it. But the president wasn't finished yet.
"You've got just what you ought to have," continued Truman. "You've got the worst Congress in the United States you've ever had. And the papers –- this paper –- are responsible for it" (Felknor).
Felknor later said he must have looked crestfallen and a little surprised, because the headline on the paper Truman was holding was hardly inflammatory.
It read: "Thousands Give Truman Gala Western Welcome in Butte" ("Thousands"). 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" ("Spokane Honors").
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" (Felknor"). Felknor certainly did not harbor any ill feelings. In a 2007 interview, Felknor said, "The thing that impressed me was his humanity and his kindness" ("When Harry").
Truman's "worst Congress" remark got the nation's attention -- Republican congressional leaders expressed outrage -- but in Spokane the attention was on the newspaper remark. The national correspondents traveling with the president rushed off to buy copies of The Spokesman-Review to see what the fuss was about.
In Its Defense
Editorial writers around the region rushed to the defense of Spokane's paper. But in an editorial the next day, The Spokesman-Review seemed a bit flattered at the "distinction accorded it by the president" ("Truman Visit"). 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 editorial ("Truman Visit").
Second-Worst for the Second Time
Four years later, a feisty Truman brought it up again during another Spokane visit. On October 1, 1952, Truman delivered his standard stump line about how his administration had reduced the national debt, but "you'd never guess it by reading the papers" (Truman, "Address").
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" (Truman, "Address").
The Spokesman-Review failed to mention how the audience responded to that line.