Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clifford Durr, December 29, 1974. Interview B-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Factors leading to appointment to the Federal Communications Commission

Durr explains how he was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1941. Durr outlines the roles of such players as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, White House aide James Rowe, Senator Lister Hill of Alabama, and former FCC member Frederick I. Thompson in his appointment. In addition, Durr describes how tensions between Jesse Jones and Emil Schram of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), where he had been working, prompted his move to the FCC. His goal, he explains, is to shed light on the ways in which political appointments happen.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clifford Durr, December 29, 1974. Interview B-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

We thought that we would begin by your telling us how you came to be a member of the FCC and when that was some of the issues you dealt with.
Well, as to how I happened to be, that was a political accident. I took my seat the first of November, 1941. Before that, I had been for six and a half years with the Reconstruction Financial Corporation, on the financial side. My first job was trying to put the busted banks back together and then I was general counsel for the subsidiary that financed the plant expansion getting ready for World War II, but the way that these things happen, it is not exactly the way that you are taught in political science classes. You might be interested, this is a little digression, about how this came about. I had no qualifications for the job at all. I got a call one day from Jim Rowe, who was one of Roosevelt's White House assistants at the time and he asked how I would like to be a member of the Federal Communications Commission. I said, "What in the hell is that?" He tried to explain to me, in a general way that it was the agence that licensed the broadcasting and regulated the rates and services of interstate and international telephone and telegraph. I said that was something that I knew nothing about and I thought that I had better stay where I was. I said that we were pretty important, trying to get some plants built and so on. This was before Pearl Harbor. He said, "Well, we are in a hell of a fix. You've got to help us all." Then he proceeds to tell me the predicament that they are in. My predecessor was also from Alabama, a man named Frederick I. Thompson, who had owned a chain of newspapers in Alabama and then sold out and got a pretty sizeable amount of money. Then, he got the political bee in his bonnet and decided that maybe he would make a good Senator. Well, Lister Hill was our senior Senator at the time and I think that he could have beaten Thompson, but he didn't like this idea of a well heeled political opponent in a campaign. So, he went to see Roosevelt. It happened at the time that there was a vacancy on the FCC, somebody had resigned or died. So, Lister asked Roosevelt to appoint Thompson to this FCC vacancy, to get the Senatorial bee out of his bonnet. Well, Roosevelt agreed to do it and he was appointed him and that suited him, he decided that he wouldn't run for the Senate. So, at the time that Rowe approached me, Thompson's time was just about to run out and he was sort of the bull in the china shop and didn't do his homework too well and messed things up generally and Roosevelt just said, "I'm not going to reappoint that man." Well, Lister Hill was a stalwart of the New Deal at that period and was a whip of the Senate and had been very helpful in getting through some New Deal legislation. In the public eye, Frederick I. Thompson was Lister Hill's man. So, if Roosevelt had refused to reappoint Frederick I. Thompson, it would look as if there was a split between Roosevelt and Hill, which would have spoiled or impaired Hill's effectiveness in the Senate and also, Roosevelt's name was one to conjur with even in Alabama at that time. It might mean that he would have some trouble in his next campaign. So, as Jim told me, "Some of us over there got our heads together and we decided that if we could get another Alabama man on the Commission, that would take off the curse and here is Cliff Durr right here in Washington. He is not only from Alabama, but from Lister's home town and they even went to school together." So, he said, "We are in a spot and you have to help us out." Well, I said, "I know nothing in the world about the Federal Communications Commission and it's work. I feel what I'm doing is far more important and I know what I'm doing here, I set up this organization." But there were battles going on between Jesse Jones, who was the top boss, and a man named Emil Schram, who was chairman of the board of the RFC. Schram was very much of a conservative, but was loyal to Roosevelt. Jones was trying to stick the knife in Roosevelt at every turn and Roosevelt was desperate to get our plants expanded and get some airplanes built in aluminum and steel and so on. That's what I was working on and Jones was trying to sabotage him at every turn. So, I was working through Schram. I said to Rowe, "Jim, you know what is going on here with the battles between Schram and Jones." Jones was too powerful a man politically for Roosevelt to fire. He wanted to get rid of him, but he couldn't. So, I said, "As long as Schram is there, I feel like I would be far more effective with the Defense Plant Corporation, this RFC subsidiary which was financing the plant expansion." I said, "But if Jones ever succeeds in getting Schram out, then I think my effectiveness will be over and I will be ready to go." So, he said, "We'll just let things ride awhile." Well, in newspaper stories about every week or so, Schram was being offered the big job, the presidency of the B&O Railroad and this, that and the other thing. Jones was getting these offers of jobs to try to get him out. The public could see the carrot at his nose, but they couldn't see the club at Schram's rump. So, one morning about three months after our first conversation, the Washington Post had a front page story that Schram had accepted the presidency of the New York Stock Exchange. About ten o'clock that morning, the phone rang and it was Jim Rowe. He said, "How about it now?" I said, "I'm ready to go." So, that was my qualification for membership on the FCC. I was a refugee from Jesse Jones' Organization where I had been for about eight and a half years. I'm digressing there for a little background that I thought might be amusing, because you get these things about how things work in government from textbooks and they don't always work that way.