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Democratic Party Secretary

March 4, 1933

Leslie Biffle

In the almost 80 years since the creation of the office of Democratic Party secretary in 1929, there have been 14 party secretaries. Among them, only two served more than 12 years. One was Marty Paone. The other was an equally interesting gentleman named Leslie Biffle of Piggott, Arkansas.

Born in 1889, Leslie Biffle moved to Washington, D.C., in 1909 as secretary to a House of Representatives member. In the 1920s, his fellow Arkansan, Senate Democratic Leader Joseph T. Robinson, named Biffle assistant party secretary. When the Democrats took control of the Senate in 1933, Robinson advanced Biffle to the role of secretary.

Biffle excelled as a legislative vote counter and political operative. At once gregarious and poker-faced, the blue-eyed secretary won and kept confidences among senators of both parties. A master of the Senate’s obscure folkways, Biffle regularly assisted new Democratic senators, including Harry S. Truman, who entered the Senate in 1935. The two men, close in age, political views, and modest demeanor, developed a deep friendship. Biffle played a major role at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in securing the vice-presidential nomination for Truman.

Early in 1945, Republicans joined the Democratic majority in unanimously electing Biffle secretary of the Senate. He also took on duties as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s secretary-treasurer—at a time when campaign cash was transported around the Capitol in brown paper bags.

In April 1945, Biffle’s considerable influence soared when Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency. Summoned to the White House to be told of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the new president made his first phone call to Biffle to ask that congressional leaders come at once. On the following day, Truman drove to Capitol Hill for a luncheon in Room S-224, which was then Secretary Biffle’s back office, with 17 of his closest former congressional colleagues. Room S-224 soon became a favorite watering hole—they called it "Biff’s Diner"—for members, lobbyists, and others seeking a back channel to the president. Relying on Biffle for his accurate and frank political counsel, Truman maintained a special White House phone that rang directly to the secretary’s desk.

When Biffle ended his 44-year congressional career in 1953, one Hill observer attributed Biffle’s success to the fact that his "esteem for Senators is so intense [that] he is always forgetting himself and doing favors for Republican Senators too." The New York Times cited his ability "to whisper without moving his lips, enabling him to transmit confidential information to Senators without fear of being overheard by anyone else."