Friday, November 2, 2018

"Dewey Defeats Truman"


Seventy years ago today President Harry Truman staged his unlikely come-from-behind victory in the first presidential election since the end of World War II.  Despite having a splintered Democratic Party and three rivals, he waged an ambitious whistle-stop campaign from his Pullman car known as the Ferdinand Magellan.

Combating a widespread sense of doom from the press, pundits and even from party activists, Truman traveled 30,000 miles through thirty states excoriating what he called the “do nothing” Republican Congress.  While he was speaking in Bremerton, Washington, someone yelled, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!”  Truman responded, “I don’t give them Hell.  I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s Hell.”  The term “Give ‘em Hell, Harry” stuck as an unpopular president was transformed into a shrewd political fighter.

The campaign was full of tension.  Responding to Truman’s civil rights initiatives as well as the activism of young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey (including his keynote speech) at the June national convention, the southern Democrats bolted.  They formed a new party, the States’ Rights Democratic Party or Dixiecrats, and nominated South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond as its standard bearer.  Thurmond would later find a comfortable home in the Republican Party.  Running against Truman on the left was former FDR vice president Henry A. Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket.

The president’s principal rival, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, exuded extreme self-confidence and ran a lackluster campaign.  Dewey’s miscalculation reinforced the pollsters’ findings that there was no real contest; indeed, they ended their polling early not wanting to handicap the inevitable outcome.

Truman, of course, proved them wrong.  He won by more than two million votes and captured a wide electoral-college victory.  The erstwhile Democrats failed to impact the election; Thurmond captured only four Deep South states and Wallace was not a factor.

The president was able to gloat by displaying the now famous bulldog edition of the partial and overeager Chicago Daily Tribune with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”  A shocked Dewey said to reporters, “I was just as surprised as you are.”

The election of 1948 showed some of the flaws of the new “science” of polling.  It also highlighted how a determined scrapper could defy odds and bring his message to the American people before the age of television. 

I was pleased to be able to talk about this election at the Georgetown Public Library in Washington, D.C., last Saturday.  I’m sure many will be delivering post mortems on the mid-term elections coming up in a few days.  All elections provide an interesting snapshot of a period in time.

The photograph is of Truman and his wife and daughter on the campaign train exactly one month before election day 1948.  Credit:  Abbie Rowe, National Park Service. Harry S. Truman Library & Museum; public domain.

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