60 Years After Truman Beat Dewey: The Man From Missouri v. The Gangbuster

Mr. Weisenmiller is a Florida-based reporter for Inter Press Service and The Economist. Go to www.alkapressinternational.com for information on his book “Chet Huntley: Newscaster From The West  A New Kind Of Book,” slated to be published this fall.

As Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona slog through the hot summer months continuously campaigning, this is a good time to review the 1948 Presidential campaign. That particular election eventually provided the most surprising upset in U.S. Presidential election history.

Vice President Truman became President Truman in April, 1945 after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Considering the numerous ways in which F.D.R. redefined the role of the Presidency, Truman, upon becoming President, must have felt like the second man to have invented the light bulb. After World War Two ended in 1945, Truman immediately had to cope with two domestic crises which took up much of his time---a shortage of both food and housing in the United States. Tens of thousands of military personnel were mustered out of the armed forces during this time period and when they returned to the U.S., they wanted well-paying jobs which would allow them to purchase middle-class homes. For many months in the United States, neither was available.

The Man From Missouri, while having many foreign policy assets (regarding the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, his strong backing of the creation of Israel, etc.) also had to deal with numerous labor strikes, in numerous industries, in the U.S., and negotiating with labor leaders was never one of Harry Truman’s strong points. In 1946 he faced a strike in the railroad industry that led to a cessation of virtually all rail traffic in the US for a month.

In an unprecedented move, Truman threatened that the federal government would take over the day-to-day operations of the railroad industry by forcibly using military personnel. That never happened, as the railway strike was settled, but Truman’s bombastic threat lost him the support of tens of thousands of traditionally Democratic labor leaders and union members.

Truman’s determination to pass civil rights legislation in favor of blacks lost him another key sector of Democratic voters. That is, Southerners, so much so that Storm Thurmond, the ever-wily Governor of South Carolina, was Truman’s second notable 1948 Presidential candidate with which to contend. Thurmond’s party was known as the Dixiecrats.

The first was Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican Governor of New York (from 1943 to 1955). In 1940 Dewey made a substantial run for the 1940 Republican Presidential nomination. However he lost to Wendell Wilkie of Indiana. Four years later, Dewey easily won the Republican Presidential nomination but had to run against F.D.R. and the latter was a war-time Commander-In-Chief. Opponents to war-time Presidents rarely defeat incumbents and Dewey followed suit.

It was also during this 1944 time period that a Washington, D.C. Republican socialite  described Dewey as “looking like the little man on top of the wedding cake,” referring to the miniature replica bride and groom candles often seen atop wedding cakes.

For the physically short Dewey this insulting description, which was often republished in newspapers and magazines, stayed with him all of his life. It was a cheap and unfair remark, as the Michigan-born man was a successful New York prosecutor and District Attorney. His amazing success at prosecuting underworld figures, the most famous being Lucky Luciano, created a theological plank of the Republican Party which the G.O.P. has kept yet---the vocal (sometimes strident) backing of law enforcement agencies. For this legal success, Dewey became known as the Gangbuster.

Dewey was also an amazing accumulator of votes, even when he lost elections. Yet there was an unshakeable problem for Governor Dewey and for its illumination a paragraph from John Gunther’s “Inside U.S.A.” (1947) follows:

“A blunt fact about Mr. Dewey should be faced: it is that many people do not like him. He is, unfortunately, one of the least seductive personalities in public life. That he has made an excellent record as Governor is indisputable. Even so, people resent what they call his vindictiveness, the ‘metallic’ and ‘two-dimensional’ nature of his efficiency, his cockiness (which actually conceals a nature basically shy) and his suspiciousness. That Mr. Dewey is crammed with ego is well known. His voice is baritone, but he can sound terror notes. People say that his sense of humor is vestigial, and that he is as devoid of charm as a rivet or a lump of stone.”

Before Thurmond, Dewey and Truman had to deal with another political phenomenon: Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had a non-fiction book (which was partially ghost-written) entitled “Crusade In Europe,” about his work as the Allied military leader, published in 1948 and it was a spectacular success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

Nothing in the U.S. will draw out national political wheeler-dealers as much as a successful man or woman who can quickly accumulate vast amounts of money, and such alert G.O.P. personnel, taking note of Eisenhower’s popularity, urged him to run as a Republican for the Presidency. When “Ike,” as he was known, resigned his post as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army in February, 1948, speculation was created that Eisenhower would become a Presidential candidate. He did not. Instead, he became President of Columbia University in New York.

Truman knew that he was going to run for reelection on the very day that he became President. “I had some ideas of my own, and in order to carry them out I had to run for reelection and be reelected, and that is exactly what happened. Of course I didn’t say I was going to run for quite some time. It didn’t do any harm that I could see to keep people guessing for a while, ” Truman told author Merle Miller in the book “Plain Speaking: an Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman” (1973).

Three political parties---the Democrats, Republicans, and the Progressives---all held their Presidential convention nominating meetings in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the summer of 1948. In the above order of the presented political parties, the Presidential nominees were Truman, Dewey, and Henry Wallace. The latter’s candidacy was more egotism and fanciful than populism and practical. In the November Presidential election, Wallace won no electoral college votes, but Thurmond (who was made the Dixiecrat candidate at a convention held in Birmingham, Alabama) did. The South Carolinian won 39 electoral votes.

The main battle for the Presidency, of course, was between Dewey and Truman. In addition to all of the above mentioned problems for the President, all of which led to a deep dip in his popularity, Dewey was expected to win the Presidency because he picked the ever-affable and extremely popular Republican Governor Earl Warren (who was one of the few Republicans that Truman liked) as his Vice-Presidential candidate. California’s post-World War Two “boom” in population made it THE state that a political party candidate must win in order to become President (60 years later, that is still the case). Warren’s popularity among Californians led political commentators to believe that Dewey would win the state in the November Presidential election.

Both Dewey and Truman did their Presidential campaigning by way of train (two separate ones, of course). The 1948 Presidential campaign would be the last to use this form of transportation for campaigning; since then Presidential candidates have used airplanes to travel. One of the few reporters who spent considerable time “covering” both the Dewey and Truman campaigns was Richard H. Rovere, the political reporter for “The New Yorker” magazine. In a October 9, 1948 story entitled “Letter From A Campaign Train” (whose subtitle was EN ROUTE WITH TRUMAN), Rovere wrote the following:

“The name of a town we (travelers on the Truman campaign train) have been in doesn’t stand for a plot of earth or a group of buildings: it stands for a particular audience or a particular incident. To a man who has been riding the rails with President Truman, Reno (Nevada) isn’t a famous divorce-and-gambling city but the place where our man blew a few of his lines and talked about ‘Republican mothbags’ when he meant to say ‘ Republican mossbacks.’ ” Later in the same story Rovere wrote:

“I am certain that, no matter what the fate of the Truman administration, millions of Americans will, for the rest of their lives, have framed in their mind’s eye a vivid image of the Three Traveling Trumans (the President, his wife Bess, and their daughter Margaret) highballing off into the black nights of Colorado or Arizona, blending with the tall pines of the Sierras, or being slowly enveloped by the dust of the Midwestern plains. It will be a picture to cherish, and it will stand Harry Truman in good stead for the rest of his life. Traveling with him, you get the feeling that the American people who have seen him and heard him at his best would be willing to give him just about anything he wants except the Presidency.”

Exactly one week later, October 16,1948, “The New Yorker” published a Rovere story again entitled “Letter From A Campaign Train” (this time subtitled EN ROUTE WITH DEWEY), in which the political reporter began, “Candidates notoriously promise better than they ever perform, but if Governor Dewey manages the Presidency half as well as he is managing his campaign for it, we are about to have four, eight, twelve, sixteen years of cool, sleek efficiency in government…. Everything I’ve seen of the Dewey campaign is slick and snappy. This is in strong contrast to the general dowdiness and good-natured slovenliness of the Truman campaign, at least when and where I observed it.”

As Rovere noted in his first article, Truman had to verbally attack Dewey because all major polls predicted that he (Truman) would lose the Presidential election. In fact, some polling agencies noted that so many of their polls had Dewey winning that the agencies stopped conducting polls in the weeks before the election.

The more that Truman verbally attacked Dewey, the more that the New York Governor took a mood of icy complacency. Dewey’s 1948 Presidential campaign speeches are noted by historians for their dull usage of the English language and, considering the low levels of some Presidential candidates' eloquence, that’s some statement. In almost every stump speech Dewey would tell the crowds who anxiously gathered to hear him speak that “your future lies ahead of you” and (a particularly galling cliché): “I will do the greatest pruning and weeding operation in American history” (when he would be elected President and begin to pare down the federal government bureaucracy). The people who witnessed, heard (via radio), and saw (on television or in movie theatre newsreels) such Dewey speeches had trouble remaining awake.

Again and again Dewey’s campaign staff would tell their boss to address Truman’s verbal attacks and again and again the New York Governor refused to do so. Why? Dewey never really wrote in detail why he refused to do so, during his lifetime.

September melted into October and the mood of the country was shifting away from Dewey and to the “Give ‘Em Hell !” (a popular phrase heard innumerably in Truman’s campaign) Truman. The President continued to verbally hammer away at Dewey and the Republican 80th “do nothing” Congress and chiseled away at Dewey’s lead.

By this time, mid-October, even the cosseted Dewey realized what was happening and he began to berate his campaign staff. In Beaucoup, Illinois on October 12, 1948, Dewey was speaking from his campaign train rear platform when, inexplicably, the train lurched into reverse and toward the crowd. Dewey, to slip into American youth slang, lost it. He told the crowd that “That’s the first lunatic I’ve had for an engineer. He probably ought to be shot at sunrise but I guess we can let him off because no one was hurt.”

This emotional blow up by Dewey was blown up by press and radio reporters. They used it as an occasion to make the argument that Dewey, who liked to proclaim that he was a friend of the working man, actually was not. The most famous wise-crack by reporters about this incident was by James “Scotty” Reston of “The New York Times,” when he ended a column for that newspaper with the phrase “…and the train left the station with a jerk.”

Finally Election Day, November 2, 1948 came. Both Dewey and Truman retreated to sites in their native states---the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City for Dewey and Excelsior Springs, Missouri for Truman---to await the results. Truman took an early lead in the Presidential voting tabulations and he never lost it.

Excelsior Springs, as the name implies, is a resort town and the President secretly checked into a hotel room there, had a Turkish bath nearby, returned to his hotel room, took a shower, ate a ham sandwich and drunk a glass of buttermilk, and went to bed at six p.m. local time. About midnight he awoke, turned on the radio in the hotel room, heard news commentators say that he would lose the election when the late (i.e., Far Western) states votes came in, and was about to turn off the radio when he got a telephone call from long-time pal Tom Evans, who told Truman that he (the President) had just lost the state of New York to Dewey.

To win the Presidency, Truman had to win the states of California,, Ohio, and Illinois. According to the book “Plain Speaking,” Truman told Evans in that telephone conversation “Tom, I’m going back to sleep. Now don’t call me any more. I’m going to carry all three of those states.”

The President did so. He won California by over 17,800 votes (an amazing win, considering Gov. Warren’s popularity), Illinois by over 33,600 votes, and Ohio with over 7,100 votes. Dewey didn’t concede the election until 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on November 3, 1948.

The “Chicago Daily Tribune,” a very conservative Republican newspaper in editorial tone, then proceeded to commit one of the great goofs in the history of journalism. Editors at the newspaper were so sure that Dewey would win that they approved the printing of a November 3, 1948 front-page story entitled “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The President held up a copy of one of these newspapers at a public gathering and a famous photograph forever memorialized the occasion.

The Man From Missouri had done it; he had won in a stunning upset. Truman won every Far Western state with the exception of Oregon. In total, he won 303 Electoral College votes, while Dewey tallied 189 electoral votes.

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More Comments:

Lisa Kay - 10/13/2008

This is a great, informative read. However, since you started off your story with reference to the current election, I do wish that you had offered more opinion on how the Truman/Dewey race compares to what's happening now.

Also, I must second the first comment about the correction needed to your statement that "60 years later" California remains "THE state that a political party candidate must win in order to become President." Not only did George W. Bush win twice without California (as the previous commenter noted), but Jimmy Carter (1976) and John Kennedy (1960) also became President without winning the state.

Regardless of this, your article gives great context to an election note that I never knew much about. I can't wait to share this with my child.

Thank you.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/13/2008

I think you will find President George W. Bush was elected twice without carrying the state of California.

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