Few American schoolkids can have avoided seeing the famous picture of the victorious Harry Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune, with the blaring headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The picture is usually accompanied with a paragraph or two mocking the primitive polling methods of 1948, whereby phone surveys were utilized. Phone surveys would tend to miss the many lower and lower-middle class voters who had neither telephones nor even permanent addresses. Mentioned far less often is that many radio political commentators, including broadcast legend H.V. Kaltenborn, ignored Truman’s consistent lead on election night, assuring listeners that late returns would propel Dewey to victory.
The biggest problem with the polling might have been that a goodly number of organizations were so confident of Dewey’s lock on the outcome, that they simply stopped polling a few weeks before the election—thus not recording a big surge in support for Truman. At any rate, since history textbooks are overwhelmingly written by liberals, or even full-on Leftists, the entire exercise portrays a subtext that the rich-guy and evil Republicans were simply clueless as to the plight of the little guy, and deserved to lose on that basis alone.
The truth of what occurred though, is far different, and there may be lessons for us sixty years later…
Harry Truman, a Pendergast machine politician and senator from Missouri, was essentially forced upon FDR as the vice-presidential candidate in 1944, after he was convinced to jettison uber-Leftist Henry Wallace. Although this was hidden from the public, Roosevelt was already in seriously declining health and many Democrats were quite uncomfortable with Wallace ascending, sure as they were that FDR would not make it through his fourth term. In retrospect, such cynicism—not to mention the elevation of an obscure senator, tied to a corrupt political machine (that he would never disavow)—challenges even today’s bottom-of-the-barrel standards.
For his part, FDR hardly ever spoke to Truman, the accidental incumbent who became the 1948 Dem candidate despite significant initial opposition.
Contrast Truman with Thomas E. Dewey, successful New York City prosecutor and Manhattan district attorney dubbed “Gangbuster,” spawning a popular radio program. Dewey ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 1938, being barely defeated by New-Dealer Herbert Lehman. Dewey was to be elected governor handily in 1942, and again in 1946 by the greatest margin in state history. An extremely popular governor, he cut taxes, reduced the state’s debt, and enacted the country’s first law prohibiting racial discrimination.
Although Dewey lost to FDR in 1944, he did better than any other opponent. Dewey was not afraid to go after inefficiencies, corruption, and communist influences in FDR’s administration, and also intended to go public with the assertion that “instead of being reelected, [FDR] should be impeached,” since he knew in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Well, of course he did, but revelation of this would have exposed the fact that we had broken the so-called Purple Code of the Japanese. As it happened, Dewey avoided this topic in the campaign, persuaded by the military.
Imagine losing an election knowing this—and probably a whole lot more—about your opponent, but having to keep mum about the worst details. You would think that this would have turned Dewey into a much more aggressive campaigner in 1948, but you would be wrong.
Given the defection of Wallace’s Pinko contingent, as well as Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats over Hubert Humphrey’s civil rights platform plank, the fractured Dems supporting a less-than-popular Truman seemed like a lost cause. The Republican strategy was to run out the clock, and Dewey quite uncharacteristically spouted platitudes for the entire campaign. An editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal noted that “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot not have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”
Worse, with Truman battling as if he had nothing to lose, Dewey refused to counter any of his attacks. Perhaps the biggest blunder was that Dewey did not even attempt to separate himself from the Republican-controlled 80th Congress, dubbed “do-nothing” by Truman. Good grief! Dewey was a GOVERNOR, was more liberal than most of the Republicans on the Hill, and his 1948 platform provided for expanding social security, civil rights, public housing, and federal aid for health and education. It also didn’t help that he studiously avoided red-baiting, despite the repeated urgings of conservatives.
Given the record from 1948-1952, there is little disagreement that Dewey would have made a far better president than Truman. You can bet that Truman never raised up that copy of the Chicago Tribune calling for immediate impeachment proceedings against Truman, in the wake of his “revenge of the nerds” firing of MacArthur:
President Truman must be impeached and convicted. His hasty and vindictive removal of Gen. MacArthur is the culmination of a series of acts which have shown that he is unfit, morally and mentally, for his high office… The American nation has never been in greater danger. It is led by a fool who is surrounded by knaves…
We can only speculate on how different this country could have been had the 1948 election turned out according to plan. But then, the best man doesn’t always win.