American political lore abounds with one-line exhortations that capture the spirit of an experience and provide a short hand guide to its remembrance. "Fifty-four forty or fight!," "Remember the Alamo!," and "Peace in our time!" retain the energy and passion of long-departed causes and convictions, but none does so more effectively than the commonly heard cry from the 1948 presidential campaign, "Give 'em hell, Harry!"In what one historian has billed as "The Loneliest Campaign," Harry Truman prevailed against the near-universal expectation of his defeat by Thomas Dewey in 1948, and his upset victory was attributable in no small measure to his blunt and plainspoken assaults on his political enemies in the Republican Party.
It seems unlikely—to put it mildly—that this year's conventions will yield anything so memorable. Indeed, in The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election (Knopf), Harvard- and Oxford-trained historian Zachary Karabell argues that the 1948 contest was the last true political campaign of the twentieth century, because the introduction of television was to replace issues with "image" as the central factor in the electoral process.
"The television era," Karabell writes, "saw a decline in the number of options and a descent into. … platitudes." Furthermore, "as a result of the Cold War, American politicians closed ranks on foreign policy, and as a result of the protests of the 1960s, both politicians and the public became concerned that too much political debate could lead to chaos. The amalgamation of these two forces and television narrowed the spectrum of choice and debate in national elections.”
In 1948, however, the spectrum of choice was wide and colorful, ranging from Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats on the right through Dewey and Truman to Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party on the left. Karabell takes his readers on a wild ride through the tumultuous episodes of that election year, giving wonderful character sketches of a fascinating array of politicians, operatives, journalists, pollsters, and hangers-on. Karabell's technique is much the same as that of novelist John Grisham, building interest through in-depth examinations from the point of view of one of the camps, and then leaving his reader hanging and eager for more as he shifts his perspective to a different set of players. His informal, journalistic style is very effective, even as it tends to obscure the scholarly apparatus of his impressive research into a wide variety of manuscript collections, oral history interviews, newspapers and magazines, and a vast collection of secondary literature.
In the 1948 campaign, Karabell argues convincingly, "for the last time in this century, an entire spectrum of ideologies was represented in the presidential election. And not simply represented, but debated and discussed in the mainstream media." Although Truman and Dewey received the vast majority of the final vote, Wallace and Thurmond were "an integral part of the campaign," and the views of all four candidates were "aired on radio and dissected in print.
"Furthermore, "Truman talked not only of Dewey and the 'do-nothing' 80th Congress, but of the treacherous Dixiecrats and the protocommunists as well. Dewey's campaign strategy was to stand above the fray, but he still responded to accusations made by Truman and by the other candidates."
Karabell depicts Truman as an amazingly self-contained and self-assured man, one who trusted his own instincts about the views and wishes of the American people despite the barrage of negative forecasting from the media and the professional political analysts. He charges Truman with "stepping over the line" of political demagoguery in his whistle-stop rail campaign across the country, arguing that he made "sweeping indictments that portrayed his opponents as a small elite who wished only harm to the majority of Americans.
"Truman wanted to lead the country for another four years, and according to Karabell, "to achieve that victory he was willing to sow dissension, stir up fear, and slander his opponents." President Truman could get away with that kind of campaigning because he was not being covered by television or radio, and he knew that even though the local press who were present might respond negatively to his diatribes, most Americans would never hear about them.
In the end, when 50 of the country's most prominent newspaper editors and columnists all predicted that Dewey would win, Truman remarked "I know every one of these fifty fellows," and "there isn't a single one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole." When all was said and done, when the votes had been cast and only the waiting remained, this was a man who was able to drink a glass of milk, eat a sandwich, and go to bed.
Thomas Dewey emerges from Karabell's pages as something of an enigma, a plastic man who refused to dirty his hands by descending to the level of Truman's assaults. Lulled, perhaps, by the confident predictions of his imminent victory, Dewey and his advisers "designed a campaign that would minimize risk." And as the campaign progressed, the reporters on Dewey's train "began to notice an absence of substance." As Karabell writes, "Dewey's ethics may have been noble and his speech writing process may have been rigorous, but from them emerged a series of numbingly anodyne pronouncements."
Of greater consequence, although he liked to present himself in the Midwest as a farmer, Dewey failed to comprehend the problems and issues that animated the farmers' lives, and as a consequence he sacrificed that crucial block of voters to Truman. Karabell concludes, counterintuitively but persuasively, that of the four men who ran for president in 1948, "Dewey was the harbinger of the future, while Truman was the last of his kind." While Dewey lost the election, he set the tone for the politics of the future, the politics of television. "The Dewey campaign was designed not to offend and not to alienate; the Truman campaign was designed to allow Truman to be Truman."
Truman's victory in 1948 was hailed as "the greatest upset ever." The Democrats retook control of both houses of Congress as well as the majority of gubernatorial contests. Reporters who had covered the election were "dumbfounded," as were the party leaders. Arthur Krock of the New York Times stated the position of many journalists and editors when he commented that "The principal item on our menu will not be beefsteak, not terrapin, but crow."
How did Truman do it? Despite his subtitle, Karabell concludes that "to this day, that issue has not been adequately resolved and it likely never will be." The author does, however, offer several explanatory factors. First, Truman understood the concerns of the farmers and secured their votes far better than anyone had predicted. "In that respect," Karabell writes, "Truman's populist, anti-Wall Street rhetoric was vindicated." Second, Truman surrounded himself with "one of the most impressive teams of campaign managers ever assembled." And finally, with the Dixiecrats on the right and the Progressives on the left, Truman had "the freedom to speak forcefully on civil rights and to make a populist, anti-big business plea without running the risk of being called a Communist."
"It is tempting," Karabell acknowledges, to romanticize the 1948 election as an example of what our politics can be. In many ways, that temptation is justified. The contest offered people a range of different visions of what America should be, and for the most part, it was waged on the issues. To those who idealize pretelevision elections as more civil and more genteel, however, the reality of 1948 is a reminder of how rough American politics can be.
It is also a reminder of how vital and alive the political process used to be, and what fun it must have been to stand in the crowd and yell "Give 'em hell, Harry!"
Elizabeth Jacoway is a historian living in Arkansas. She is the author of Yankee Missionaries in the South: The Penn School Experiment and the editor of Understanding the Little Rock Crisis: An Exercise in Remembrance and Reconciliation.
In light of the recent Republican convention in Philadelphia, both Time and U.S.News and World Report have been casting back to the time when Dewey and Truman's parties both gathered in the city of brotherly love. Check out Time's The Way We Were: Philly in '48 and U.S. News's When Conventions Really Mattered.Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:Roaring Lambs | The Evangelical Culture of Euphemism, Part 3. (July 31, 2000) The Evangelical Culture of Euphemism, Part 2 | Should we distinguish betweenpublic and private discourse? (July 24, 2000) The Culture of Euphemism | A dispatch from the Christian Booksellers Association convention. (July 17, 2000) Get Outta My Face! | The most troublesome word in religion today. By John Wilson (July 10, 2000) It Takes a Village to Raise a Child … | But for an abortion, you only need a doctor and a nurse or two. By John Wilson (July 3, 2000) Mad Scientist Holds World Hostage | Thoughts on the "rough draft of the genome map." By John Wilson (June 27, 2000) History Wars Update | 'Feisty' historians attempt to reconstruct their discipline. By Donald A. Yerxa (June 19, 2000) Semite Sensibility | What makes a movie Jewish? A series of film festivals takes a look. By Camilla Luckey (June 12, 2000) Beneath the Orange and Green | A survey shows Northern Ireland's hope lies in its churchgoers. By Mark Noll (June 5, 2000)
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