Give 'Em Hell Harry!

Looking back at the 1948 presidential campaign.

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 ...

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Give 'Em Hell Harry!
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August 2000

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