||Truman Meets With Dewey||
1948: The Great Truman Surprise
New York Times declared, “Thomas
E. Dewey’s Election as President is a Foregone Conclusion.” Top pollsters
predicted a Dewey
win, as did leading national political writers. In fact, with the
exception of Truman, everyone
else was certain Dewey would be elected. Months before the election,
ran a cover of a picture of Dewey with a caption that read, “The Next President
of the United States.” Headline after headline screamed Dewey as
Truman, for his part, appeared to be running a campaign more against the Eightieth Congress than against Dewey. Truman presented a proposal to the Congress in February before the election that would guarantee the rights of blacks. This created conflict among the Democratic Party. At the convention, all of the Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegates walked out, for a total of 35, when Truman was praised for his “courageous stand on civil rights.” This lead to the split of the Party and the emergence of the Dixiecrats. South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond ran on the Party’s ticket. The Dixiecrats hoped to cause enough split in order to throw the election into the House, and therefore the South could prevent a civil-rights supporter from being elected. Many within the party were dissatisfied with Truman’s running mate, Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley. Once again, there was defection, which lead to the announcement of Henry Wallace and running mate Senator Glen Taylor (ID-Dem.) on the Progressive ticket. New York Times stated, “The [Democratic] Party might as well immediately concede the election to Dewey and save the wear and tear of campaigning.” With so much discontent going on within the party, the media hounded on the latest polls. A Gallup poll in 1948 reported that only 36% of the people thought that Truman was doing a good job as President. The nation was discontented with high taxes, rising cost of living, labor strife, and the Cold War that was brought on with the end of World War II.
Truman needed to turn the direction of the election around quickly. He revealed he would call the Congress back on July 26, just a few months shy of the election, to ask for legislation to slow rising prices, aid for education, a national health plan, civil rights legislation, public power, and cheap electricity. The media charged Truman with using cheap politics. Truman responded, “What that worst Eightieth Congress does in its special session will be the test. The American people will decide on the rest.”
While Truman was personable and feisty, Dewey appeared stuffy. The media referred to him as “the only man they knew who could strut sitting down.” Richard Rovere, of New Yorker, said, “he comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind” at rallies. He ended sentences with “period”, and was fond of phrases such as “Oh, Lord” and “Good Gracious.” With Truman behind in the polls, and public discontent with Truman, the Dewey campaign was laid-back and mild. Dewey’s running mate, Earl Warren, got so frustrated with the low-key campaign, that he commented to the media, “I wish just once I could call somebody an S.O.B.!”
Dewey had numerous faux pas in the campaign. At one stop, Dewey commented that it was nice to see so many children, and that they should be lucky he got them a day off from school. One kid yelled, “It’s Saturday.” At another speech in Illinois, Dewey was speaking from the rear platform of a train, which started backing up. No one was injured, but Dewey declared, the engineer “should probably be shot at sunrise, but we’ll let him off this time since no one was hurt.” Truman took full advantage of this, and announced that there were great train crews all across the nation, “they are all Democrats. Dewey objects to having engineers back up. He doesn’t mention that under that great engineer, Hoover, we backed up into the worst depression in history.”
Not only did the Truman campaign take full advantage of Dewey’s low-key campaign, but also the Democrats lack of funds. The party was often so low on funds that the President was cut off during the middle of his speeches. Louis Johnson, his fund-raiser, let the networks cut him off mid-speech to dramatize the financial plight. Once, when a station manager told him unless he coughed up more money, the President would be cut off, Jack Redding told him to, “Cut him off on a high note,” and in a loud voice stated, “The networks won’t let the President of the United States finish his speech!” This brought reporters running, stories in the newspapers the next day, and tons of indignant letters to the editors, as well as contributions to the Party.
As the election wore on, Truman gained the following of the people. While the press discounted him up to the end, the polls showed that the voters were starting to come around. Truman was still trailing Dewey, but he had closed the gap. The media refused to acknowledge it. Roper declared in September that he had such faith in his previous polls, that he would not issue a new one. As the reports filtered in the night of the election, Truman was ahead in the popular votes, but the newscasters still believed Truman did not have a chance.
The Election of 1948 had many milestones. The Republican Convention of 1948 was the first ever to be televised. The Truman upset caused pollsters, such as Gallup, Roper, and Crossley, to investigate where they went wrong. Columnists, reporters, and editorial writers blamed themselves for relying too much on the polls. Marquis Childs, a columnist, wrote, “We were wrong, all of us, completely and entirely, the commentators, the political editors, the politicians-except for Harry S. Truman, and no one believed him. The fatal flaw was the reliance on the public opinion polls.”
The legend of “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” was born. Harry S. Truman had fought the media, the commentators, and everyone else, and won the election. One of the most famous pictures is of Truman holding the Chicago Daily Tribune, with a headline that reads, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The 1948 Election shows the agenda of the media, how it conflicts with that of the American people. In his final campaign speech, Truman said, “The smart boys say we can’t win. They tried to bluff us with a propaganda blitz, but we called their bluff, we told the people the truth. And the people are with us. The tide is rolling. All over the country. I have seen it in the people’s faces. The people are going to win this election.”