the election of 1948 and why politics hasn’t changed all that much

It’s hard to get too far into reading a newspaper these days without hearing about how nasty the political game has become. At first glance, it’s an easy assertion to buy into: between the government shutdown, Congress’ inability to pass any meaningful legislation, the vitriolic opposition to compromise coming from both sides of the aisle, etc., etc., things do seem to have changed. The media plays a role in selling the idea, too. Magazine covers and op-eds all trumpet the same message: America just doesn’t seem to work any more.

Our collective memory is startlingly short. Anyone who has read a little bit of history knows this. Case in point: David Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America. At first glance, one would think that this book brings us back to those good ol’ post-war days, when America’s “greatest generation” came together in selfless unity to solve the problems that faced the world’s newest superpower. According to Grandma, ours was a system that provided equitable distribution of the riches of the free market, protected the rights of all citizens, and stood up to the menace of Soviet communism for the benefit of Europe and all peoples everywhere who wanted to be free. Grannie must know because she was there… right?


To put it bluntly, those gilded memories of halcyon days are not only a fantasy, but seriously damaging to our political conversation today. The fact is, this book is a single example among thousands of others that prove the folly of the assumptions underlying our conversation: politics has always been a dirty game. Class warfare, subversion of enemies, bribery, corruption, and bitterly fought campaigns with much nasty invective were all common qualities of elections in the past.

The book picks up sometime in the first Truman administration with short biographical sketches of the main characters: Truman, Thomas Dewey, Henry Wallace, and Strom Thurmond (the four candidates for president in 1948).

Truman, as many may know, had become quite unpopular in by the 2 and 3rd years of his first term. Many believed him fundamentally unsuited for the office. He was pretty good at creating political headaches for himself: gaffes at press conferences, messaging blunders, poor overall management of the day to day business of the White House, appointing cronies to important posts in his government… the list could go on.

The author’s narrative style is like that of an investigative journalist — all the facts, damning as they may be the image of those involved. He almost seems to relish demolishing the popular conventional narrative that is Harry S Truman’s legacy.

However, there is an issue with one aspect of his version of the story. Although Truman is often cited as an early presidential champion of civil rights, Pietrusza paints him as a racist (a charge I found due to the author’s inability to refrain from judging characters through a more modern political paradigm). Although Truman was capable of partaking in the attitudes considered racist by our standards, anyone who can bring himself to view the past through native eyes can see that he was in fact a great champion of civil rights for all races, and for the right reasons. Here was a man (like LBJ) who used his strength of conviction and knowledge of politics to do much to alleviate the plight of African Americans at the time while ensuring that he would be taken seriously as a political leader. Indeed, Truman broke with generations of family tradition (his family had a deep history of Southern sympathies, culminating in his mother, who proclaimed that “I thought it was a good thing that Lincoln got shot”) in championing civil rights. Especially when you compare his stance with that of Strom Thurmond.

Because Harry Truman was unable to keep the New Deal coalition (northern liberals, southern conservatives) from unravelling, Truman faced a splintering of his party. Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace were the leaders of these two radical wings of the Democratic party.

Strom Thurmond

Strom Thurmond, a Senator from South Carolina led the Dixiecrat party, the Southern answer to the Democrats’ slow march toward support for civil rights reform. The Northern liberal wing of the party had come to support anti- poll tax and anti-lynching legislation and the Southern coalition wanted nothing to do with it. Enter the Dixiecrat party. The party began as a legislative strategy (masterminded by Thurmond and a handfull of Southern Governnors) to contest the election, and push it into the House of Representatives, thereby forcing the Democratic party to desist in its steady march toward equality for blacks.

Former Vice President Henry Wallace was the exact opposite. This strangely mystical, naïve, wholly progressive politician saw himself as the rightful heir to the New Deal. Imagine his resentment when he received the boot from FDR on the eve of the 1944 election in favor of Harry Truman. The fact at the time was (and this remained so in 1948) that Wallace could never dream of holding together the Democratic coalition. Embittered, he thus broke off and formed his own Progressive party. Sadly for him, it would not remain his own for long.

From the beginning, his party was hijacked by communist sympathizers who longed to legitimize their cause in the eyes of the American public. Their campaign message focused on foreign affairs: they argued that a vote for Truman was a vote for war with the Soviets. On the domestic front, their agenda was just a continuation of the New Deal. As hard as Wallace tried to make the party a multi-issue party, he never was really able to get past his advocacy of rapprochement with the Soviets.

His real undoing, though, was his mishandling of the communist issue. He was never able to convince the public and the press that his party wasn’t rife with communist influence (it was). His bungling efforts to do so were almost pathetic. Pietuzsa describes a scene in the book that shows Wallace’s astonishing naïveté:

“Wallace inquired if it were indeed true that much of the party’s central core was indeed communist. [screenwriter Lillian Hellman] laughingly responded that of course it was so. ‘Then it is true,’ he responded”

If that wasn’t enough, Wallace’s so-called “guru letters,” a series of missives that he had written to an Eastern mystical religious leader, became public and became a liability as well. Again, his bungling response to the issue made matters worse.

But the primary problem that the Progressive party faced was more existential: if the party aimed to deprive votes from Truman, its end result would simply be to elect a Republican. The party lacked the hard strategy that the Dixiecrat party had shrewdly crafted. This accounts for Wallace’s dismal showing at the polls. The entire exercise was a study in futility.

Truman’s Republican rival was New York governor Thomas Dewey. Dewey came to prominence as a crusading New York City district attorney who took on the mob in courageous and brilliant fashion. Pietrusza describes him as a “brilliant” attorney who was masterful at swaying skeptical juries. As governor, he raised salaries for public employees, reduced the state’s debt, and instituted the state’s first anti-discrimination employment policy. He was an almost perfect candidate who found himself in the right place at the right time. But this turned out to be his fatal flaw: Dewey was just too good, and this made him boring.

His entire campaign plan could be reduced to a simple platitude: make no mistakes. True to form, he stuck to the game plan too well. His speeches were short, to the point, but lacking in passion and content. They were bland statements that, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal could be boiled down to such insipid statements as: “Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.” As the campaign progressed and the spectacular early lead Dewey enjoyed shrank, Dewey refused to change his strategy. This is especially startling in light of the fact that Harry Truman had taken the gloves off in desperation and was saying anything he could to smear his opponent.

Pietrusza’s vivid portrayal of the campaign makes obvious the huge contrast between the campaigns: there is Dewey, refusing to greet voters and failing to show up for his own parades, contrasted with Truman, relentlessly cajoling voters at rally after rally that if they don’t vote for their own interests they deserve what they get. Dewey: his San Francisco field office shutters its doors two weeks before the election. Truman: tirelessly campaigning all the way to the end. Dewey: directs his staff to spend precious time selecting ambassadors and cabinet members rather than strategizing. Truman: comparing his opponent to a fascist because of his connection to business interests.

A major campaign theme for Truman was the “do nothing eightieth congress.” He used the lack of meaningful legislation as a talking point in his campaign speeches (sound familiar?). He even called the Congress into special session as a successful campaign stunt. Although it didn’t produce any major legislation (Truman thought it had been a failure at the time) it was a real life example that seemed to underline his point.

Truman was also able to connect with the farm vote on a level that Dewey didn’t account for. Rural voters had voted overwhelmingly for Dewey in the 1944 election, so he took them for granted. Truman connected with farmers (as he had grown up and worked his family farm prior to being a politician) on the issues that mattered most to them: falling food prices and inflation. Farmers were having to sell more product to keep earnings up, only to see the money they did manage to earn buy them even less. They were being squeezed from both sides.

An exhausted Truman made his final campaign speech in St. Louis then settled in to Excelsior Springs, Missouri to relax and wait for the word (though he was bound and determined to go to bed on time, regardless of whether the outcome was known or not). He went to bed promptly at 6 p.m.

We all know the final outcome.

The themes of 1948 (communism, segregation, union rights, health care, inequality, agriculture, inflation, gridlock in congress) were no less divisive than those facing us today. And the vested interests involved were no less determined to use whatever tactics they could to get their way: Pietrusza describes FDR Jr.’s attempts to undermine Truman’s candidacy from the start, in a scheme to draft Dwight D. Eisenhower for the job; The 1948 campaign was but one chapter in the Southern coalition’s campaign to delay the end of their racist policies; There were largely unsubstantiated rumors that Wallace had communists working for his party was enough to undo him; Truman’s nasty campaign rhetoric was about as shrill as any we hear today.

Overall, the web that Pietrusza spins is an engaging and correct one. His conclusions on the race given in the final chapter are largely spot on, viz., that Truman could easily have lost because of Thurmond, that he was helped by Wallace, his victory was largely due to minority votes in his favor and Dewey’s poorly run campaign. But it deserves to be read not just because of the subject matter, and correct conclusions, but also because it is an engagingly written account that makes the reader feel as though he is watching the campaign unfold and forming his own opinion in real time. It would not be surprising if this book becomes the definitive account of the election in coming years.

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