Every political ???junkie,??? passionate or otherwise, is familiar with the 1948 presidential election. That was when Democratic President Harry Truman defied the polls, the ???experts,??? and the renegade candidacies of Democrats from their party???s leftist and segregationist wings to win a full term over Republican Thomas E. Dewey, who was considered such a shoo-in to become president that he already had his Cabinet in mind.
Although the story of ???Give ???em Hell??? Harry and his remarkable upset has been told and retold numerous times, David Pietrusza breaths fresh life into ???1948??? with his eponymous book. The third in Pietrusza???s histories of presidential election years, ???1948??? not only offers fresh insight and information about Truman, Dewey, and fringe candidates Strom Thurmond (Dixiecrat Party) and Henry Wallace (Progressive), but similarities to and lessons for the race in 2012.
Like Mitt Romney, New York Gov. Dewey was an Eastern ???establishment??? Republican who overcame a more conservative opponent (Ohio Sen. Robert Taft) and who the GOP right never fully warmed to. Dewey, in turn, never fully embraced issues that would have reignited the party???s conservative base. He never defended the record of the Republican-controlled 80th Congress???or, as Truman repeatedly branded it, ???the do-nothing Congress.???
(Actually, the 80th did do a lot???including the landmark Taft-Hartley labor reform act, investigating Communist infiltration of the U.S. government, and passing an across-the-board tax cut over Truman???s veto.)
As the Republican nominee against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Dewey railed against Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) boss Sidney Hillman and his ties to Communists. The New Yorker declared before a rally in Boston that ???with the aid of Sidney Hillman, the Communists are seizing control of the New Deal. . .to control the government of the United States.??? Although Dewey did gain support with this fighting tone, ???his wife Frances hated it. . . .Editorialists recoiled in horror. Dewey would never again exploit the issue of domestic communism.???
Four years later, as probes by the GOP-run House unearthed the cases of Soviet operatives Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, Dewey ???studiously refrained from exploiting a far more explosive issue??? than Hillman.
Truman rhetoric like Obama???s
In contrast, underdog Truman took to the railway in his ???victory special??? train and came out swinging against the Republicans. ???TRUMAN LIKENS DEWEY TO HITLER AS FASCISTS??? TOOL,??? blared the headline of the New York Times following the president???s speech in Chicago Oct. 25, 1948 in which he charged ???there has been a new outcropping of demagogues among us.??? Upon listening to a recording of one of his own speeches, Truman quipped to a speechwriter: ???What demagoguery!???
???Labor did it!??? Truman exclaimed to press secretary Charlie Ross after his victory was sure. Beginning with his fighting Labor Day speech, Truman rallied labor, farmers, and other Democratic constituencies with what Pietrusza characterizes as ???a descent into prairie populist demagoguery so unprecedented for a presidential candidate, let alone a sitting president.??? Blacks, then a growing force in politics, probably tipped at least three industrial states to the Democratic president, who spoke of desegregation and ending the poll tax — although Truman rarely mentioned civil rights after he was elected.
Much of Barack Obama???s current re-election bid, which also began with a fighting Labor Day speech in 2011, appears to rely on rallying the components of the modern base of the Democratic Party.
As in all of Pietrusza???s books, cameo appearances are made by ???bit actors??? who would later become famous in their own right: the young Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan, who introduced Truman at a Los Angeles rally and later made a radio speech on the president???s behalf in which he decried ???the profits of corporations [that] have doubled while workers??? wages have increased by one quarter;??? twenty-something World War II veterans George McGovern and Norman Mailer, who attended the Communist-riddled Progressive Party convention that nominated the ticket of Henry Wallace and Idaho???s ???singing senator??? Glen Taylor; and California Gov. Earl Warren, the reluctant GOP vice presidential nominee (???the big dumb Swede??? Dewey called him) whose wife Nina voted for Truman.
As in his past campaign histories, the author appears to have read everything written on the 1948 campaign, and even listened to a record of the first-ever debate between Republican primary opponents (a radio debate between Dewey and Minnesota???s Harold Stassen). What emerges is history that packs the wallops of today???s headlines???and is also great fun.