How Truman Reinvented Campaigning
In a chapter from Whistlestop, his new book about presidential campaign history, the Face the Nation moderator describes how Harry Truman rose from the dead in 1948.
On a Monday night in the spring of 1948, a group of President Harry Truman’s advisers met for their weekly gathering at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., overlooking Rock Creek Park. Over steak dinner, the men discussed the president’s reelection. The situation looked bleak.
The elections two years earlier had been a disaster. The Republican Party had been out of office for 16 years, but in the congressional elections of 1946, Democrats had lost 54 seats to the Republicans in the House and 11 seats in the Senate, allowing the GOP to take control of both chambers.
Americans had experienced a postwar boom, but they worried about another depression as the wartime price controls were adjusted. Columnists warned that no prosperity could last that long. Factories returning to peacetime production couldn’t adjust. Inflation was growing—18 percent in 1946 and almost 9 percent in 1947.
The New Deal had codified the idea that presidents could control the economy. Truman didn’t seem up to the challenge. In the early days of Truman’s administration, columnists asked, “What would Roosevelt do if he were alive?” Now Republicans joked, “What would Truman do if he were alive?” When he did act, the president was seen to have botched it. Labor strikes during his term had paralyzed the oil, lumber, textile, and electrical industries. Newspapers began talking about worker “revolts.” Truman had seized the railroads and then delivered a national address that depicted labor leaders at traitors. The entire action was panned. To err, they said, is Truman.
Leading up to the 1948 campaign, a number of Democrats wanted Truman to step down to improve the party’s chances. The Democratic National Committeemen from New Jersey and Illinois, and FDR’s sons Jimmy and Franklin Jr. all opposed his nomination. “At the very center of the Truman administration,” wrote Walter Lippmann, “there is a vacuum of responsibility and authority.”
Truman’s top counselor, Clark Clifford, had been reading and rereading a 33-page memo from Washington lawyer James Roe, which outlined an emergency set of steps required to save the incumbent. “I don’t know whether Mr. Truman would be elected if everything in this memo were done to perfection,” wrote Roe. “But I do know that if no attempt is made to do the major suggestions, us Democrats ain’t got a chance in hell.”
The first suggestion was to send Truman west, where Republicans were making inroads. But how to do it? The Monday Night Group, as the assemblage was called, needed a creative solution—creativity being in short supply, as demonstrated by the bland name they had given themselves. They didn’t have the money to fund a political trip, so they had to make any trip look official in order to spend all that taxpayer money.
Undersecretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman said his friend Robert Gordon Sproul, the president of the University of California, Berkeley, had invited the president to speak at the school. That, plus a celebration to christen a new turbine on the Grand Coulee Damn gave Truman’s advisers the pretext to launch the president westward.
To get to California, Truman took a 17-car train, a long and winding way to touch millions of voters and lay the groundwork for his presidential campaign. It would be the first of three such train trips he would take, traveling 31,000 miles in all. It became the iconic modern example of the American campaign—a candidate moving from town to town, winning over people through determination and contact. Today that kind of mass conversion of voters would be impossible. General election campaigns are largely decided by party affiliation. With a shrinking number of independent and persuadable voters, candidates stump in order to fire up their coalition. Truman succeeded in 1948 by accumulating votes person by person. It was a cinematic victory of the underdog who persevered through grit. It also exemplifies a familiar modern tale in which pundits completely misread the electorate.
Truman Is a Gone Goose
“Truman is a gone goose,” conservative congresswoman Claire Booth Luce told the Republican convention, his “time is short” and his “situation is hopeless.” In March 1948, the president’s approval rating had dropped to 36 percent. The accidental president, selected in a hurry in 1944 and then thrust into the job when FDR died, was never served by the comparison to his predecessor. In death FDR seemed twice the size of ordinary mortals. Truman seemed thoroughly average: average height, average weight, and average intellect. “When Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945 and Harry Truman took his place,” wrote Robert Allen and William Shannon in The Truman Merry‐go‐Round, “it was as if the star of the show had left and his role had been taken by a spear carrier from the mob scene.”
It looked as if Truman was headed back to Missouri after the election. “If Truman is nominated,” columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote, “he will be forced to wage the loneliest campaign in recent history.” A campaign billboard in Tulsa, Oklahoma, summed up the view: “Truman said he wasn’t big enough to be president—and he ain’t. Vote Republican in ’48.” A Truman loyalist wrote to the president that there appeared to be “a national stampede, gathering dangerous and revolutionary momentum” to “drive you from the White House.”
Truman was so unsure about his election, he let Eisenhower know that if the general wanted to run for president, Truman might be happy to be his running mate. The Americans for Democratic Action, which should have been supporting the Democrat, launched an effort to draft Eisenhower. The final insult to the incumbent arrived by telegram. The Democratic leader in the State of Washington asked the president to consider serving as chairman of the Draft Eisenhower committee.
The Shakedown Cruise
Clifford dubbed the trip to Berkeley the Shakedown Cruise, because he knew his candidate needed a workout to get in campaign trim. The strategy to improve Truman’s standing hinged on improving his connection with voters.
Truman was an awful public speaker. He delivered his speeches as if he were reading a list of new public ordinances. Bright eyed and quick stepping, Truman always seemed to be rushing around—the attentive shopkeeper adjusting window displays. He thought procrastination a sin. His speeches reflected that constant sense of hurry. He put the emphasis on the wrong words. He stuck to his text so faithfully that he kept his head down, focusing through his ordinary spectacles so as not to miss a word on those typewritten pages. This gave audiences a grand view of the top of his head.
Truman’s advisers told him to adopt a “prophetic, personal voice.” He was told to emphasize his conversational tone to appeal to the “average fellow” who wanted to know what was going to happen to him and his family. The president was told his speaking should be more in the form of a person-to-person talk, not a recitation. He was pushed to speak extemporaneously, or “off the cuff,” an expression that was still new enough that it appeared in the papers in quotation marks to denote its peculiarity.
Truman test-drove the new chat in a radio address in April 1948. “It was the best summary of our foreign policy I have ever heard,” wrote a Washington Post reporter. “If any of his aides were in the hall and failed to make note of his performance, then they have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. If the President were to go to the people and talk to them as he talked to us that night, he would be a very hard man to beat in November.”
The Washington Post editorial page was not impressed. For its members, “off the cuff” was an occasion to wag the fingers. They piled up a string of backward-running sentences criticizing the new style. “Truman’s new technique in addressing the people was illustrated by his extemporaneous speech for the National Conference on Family Life. He spoke with complete lack of formality and undoubtedly succeeded in communicating his ideas to the audience in a personal manner. That sort of address certainly holds his listeners more effectively than the reading of a set speech which has been prepared and combed over carefully by presidential advisers. It is said that the President intends to employ this new technique when he makes his tour out west. Mr. Truman cannot get away from the fact that his words become those of the President of the United States. When the President speaks, something more than an off the cuff opinion or remark is expected, unless he is talking informally and off the record for a small group. Much as we applaud the President’s courage and flexibility in experimenting with this new technique, therefore, we cannot suppress the hope that when he speaks for the whole nation for the whole world to hear, that the advantages of weighing his words will not be overlooked.”
Democrats worried, too. “While the President’s homely language has a calculated appeal to the man in the street, it is felt that the attending sacrifice of dignity is proving more injurious than helpful,” said the Chicago Daily Tribune in a piece with the headline “Oratory Leaves Leaders of Both Parties Cold.”
The Ferdinand Magellan Leaves the Station
Truman and his aides didn’t listen to the critics. They launched him westward, ready to present the new chatty style. On June 3, the Presidential Special glided out of Washington’s Union Station headed toward the first stop in Crestline, Ohio. “If I felt any better, I couldn’t stand it,” said the president. Roe’s memo had outlined 17 states in the Northeast, Midwest, and West “which went to one party or another by very narrow margins in 1944.” (We have at most a dozen battleground states in 2016.) The map for the trip and subsequent ones was orchestrated to hit as many political hot spots as possible, as Truman worked to stitch together a coalition of farmers, labor, liberals, and African-Americans.
The last car on the caravan was the luxurious, 142-ton, armor-plated and air-conditioned Ferdinand Magellan. Through a door Truman could access the rear platform from which he spoke to the crowds. The train also included a staff bedroom car, four press bedroom cars, a press workroom and lounge, and two dining cars.
The official Truman campaign would not start until Labor Day, but no one was fooled. This was an official campaign trip, hence the bunting, marching bands, and city fathers at each stop. Even Truman joked about his “nonpolitical trip.” The New York Times editorial page cracked the code: “President Truman… decided that it is time to be aggressive on a grand scale. The trip to the Pacific is the full challenge of battle to all his foes, in or out of the Democratic Party… The national campaign, at any rate, is definitely on.”
“A Bunch of Birds”
In his 1948 State of the Union address, Truman battered Republicans with proposals that were authored to create confrontation. Clifford and Truman’s other strategists had convinced themselves that the policy goal for 1948 was Truman’s reelection, not the actual passage of policy. If they worked for bipartisan agreement they might achieve little victories, but if they reelected the president, they could enact sweeping reforms of Social Security, housing, and veterans-support legislation in the next term.
With those thoughts roiling, Truman pounded his opponents from that rear platform of the train. He told crowds and reporters that the 80th Congress was the worst in history. He called Republicans “a bunch of birds” and “mossbacks.” He spoke of the “gluttons of privilege” on Wall Street and the crimes of the National Association of Manufacturers. “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” a leather-lunged fellow yelled from the crowd. “I tell the truth and they just think it’s hell,” responded the president. The papers noted that “few candidates for the Presidency have ever used such ferocious language from the stump.”
Republicans roared. They accused Truman of running like a sheriff, not a president, and of trying to scare the country through class-based appeals like the quasi-communist candidate Henry Wallace, who was running that year on the Populist ticket. House Majority Leader Charles Halleck said Truman was the worst president in history. Rep. Cliff Clevenger of Ohio called him a “Missouri jackass.” Sen. Robert Taft rushed to join the pile-on but stumbled. He said Truman was “blackguarding Congress at whistle stops all over the country.”
Did you see what he did there? I didn’t notice it either. But umbrage needs only the smallest pebble. Whistlestop is not a dirty word to us. It’s the name of this book pushing you along through a gentle reading euphoria (one hopes). But for Taft to call those towns in which Truman was stopping mere whistlestops was to denigrate their size and importance—a whistlestop being a place you don’t stay in for very long because there isn’t much there to give you pause. (As opposed to a Whistlestop book, which is something to luxuriate in on the couch while you watch the sun move across the living room.)
Democratic officials telegraphed their colleagues along the president’s route and asked them to express “whether you agree with Senator Taft’s description of your town as a ‘whistle stop.’” In Indiana, a correspondent wrote, “Senator Taft is in very poor taste to refer to Gary as a ‘whistle stop.’ 135,000 citizens of America’s greatest steel city resent this slur.” From Idaho, “If Taft referred to Pocatello as, quote, a ‘whistle stop,’ it is apparent he has not visited progressive Pocatello.” On and on, from across the country, correspondents in the little towns made a big noise.
In a war for the hearts and minds of farmers, you can appeal to them through policy or you can appeal to them through their cultural connections. Truman was paying a once-in-a-lifetime presidential visit to show these voters he cared about them. In contrast, a GOP leader was treating them like they lived in flyover country. Voters who had been blaming Truman for their woes now saw that he was one of them, and they started to look at Washington Republicans as out of touch.
The crowds liked Truman even when he was criticizing them. “If you send another Republican Congress to Washington, you’re a bigger bunch of suckers than I think you are,” said the president. “Two-thirds of you stayed home in 1946 and look what a Congress we got. That is your fault. That is your fault.” At another stop Truman asked, “How many times do you have to be hit on the head before you found out what’s hitting you?” Imagine a candidate saying that now, telling the voters that they were responsible for the country’s troubles. They’d be hounded by every cable pundit who has ever graced a green room.
Truman was being so tough because he was trying to “knock the defeatism out of Democrats and put some fight in them. Democrats worried that FDR’s magical coattails had “become a substitute for doorbell ringing” and the hard business of organizing political campaigns.
Sometimes when Truman spoke off the cuff he went off the rails. Speaking before a big crowd in San Diego, he said the West’s rising population made more water imperative. “You are going to come to the saturation point of population unless you can get some more water.”
At least twice he appeared in front of the blue velvet curtain on the train platform in his pajamas and bathrobe. He said, “I understood that it was announced that I would speak here. I’m sorry. I’d gone to bed, but I thought you would like to see what I look like, even if I don’t have any clothes on.” (Upon hearing this, the Washington Post editorial board undoubtedly required a stiff drink.)
In southern Idaho, Truman dedicated the new Willa Coates Airport and started his speech by praising the brave boy who had died for his country. He was then informed by Willa’s tearful mother that Willa was not a boy. She was a girl, and she had not died in the service of the country. She had died in a civilian plane crash.
Truman had “elevated the wisecrack into a policy,” said The New York Times. On June 11, 1948, while campaigning in Eugene, Oregon, Truman said, “I got very well acquainted with Joe Stalin, and I like old Joe! He is a decent fellow. He’s a prisoner of the Politburo. He can’t do what he wants to.” The president gave fuel to Republicans who said he was too soft on Russia. Officials from the State and Defense Departments sent word to the train. The president must withdraw his remarks. Truman realized he’d been too glib about the Soviet tyrant and leading American adversary. “Well, I guess I goofed,” said Truman.
We’re Just Mild About Harry
Truman returned from Berkeley with a new fluency on the stump. “We learned a great deal about how to conduct a campaign,” Clifford recalled about the shape-up, “and these lessons were to serve us well when the final round began in September. Without the June trip, I doubt the whistle-stops would have succeeded in the fall.”
Before Truman could get to the fall, though, he had to make it through his party convention. Democrats were not rallying to the president. One of the signs at the convention read, “We’re Just Mild About Harry.” One week prior to the convention, Northern liberals and Southern segregationists led by Sen. Claude Pepper tried to draft General Eisenhower, who refused.
The Democratic party was split. On the far left, communist-leaning Democrats supported Henry Wallace, the nominee of the Progressive Party who promised universal government health insurance, an end to the cold war, full voting rights for black Americans, and an end to segregation. On the right, segregationists in the South supported Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, who opposed all of those things, particularly the outreach to blacks.
Truman studiously avoided talking about civil rights on the stump and on his tour. His adviser Clifford was blunt in conversations with reporters. To talk about the issue would split the party. Still, Truman did shake the hand of Mrs. E. L. Harrison in Waco, Texas, a woman described as “a Negro and a rank-and-file member of the Interracial League. She filed through with other voters to a few boos from the crowd. In Ardmore, Oklahoma the papers noted that Truman had spoken to an audience in which “Negroes were mixed in with whites.”
The Associated Press wrote about the Democratic convention: “The Democrats act as though they have accepted an invitation to a funeral.” William Manchester wrote that “Democratic delegates had a grim and hammered look.”
The die-hard Democrats in the audience hadn’t really seen this new Truman—the fighting, extemporaneous fellow who had been occasionally caught in his pajamas on that back train platform. So when Truman rose to the sound of the gavel to accept his nomination at 12:42 in the morning, he was a surprise. He woke the audience with his urgent high-pitched tones and arms chopping the air. The crowd was given a lift.
“Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make Republicans like it,” Truman roared. “And if voters don’t do their duty by the Democratic party, they are the most ungrateful people in the world.”
Then Truman delivered the masterstroke of his convention. Truman called Congress to come back into session to finish the work that they had not done. What better way to keep the fights going with Republicans than to order up a whole new round of them? The New York Times said that this “set the convention on fire.” Time magazine said, “There is no doubt that he lifted the delegates out of the doldrums. He roused admiration for his political courage.”
Truman was trying to drive a wedge between the conservative Republican majority in Congress, which took its energy from the Midwest, and its moderate nominee, Governor Thomas Dewey from the Northeast. Republicans took the bait. They were apoplectic, which Truman very much appreciated. Congressman Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, who would later help draft Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 said, “It was the act of a desperate man who was willing to destroy the unity and dignity of this country and his government for partisan advantage after he himself has lost the confidence of the people.”
Despite the caterwauling, Republicans worried Truman would be successful. Privately, Scott argued that Republicans should cooperate with Truman in order to deny him a campaign message. Taft disagreed: “We’re not gonna give that fellow anything.” Truman had asked the Republicans to pass legislation that voters cared about—aid to education, a minimum wage increase, housing assistance, and an extension of Social Security. All of that had antecedents in the Republican platform, crafted at moderate Dewey’s convention. Truman said Republicans didn’t even want to embrace their own platform.
Sticking with the Whistlestops
On September 17, 1948, Truman took the second of his three train trips. It was 21,928 miles, more than twice the 9,000 miles of the first trip, and nearly as far as it would take a person to travel the globe.
Truman was 64. But he wasn’t worried about his health. He loved a good fight. When a home-state dentist suggested earlier in the year that it was time for him to back out of the race, Truman said, “I was not brought up to run from a fight.” He told his staff, “It’s gonna be tough on everyone. But that’s the way it’s gonna be. I know I can take it. I’m only afraid that I’ll kill some of my staff, and I like you very much and I don’t want to do that.” (He was already mak- ing them live on a campaign stipend of $6 a day, which meant most would come back from the campaign deep in debt.)
Any deaths would have been particularly tragic, because they would have been in the service of what was widely seen as a lost cause. “Democratic leaders here are wearing long faces over the Truman tour,” said the Chicago Daily Tribune, “frankly expressing concern… that Mr. Truman is drawing citizens as president rather than as candidate.”
On September 9, a week before the wheels of Truman’s train started rolling on the second trip, pollster Elmo Roper wrote, “Political campaigns are largely ritualistic. All the evidence we have accumulated since 1936 tends to indicate that the man in the lead at the beginning of the campaign, is the winner at the end of it. The winner, it appears, clinches his victory early in the race and before he has uttered a word of campaign oratory.” So Roper stopped polling. He figured Dewey was the winner.
Never mind, Truman kept putting John Henry’s hammer down on the Republicans, spurred by those in the audience who yelled “Pour it on, Harry!” He preached against “trickle down” policies. He declared that the typical Republican was a shrewd man with a calculating machine where his heart should be. “The Republicans had begun to nail the American consumer to the wall with spikes of greed,” he said. In Iowa, he said Republicans had put a “pitchfork in the farmer’s back.” Congress was thoroughly surrounded by lobbyists, the most in history. He called on voters to deliver a new Congress, one that cared more about “the common people” than “the interests of the men who have all the money.”
In Jersey City, a parade of one thousand women carried banners denouncing the Republican Congress and urging Truman’s reelection. “The only meat we can buy is horse meat—who is to blame but the Republican Congress?” read one sign. “Big business eats porterhouse steaks—we get horse meat.”
Truman kept it up as the leaves turned from green to brown and the days grew shorter, and he sometimes stopped sixteen times a day. By October 26, the president had worked himself into such a state that he said Republicans were the tools of fascists and compared them to Hitler and Mussolini. “When a few men get control of the economy of this nation, they find a front man to run the country for them. Before Hitler came to power, control over the German economy passed into the hands of a small group of rich manufacturers.”
Think about that for a moment. Today partisans throw around Hitler analogies because they don’t know their history. They are roundly denounced for doing so. In 1948, World War II was a fresh memory. Rubble still littered the streets of some European cities, and the incumbent American president was comparing the entire opposition party to fascists in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and the Japanese who launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. It was an extraordinary thing for a president to say.
Truman’s Boiler Room Wasn’t on the Train
Truman wasn’t just being critical about Republicans in Washington. He was making targeted appeals at every stop too. The whistlestop tour represented an innovation in campaign research. Before arriving in any town, Truman got a short briefing about it from a dossier produced by seven people working in an airless office in DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. In Philip White’s brilliantly titled book Whistle Stop, he argues that it was the research team that made these train trips so effective. It wasn’t invective that was winning voters; it was the deployment of town-specific information that helped Truman make connections with those unfamiliar faces staring up at him.
Truman gave 352 addresses over three different trips, which spanned 33 days. At each stop he showed he understood something about the town he was in; it helped make his larger values case against Republicans. He was saying, I’m for the working man, whereas they’re surrounded by lobbyists and care only about their jewel‐encrusted self‐interest. By knowing a local fact, he demonstrated he was on their side. “He talks and thinks the way they do,” said the Washington Post of his style, “when he isn’t reading Washington gobbledy-gook speeches.”
Truman had been accused of making the office smaller, but that smallness was now paying off. The president was applauded for his “directness and plainness of speech.” Papers reported that the audiences “like his folksy off-the-cuff talks far more than his ghost-written, full-dress speeches.”
The president talked about food relief in the Pacific Northwest, labor relations in Detroit, a grain bin shortage in Iowa, and civil rights in Harlem. He was the kind of guy they could trust to know about them when he was in office.
Truman talked about when he lived as they did, boarding outside of Dexter, Iowa, for $5 a week. Sometimes the president would augment his regular-fellow act with an actual deed that showed he had roots. Upon spying a horse, he’d walk over to its owner, open the horse’s mouth, and from the arrangement of teeth know how old the horse was. “Imagine that,” one of the shocked horse riders told the Associated Press. “Who’d thought the President of the United States knows about horses?” (Truman was so approachable, a man rushed the stage to get one of his famous two-pump handshakes and was stopped by the Secret Service and fined $50.)
He got so folksy as the trip went on, it was said “the farther west Truman traveled the taller the corn grew—in the field and in rhetoric.” He told stories about his grandparents at every stop until it became obvious that he had more stories than the four humans he was attributing them to could possibly accomplish. “ There seemed to be hardly a rear stop, sometimes, where Grandfather Young or Grandfather Truman weren’t brought up. Generally, they had an adventure in the vicinity.”
Well-wishers handed him gifts along the way: a peace pipe, spurs, flowers, chewing gum, jelly beans, and a rod and reel. Each stop would end the same way. “How’d ya’ like to meet my wife and daughter?” The crowd would erupt in cheers and Truman would bring them out.
The Kansas City journalist H. I. Phillips wrote, “I size Harry Truman up as a pretty sound careful prudent, non-acrobatic fairly old- fashioned American whose Missouri background and training will help him from going haywire. I see him as a horse sense individual, with much of the pioneer love of traditional American ways.”
The Washington Post saw a man transformed: “He can hardly be recognized for the same Harry S Truman who, when he started his campaign two months ago, was the candidate the Democratic Party had swallowed with grimaces of distaste after trying to substitute for him almost everybody else.”
Dewey Have to Vote for Him?
While Truman was letting it all hang out on the campaign trail, Governor Thomas Dewey was stuffing it all in. Truman was acting like the hungry challenger, calling the GOP nominee to “come down and fight.” Dewey ran a cautious challenger’s campaign, hoping to make the White House on the strength of antipathy toward the incumbent. FDR had needled him into combat in 1944, and he wasn’t going to fall into that trap again. The Dewey campaign was so careful, its strategists removed attacks on FDR from locally produced literature so as not to offend fans of the deceased president.
Dewey offered solid generalities while he waited for the White House lease to run out. He presented himself as high-minded and public spirited. He promised to bring the country together. He called on the audiences “to move forward shoulder to shoulder to an even greater America… to tackle problems with stout purpose and full heart.” He polished apples. He praised motherhood. He left no abrasions on the ears of his lulled audience.
It’s very hard to say nothing for so long. The body has a natural inclination for novelty and variety and vim. To resist its impulses, the nonthreatening candidate has to keep adding more water to the porridge. This creates the conditions where a man can go too far and suddenly wind up saying, “America’s future is ahead of us,” which is indeed something Dewey said. He was such a stiff Alice Roosevelt Longworth referred to him as “the little man on the wedding cake.”
An editorial in the Louisville Courier‐Journal summed it up: “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”
“He was the only man who could strut sitting down,” wrote one wag. “He comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind,” wrote Richard Rovere in the New Yorker.
Toward the end of the campaign, Dewey felt enough pressure that he had to try to match the president on the rails. At one point outside of Swanton, Ohio, their two trains passed ten feet from each other. Truman was on his way to give it to Dewey in Toledo, and Dewey was on his way to catalog Truman’s limitations in Chicago. (The headlights flashed each other, but the candidates didn’t wave.)
In another case, the two candidates shared the same room at the Statler Hotel in Boston. The hotel suite was notable for having a television in the wall. As soon as Truman checked out, Dewey checked in, an exchange he was hoping to repeat in January.
You could see the differences in the two campaigns in ways big and small. Dewey had a manuscript delivered to his train rostrum. Truman carried his official speech with him in a black case, but when he spoke from the train, it was “much more helter-skelter, hit and miss, hot and human,” wrote Drew Pearson.
As Dewey was preparing to speak at one stop, the train started to move backward toward the crowd. Peril! The train stopped just a few feet from the crowd. Only brows were furrowed. No injuries. Still, Dewey wanted to have a stern word with someone. “That’s the first lunatic I’ve had for an engineer,” said Dewey. “He probably should be shot at sunrise, but I guess we’ll let him off because no one was hurt.”
When you push bromides all the time, people focus on the gaffes. When you say something that is the least bit interesting, it so startles people that they make a big deal about it. Newspapermen who had been poking into the typewriter one dull paragraph after another suddenly had a fun little story. Dewey’s outburst rocketed around the union halls and railroad houses across the country, acting as a turnout mechanism for Truman.
Dewey Defeats Truman
Despite Dewey’s formality and stuffiness, it cannot be overstated how much the press thought he was going to win. Life magazine put Dewey on the cover under the headline THE NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. The New York Times headline predicted THOMAS E. DEWEY’S ELECTION AS PRESIDENT IS A FOREGONE CONCLUSION.
Newsweek published opinions from 50 political reporters, and all 50 predicted that Truman would lose. When they brought the news to Truman—he was somewhere out on his train tour—he said, “Oh, those damn fellows? They’re always wrong. Forget it boys, let’s get on with the job.” The Washington Post said that reporters “know in their bones that only a colossal blunder can cost Dewey the presidency.”
Our heaviest giggling should be reserved for those columnists who had written their stories on Monday to be published on Wednesday after the election. Drew Pearson, one of the most influential commentators of the day, wrote, “I surveyed the close-knit group around Tom Dewey, who will take over the White House eighty-six days from now.” He then triumphantly named all of the members of the new president’s cabinet. Joseph and Stewart Alsop, brothers who could change administration policy with a well-timed piece, wrote, “The first post-election question is how the government can get through the next ten weeks. Events will have to wait patiently until Thomas E. Dewey officially replaces Harry S. Truman.”
The press wouldn’t let go of this belief. Even at midnight on election night, Truman woke up and heard the radio and the announcer say that he was ahead by 1,200,000 votes, before continuing to say, “It’s still the case that Truman is undoubtedly beat.”
In the end, Truman not only won the presidential election, Democrats totally flipped control of Congress. Democrats won nine seats and took control of the Senate. In the House, Republicans lost 75 seats and control of the House—the largest gain for either party in any House election since then. Until the rise of Donald Trump, which pundits totally missed, this was the greatest collective mistake in the history of punditry. As a poetic coda, Truman held up the famous Chicago Daily Tribune with the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN on the back platform of his whistlestop train, perhaps the most iconic moment in American presidential elections.
The election of 1948 was such a shock that William Manchester lists this in his short catalog of moments that Americans of that generation could remember along with Pearl Harbor, the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the assassination of John Kennedy. The conservative New York Sun said, “You just have to take your hat off to the beaten man who refuses to stay licked. Mr. Truman won because this is still a land which loves a scrapper, in which intestinal fortitude is still respected.”
At least the pundits had a good sense of humor about themselves. A huge sign hung across the Washington Post building and it read, “Mr. President we are ready to eat crow whenever you are ready to serve it.” The Alsop brothers, who had been so spectacularly wrong, wrote, “There is only one political question left for the political class and that is how they want their crow cooked.” (In 2000, the television networks called Florida for Al Gore but then had to retract it, NBC’s Tom Brokaw said, “We don’t just have egg on our face. We have an omelette.”)
The train tour had paid off. The farm vote, which had gone to the Republicans in 1944, came back. Voters in small towns, which Senator Taft had called “whistlestops,” turned out for Truman, too.
Historians see forces at play in 1948 that were not apparent to Truman and his strategists at the time. Though Truman didn’t talk about civil rights much on the campaign trail, he carried the African-American vote in the cities by a large margin, which was crucial to winning Ohio, Illinois, and California. Labor turned out in force, too, rather than splitting off to vote for Wallace. Truman won 70 percent of the union vote, which wasn’t expected given that the railroad union had once announced that they were going to spend every penny in the brotherhood’s treasury to defeat him. Union workers had lined the railroad tracks during his visit to cities—in some wards, party workers were threatened with loss of payroll jobs if they didn’t get people to rally. On Election Day, they drove voters to the polls and arranged babysitters.
The Southern Democrats who had defected to the Dixiecrat party did not take as many votes from Truman as his men had feared. But was that because it was always a weak movement, or did the Dixiecrat party become less attractive once Truman charged out on the cam- paign trail?
The 1948 Truman campaign is a romantic one. It is the greatest comeback in campaign history. Truman was Everyman in 1948. As the New York Times noted, “Mr. Truman could be the composite American of 1948.” But the trick was choosing a method of campaigning that accentuated that style and fit with his message of sticking up for the little man against the special interests. His form followed function.
Truman offered people what he would have wanted—an opportunity to see him, get a measure of him—and when they did, they found he was just like them. “Most of you people are working people, just as I’ve been all my life. I had to work for everything I ever received. I never went into a political campaign in my life that I didn’t have a fight to obtain what I thought was real and for the benefit of the people.”
Truman was fighting just like the average American was fighting. “Truman reintroduced Americans to themselves, and it provided a comforting identification,” wrote Steven R. Goldzwig.
Could this kind of campaign happen again? Campaign reporters certainly hope so. It validates all the candidate behavior they watch so closely for signs of meaning. Voters should hope so, too. The Truman success offers the hope that maybe through a candidate, voters can be shifted out of the rigid ruts they’re in. Maybe a candidate with a new style and blunt talk can shatter the sclerosis of the system. That’s what John McCain tried in 2000. It was what Donald Trump was successful doing in the Republican primaries of 2016.
If a Truman-like comeback is still possible today, it may also be possible that candidates could get onto a train again and go across the country, traveling from town to town and having actual conversations with voters about politics. Which would be great, because that would mean more whistlestops. And future editions of this Whistlestop.
From Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories From Presidential Campaign History by John Dickerson, published by Twelve Books, a division of the Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2016 by John Dickerson.
John Dickerson is moderator of Face the Nation and Political Director of CBS News and a columnist for Slate magazine.