Contested Politics

Every four years, our nation goes through the ritual of electing a new President.  This year seems particularly controversial, maybe even toxic.   There’s been a great deal of name-calling, misinformation, and bluster, but that’s not really new!

Certainly, one of the most interesting presidential elections of the 20th century was in 1948.  First, to establish the context:

The Democratic Party had controlled the White House since the election of FDR in 1932, and had controlled both houses of the Congress until the off-year election of 1946, in which a newly invigorated Republican Party had regained a majority there.  FDR had been dead for three years, but he cast a long shadow over his successor, Harry Truman.

Today, many Americans look back admiringly at Truman, who had worked his way up from obscurity in Independence, Missouri, to the White House, but in 1948, Truman was not popular, either with the Republican opposition or even within his own party.Many Democrats  regarded him as a mere caretaker of the Presidency after the sudden death of FDR in April 1945;  a series of missteps had also led to a loss of confidence in Truman.  (For example, when a Washington Post music critic panned the operatic debut of Truman’s only daughter, Margaret, our Commander in Chief  threatened to punch him out).   “To err is Truman” was a saying oft repeated by 1948.

Harry Truman

At the same time, Americans were growing increasingly uneasy about our relationship with our former ally, the Soviet Union.   The USSR had aggressively moved to bring Eastern Europe nations such as Poland under its control, and many people worried that Western European nations such as Italy and France would be next.   Truman’s foreign policy seemed to be in disarray.  Ambitious politicians saw opportunity and exploited these fears by reactivating the House Un-American Activities Committee, which launched investigations into the influence of Hollywood over the public’s attitudes towards the Soviets and Communists. Well-known actors such as Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan were called to testify about the presence of Communists in and out of Hollywood.   The federal government also moved to flush out Communists and other “security risks” from federal jobs, requiring loyalty oaths and FBI investigations into federal employees.  State governments emulated this, for example, requiring school teachers to sign a loyalty oath before employment.

Eager to retain control of the White House, the Democratic National Committee looked around for a stronger candidate for 1948.  The DNC quietly approached Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the heroes of WWII, but Eisenhower, although now retired from the army, told the DNC he didn’t believe it was appropriate for a military man to seek political office (a stance he would abandon by 1952).

Of course, President Truman knew this was going on, and that his own party was trying to get rid of him;  however, Truman was unwilling to go away quietly, so he made it clear he was running for election in his own right in 1948.   When he arrived at the Democratic National Convention, held in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1948, he brought with him a controversial political platform that included a strong Civil Rights plank, as well as strong words against the Soviet Union.  Within hours of the opening of the convention, Southern Democrat delegates bolted in protest of Truman’s plans to desegregate the federal government and pass an anti-lynching bill.  Led by South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, this group established a new political party officially known as the States’Rights Party, but more commonly called the Dixiecrats.

Strom Thurmond

FDR had built up the Democratic Party by appealing to Southern Democrats – the major reason he had never proposed an anti-lynching bill – but Truman seemed to be committing political suicide by promoting his Civil Rights bill.  Then, to the horror of leaders of the Democratic Party, another group of Democrats refused to support Truman over his foreign policy.  Under the leadership of Henry Wallace – who had served as FDR’s first Secretary of Agriculture, then FDR’s VP in his third term – this group of “internationalists” gave their support to the Progressive Party, nominating Henry Wallace.  Wallace called for a more moderate stance toward the USSR and an end to what was already being called the Cold War.

Henry WallaceSo it appeared that the Democratic Party was fatally weakened by a three-way split.  No wonder the Republican Party felt such confidence in its nominee, popular New York governor Thomas E. Dewey.   Although Dewey had been defeated by FDR in the 1944 election, it seemed a sure bet that Dewey would be the next president, and the Republicans would take back the White House as well as Congress.


Thomas Dewey

On paper, Dewey seemed to be the perfect choice.   He had a long and distinguished career as a federal prosecutor, credited with breaking the power of organized crime in New York City.  He was a committed anti-Communist, and very popular with businessmen and ordinary Americans as well.

So few people, even with the Republican Party, criticized Dewey for his lackluster campaigning in the fall of 1948  (think of it:  campaigning for the Presidency didn’t really begin until after Labor Day!)  Yes, some voters found Dewey rather wooden, and maybe a little too perfect (Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest daughter of late president Theodore Roosevelt, remarked that he reminded her of “the little man on the wedding cake”), but certainly Dewey wouldn’t embarrass the White House by threatening to punch out a journalist!

So while Dewey was giving polite interviews on the radio, and interviewing potential Cabinet officers, Truman hit the rails, and went on a six-week campaign tour throughout the country.   He had the Presidential train stop at even small towns and cities, and excitement slowly began to build for his candidacy.  To get a sense of this groundswell, let’s examine one of those “whistle-stops” – in Elmira, New York.  This upstate New York city is hugely Republican, and was even more so in 1948, but on the morning Truman’s campaign train stopped in downtown, more than 5000 people crowded into the train yards, standing in pouring rain to watch Harry Truman come out on the back train platform, speak to them for a few minutes, then introduce his wife, Bess (who hated being First Lady) and his beloved daughter, Margaret.   Truman was a savvy politician, though – and his campaign staff had done their homework, so Truman knew how important unions were to the workers at the Elmira factories of Remington Rand, American LaFrance, and General Electric.  He pointed out that he had vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act limiting union activity: he called it the “slave-labor bill.”

As we know, Truman won, but few people thought he would.  Everyone on his campaign staff went to bed late on election day of 1948, but Truman, with his daughter Margaret, stayed up to listen to the electoral count.  Margaret went to bed in the wee hours of the morning, but Truman didn’t.   When his chief political advisers finally woke up, Truman sent one of them out to buy copies of newspapers so that he could gleefully show the world that they were wrong!   Truman particularly despised the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, so the picture below is particularly meaningful:Chicago Tribune 1948 headlineAs 1948 demonstrates, contested conventions, controversial candidates, and political disarray are nothing new.   I doubt we will see a headline proclaiming “Sanders Defeats Trump”, but American politics, if anything, are unpredictable.


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