The Democratic Legacy: Give’em Hell Harry and the Greatest Campaign

Originally posted by liberalamerican on 06/11/07


You never truly know someone until you have observed them backed to the edge of the abyss, fighting to avoid falling into its depths. For Harry Truman the 1948 election threatened his presidency, the existence of his party and the values of Liberal America.

In his masterful biography of Truman David McCullough writes:

No President in history had ever gone so far in quest of support from the people. or with less cause for the effort, to judge by informed opinion.

More than any other event in his public life, or in his presidency thus far, it would reveal what kind of man he was.

Very few analysts gave Truman much chance of holding the office that had come to him with the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  His opponent, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, ran a campaign predicated on the belief that he soon would be residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. People even took to addressing him as “President Dewey” even before the votes had been counted.

Dewey’s main tactic consisted of treating Harry S. Truman as an irrelevancy and a failure, who only happened to be running at all because he emerged as FDR’s unlikely choice for a running mate. Dewey’s speeches even had a tone of “When I am president, here is what I will do.”

In his book The Loneliest Campaign, Irwin Ross comments on the general tone after both parties held their conventions that summer.

On the eve of the Republican convention in June, the New York Times’ James A. Hagerty, dean of American political writers, reported “the general conviction that the nominee of the convention will become the next President of the U.S.”  Prior to the Democratic convention in July, Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote that “if Truman is nominated, he will be forced to wage the loneliest campaign in recent history.”

Even Truman’s supporters had doubts about his ability to pull off what everyone saw as an impossible upset.  Paul Douglas, who was campaigning for Illinois’ senate seat, recalled riding in a Chicago motorcade with Adlai Stevenson ahead of Truman and noticing the similarity of the crowds with those who had lined the streets at FDR’s death:

Moved by the contrast, Douglas remarked to Stevenson, “They have come out today to see the death of a dream that they cherish.”

But neither Truman nor his aides were about to give up that dream, the dream of Liberal America and the New Deal, without a fight. Truman was so well-organized that fully a year before the election he  delegated Clark Clifford and some of his other aides to draft a plan for the campaign. On November 19, 1947, Clifford sent to Truman a 43-page memo detailing a blueprint for a Truman victory that was to prove remarkably accurate.  Clifford, for example, predicted Dewey would be the GOP nominee and that Henry Wallace would run as a third party candidate.

Even more remarkably, Clifford described today’s political landscape long before scholars started writing books on it. Today’s Democratic strategists might do well to pay a visit to the Truman Library and read the Clifford memo, for most of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates show little appreciation for their Party’s history. Clifford wrote:

The truth is the old “party organization” control is gone forever. Better education, the rise of the mass pressure group, the economic depression of the 1930s, the growth of government functions–have all contributed to the downfall of “the organization.”

Key parts of Clifford’s strategy are still relevant today–and Democrats who have ignored them have tended to fare badly at the polls. In the memo Clifford urged that Truman actively court both the farm and labor votes. Clifford warned that Truman:

Cannot win without the active [Underlined in draft] support of organized labor. It is dangerous to assume that labor now has nowhere else to go in 1948. Labor can stay home. [Sentence underlined]

In yet another forward-looking passage, Clifford stressed the importance of what he called “the Negro vote”:

The northern Negro voter holds the balance of power in presidential elections for the simple arithmetical  reason that the Negroes not only vote as a bloc but are geographically concentrated in the pivotal, large and closely-contested electoral states such as New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

Clifford then went on to accurately predict that if the Democrats did not support the civil rights movement that had begun among African Americans, that the Party could be in serious trouble. Clifford felt the African American vote would swing to the GOP, but he did not foresee how Barry Goldwater and the Southern Strategy would close this door.

A major ingredient of Truman’s strategy was totally counterintuitive. Although, the phrase “Give’em hell, Harry” became a phrase someone in the audience shouted at every whistle stop and has come to characterize the campaign, Truman ran one of the greatest political con games in American history,directing most of his attacks at what became known as the “Do-Nothing 80th Congress” and the Republican Party rather than Dewey himself. Today, a political consultant probably would advise Truman to go after Dewey, who projected a decidedly patrician air, and slug it out, back-alley style using whatever weapons the Democrats could lay their hands on. [Current Democratic candidates note this when you are urged to “go negative.”]

The Truman campaign actually feared bringing Dewey down from what they called “the mountaintop.” The Truman campaign wanted Dewey to remain aloof from it all, thinking the presidency was his. In an oral history interview at the Truman library, speech writer John Franklin Carter remembers fearing Truman had gone too far in a Chicago speech:

When we read the draft, were shocked by it, because we thought it was bad politics, and that it would specifically invite Dewey to come down from his mountaintop and start slugging. And things were very, very tricky then and if he had started slugging, I think he might have very well have pulled off a victory.

The 1948 campaign played out as one of the most chaotic in American history. Although Dewey was the Republican candidate, the true leader of the Republican Party was Ohio Senator Robert Taft, but he had such high negative ratings among voters, that the party felt Dewey would be the better choice. Meanwhile, the Democratic coalition that Franklin Roosevelt had assembled threatened to break apart. Delegates from the formerly “solid South” dramatically walked out of the convention over civil rights, forming the States’ Rights or Dixiecrat Party with Strom Thurmond as its candidate. [Clifford thought the South would support Truman.] Meanwhile Henry Wallace ran a third party, Nader-like campaign supported by those who felt Truman was too moderate.

Although the convention seemed to leave him mortally wounded, Harry Truman ran the greatest campaign in our history. No candidate before or since covered so many miles or gave so many speeches in so short a time. To review the sheer statistics of  what has become known as the whistle stop campaign gives you a deep appreciation for the stamina, indomitable will and fighting spirit of this amazing man. By the end of the 1948 campaign, Truman had traveled 21,928 miles and delivered 275 speeches–all this in the days before jets and helicopters became standard campaign tools.

I once had the privilege of standing next to Harry Truman and was amazed at how small he was. But standing next to this old warrior you could see in his body language that this man would walk fearlessly into any dark alley and give as good as he got. Yet that kind of presence does not come from workouts. It comes from within.

In every bone and sinew of his body, Harry Truman carried an implacable faith in this nation, its people and what I call the spirit of Liberal America. This man believed in the level playing field because he has lived it and lived with people who were it not for government aid would not have survived the Great Depression. He could walk down the streets of Independence and point to houses and tell their stories had he wanted to violate a small town Midwesterner’s natural discretion.

By the last days of the campaign, Truman had narrowed the gap, but even the president himself had doubts. Carter remembers talking with Truman on Election Day:

I got the impression that he wasn’t at all sure he  would win. I told him that he would win.

HESS: This was just before the election?

CARTER: This is just before the election, but of course, he was very rightfully running scared, he should have run scared, and of course, his humility and simplicity in that campaign was what did it.

I am going to venture a theory that I have never seen anywhere else: Harry Truman won in 1948 because he didn’t care. That gave him a tremendous advantage, because he was not afraid to lose. Dewey’s campaign was like a team with a big lead that played a prevent defense while Truman knew no one expected him to win so he said exactly what he thought and believed.

Clark Clifford used a similar sports analogy in an oral history interview he gave the Truman Library:

Using a modern analogy: he was on his own five-yard line, there were only three minutes left, and the only thing that could win the game for him was a touchdown. Now, why would he just go ahead and run plays through the line? He had to try any sort of innovative, surprising, startling  kind of tactic that might work because he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. And this was the framework within which he made this decision.

When I say Truman did not care, I don’t mean he did not care about the results or the beliefs he fought for, but that he did not care about himself. Unlike so many candidates–including our most recent ones–Harry Truman truly had no ego invested in the outcome. I say this because I was privileged to meet Harry Truman when I was in college and he was a visiting presidential scholar. In a small seminar room, someone asked him what would he have done if he had lost. Truman answered that he would have gone home to Independence.

We forget that Harry Truman had the presidency thrust on him in one of the nation’s darkest hours and immediately had to make the Twentieth Century’s most momentous political and moral decision: whether to use the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As he himself wrote, he ran in 1948 not out of ego or any interest in the office itself but to preserve the values and policies he and Franklin Roosevelt believed in.  I quote his words at some length because they are one of the best descriptions of the  values of Liberal America and the New Deal ever written:

The hard-earned reforms of the years since 1933 which insured a better life for more people in every walk of American life were taking permanent root in the 1940s.  These benefits were still vulnerable to political attack by reactionaries and could be lost if not safeguarded by a vigilant Democratic administration.

I never wanted office just for myself or to oppose others just for the sake of elevating myself to higher office.

During their control of the Eightieth Congress the Republicans had shown that they did not want–indeed did not understand–an enlightened program. They did not understand the worker, the farmer, the everyday person. Theirs was an unreasoning emotional resistance to progress. Any legislation to improve the general lot of the general public, in working conditions, health risks or long range social security aroused their opposition. Most of them honestly believed that prosperity actually began at the top and would trickle down in due time to benefit all of the people. [My emphasis.]

That we need a Democrat who can affirm these words today goes without saying. Make no mistake, Harry Truman had an ego, as anyone who ever played poker against him could testify, but that ego was not wrapped up in being president. Truman would have laughed out loud at being called “the decider,” and never would have stooped to landing on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit he neither earned nor felt comfortable wearing. Unlike the two Bushes, John Kerry and Al Gore he was not raised to be a politician, let alone aspire to the presidency.

He was the last truly common person to serve as our chief executive, and, given the direction our politics has taken and the domination of it by money, he may hold that honor forever.

NOTE: The next post will deal with the speech that probably won the election for Truman, the October 30 speech in St. Louis, Missouri, a speech today’s candidates should know by heart if they hope to win in 2008.

Crossposts: The Strange Death of Liberal America


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