The Democratic Legacy: Harry Truman-The Welfare of the Whole People Should Come First

Originally posted by liberalamerican on 06/14/07


PROLOGUE: for those who don’t have the time for long posts, skip down to the bottom and listen to the speech. It required listening for anyone who wants to gauge today’s candidates.

In late October 1948, Harry Truman’s whistle-stop campaign headed back to his Independence, Missouri home. One speech remained, a gamble that was the most unprecedented move in an unprecedented campaign, becoming one of America’s great political speeches and a yardstick for today’s candidates that still sends shivers up your spine.

Truman had closed the gap with Dewey, but would it be enough? Polls on election eve still showed Dewey with the lead. Gallup credited Dewey with 49.5 percent of the vote to 44.5 percent for Truman; the Crossley poll gave Dewey 49.9 percent and Truman 44.8. The Roper poll had ceased polling in September it was so confident Dewey would win.  The final New York Times survey, published on October 31 and based on reports of correspondents in 48 states, credited Dewey with 345 electoral votes to 105 for Truman and 38 for Thurmond. Toward the end of the campaign Newsweek magazine polled 50 of the nation’s leading political experts about who would win. The vote: Dewey 50; Truman 0.

In the Truman camp there was guarded optimism. In The Longest Campaign, Irwin Ross writes

Clark Clifford had the impression that Truman was picking up strength in the final weekend that he might have a chance of winning if the campaign could last a fortnight longer.

Speech writer John Franklin Carter refers to the journey home to Missouri as “the last long ride rattling west.” As the train wound its way through the night, sometimes following in the tracks of the pioneers, the rhythmic clicking of the wheels mimicking the clicking of voting machines, everyone on that train engaged in their own mental vote count. Some of the reporters riding with Truman had also traveled on the train that bore Franklin Roosevelt’s coffin back to Washington and certainly some must have connected the two journeys. The 1944 train bore FDR’s body home. This train was taking his spirit.

For all the attempts by the Truman campaign to project a positive attitude, a certain funereal atmosphere wound through the narrow corridors as the train jerked uncertainly and those who moved from car to car had the gait of sailors who had been at sea far too long. Each day on that train betting served as both recreation and the very heart of the lives and work of the reporters.

It was said on Dewey’s train they drank martinis and played bridge;on Truman’s they drank bourbon and played poker, sometimes with the president himself. They had seen Truman bluff, turn a losing hand into a winner and lay his cards down with resignation, in the process learning that this man played for keeps even when the stakes or the outcome did not really matter. Yet when they knew the hand Dewey appeared to have, what lay on the table and what Truman seemed to be holding, few of them would have made any side bets that Truman would win.

As the train whistle resonated through the night many of those reporters must have stared at the ceilings in their narrow births as they mentally composed obituaries of Harry Truman’s presidency and with it the obituary of the modern Democratic Party whose roots stretched back to another Midwesterner, William Jennings Bryan.

St. Louis was already billed by the press and Truman’s staff as the last major speech of the campaign. It was Harry Truman’s last chance to pull off a miracle. He had his back against the ropes, was down to one last Hail Mary pass, had only a tick on the clock to make a half-court shot, had only a gambler’s hope that one last turn of the cards would fill an inside straight.

Truman’s speech writers pondered exactly how to draft this last desperate shot. Some of them argued for pulling out all the stops, reprising phrases from 200-plus whistle stop speeches. Speech writer John Franklin Carter remembers:

All of us had picked some pieces of lovely speeches which we had composed from time to time during the campaign, and for one reason or another hadn’t been delivered. We got together a final script for St. Louis which was, oh, a wonder…it contained all our darlings, and then Truman read it and he liked it fine.

In the end Harry Truman and his staff decided to do something quite extraordinary, something without precedent in this campaign without precedents: Harry Truman would deliver the most important speech of his life, the speech that had to save the New Deal, the speech that had to rescue the Democratic Party, off the cuff.

In an Oral History Interview at the Truman Library, Clark Clifford described the thinking behind the decision to make an extemporaneous speech in St. Louis:

It was felt that what we needed was more of a recapitulation of a general nature of all the issues that had been touched on. Instead of having a written speech at that time, he had developed the facility and we got it up mainly in the form of an outline; it was really quite effective. I think it was a wise decision to discard the speech that we’d worked up and go ahead and use this other approach.

HESS: And read from the outline.

CLIFFORD: Yes, and give it more on his own. It was more spontaneous. He developed a greater rapport with the audience that way and he wanted to do that.

The image some even fondly hold today of Harry Truman is of a man one step removed from a country bumpkin. Merle Miller’s great biography of him is even titled Plain Speaking. Yet Harry Truman was merely the latest in a long line of brilliant democratic orators–Bryan, Al Smith, Woodrow Wilson, FDR. But off-the-cuff Truman may have been the best of them all.

At the heart of any great extemporaneous speech lies a deep, unspoken connection with the audience. Speaker and audience become one, feeding off each other as the phrases build one after the other. The bond between them, as the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, jr., knew so well, was faith. At the heart of a great extemporaneous speech lies shared values.

Harry Truman had put his faith in the American people since the beginning of the 1948 campaign. At times only he believed in them and only they believed in him. That faith had led Truman to hold the first interracial political rally in the South in American history, shortly after he had issued his executive order to desegregate the military. To cement his bond with ALL the American people he would attempt a high wire act, the likes of which no one had ever seen before.

The legend is that Truman dramatically turned over his notes when he began speaking. The truth is very close to that. Speech writer Charlie Murphy remembers:

When he delivered his speech in St. Louis, he used only his own notes. He glanced at these notes occasionally, but I don’t believe he ever turned the page. He did not read from the outline or draft which we had prepared for him.  This speech as it was delivered was in many ways the best speech of the campaign. It was certainly the best so far as stirring up the audience was concerned. the crowd literally went wild.

It is the nature of our times that one is a little hesitant about using the word extemporaneous to describe a political speech since it has become standard practice for candidates to memorize and rehearse a “generic” speech from which they  pick and choose phrases depending on the audience. This has become true even for the so-called debates.

This cynicism about political speeches inspired the historical detective in me to explore whether Truman’s speech was truly extemporaneous. I decided to compare the texts of a series of 1948 speeches that are in the Truman Library. What I found amazed me. Not only was the St. Louis speech original, but there were great differences between many of the speeches Truman gave during the whistle-stop campaign. For example, in Dexter, Iowa he talked almost solely on the farm issue while in Indianapolis the focus was more on communism and foreign policy.  Admittedly he makes some of the same points in both speeches (staying “on message” as they like to say), always pointing to the 80th Congress as the source of the problem.

What I had not expected to find was that in essence Harry Truman’s speech writers cranked out NEW speeches as fast as he could deliver them. Al Gore, John Kerry, and all the present Democratic presidential candidates take note: Harry Truman gave an incredible number of different speeches in a few short months. Behind this lay a profound respect for his audience. He did not insult them by reciting essentially variations on the same speech, but instead each speech spoke directly to the audience.

We are extremely fortunate that a recording of the St. Louis speech is available online from the Truman Library [you need RealPlayer to listen]. That remarkable recording literally crackles with the electricity between Harry Truman and his audience. These were his people and he was their president. A word of warning: don’t turn your speakers up too high or the applause will literally blow them out.  A transcript is also available.

I suggest you bring up the transcript in your browser, turn on the speech and follow along. The speech is less than half an hour–less time than a CD or playing a video game, and you won’t be disappointed. And when you are done save it so that every time you hear a Democratic candidate speak in the next year and a half, you can call up that speech and ask if any of them measure up to Truman.

You can tell the evening is going to be an explosive one before Truman even says one word, for the cheers of the raucous crowd echo in the cavernous Kiel Auditorium as if coming from somewhere deep in the American soul. Truman says shortly after starting his speech:

I can’t tell you how very much I appreciate this reception on my return to my home State. It touches my heart–right where I live.

The crowd goes wild. At that point he had to have known he was going to give what they used to call a real stem winder and pull off the upset, for clearly this audience was his and he was their president in that inexplicable, mystical bond that makes for great rhetoric and great history.

Truman then moves on to recite a short history of the campaign and his history. He does not let his audience or those listening on the radio forget:

We have been through the most momentous period in the history of the world in that time.

Nor does he let them forget the man who made him vice president:

I was nominated in Chicago with Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 on the Democratic platform, and I have tried to carry out that platform since I have been President of the United States.

As he takes his audience through his term in office, it is interesting that the achievement he chooses to highlight is the creation of the United Nations. Then he wades right into his opponents, charging that the Republicans went after him from the very beginning. This section is notable because it captures Truman’s feistiness and his refusal to mince words. In his masterful biography of Truman, David McCullough, with his well-honed sense of American history, notes that no one had heard a presidential candidate speak like that since the days of William Jennings Bryan (see p. 658). You can almost hear Bryan in these words:

The smear campaign on your President started in all its vile and untruthfully slanted headlines, columns, and editorials. Hearst’s character assassins, McCormick-Patterson saboteurs all began firing at me, as did the conservative columnists and radio commentators. Not because they believed anything they said or wrote, but because they were paid to do it.

Then come two brief sections that should be a lesson to anyone running for any office: Truman lays out his values, telling people exactly where he stands and what lies at the heart of his campaign. I honestly have not heard a Democratic candidate for president do this for a generation:

In January 1946 I repeated what I thought the Government should do, and I have repeated it time and again since that time-and I haven’t changed a bit. I am still the Democrat you nominated in Chicago on the Democratic platform of 1944, and I am still for Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I have told the people that there is just one big issue in this campaign and that’s the people against the special interests.

The Republicans stand for special interests, and they always have.

The Democratic Party, which I now head, stands for the people–and always has stood for the people.

Truman then speaks to the two groups that Clark Clifford had told him over a year ago he needed to win in order to hold onto his presidency–farmers and labor. When he talks about the impact of the Great Depression on farmers you can hear a voice shout from the background something like, “We know that.”  At the first mention of the “do-nothing” 80th Congress the audience goes wild.

After explaining how the Democrats have improved the life of the farmer he concludes with a widely-quoted Give ‘Em Hell Harry classic:

And I’ll say to you that any farmer in these United States who votes against his own interests, that is, who votes the Republican ticket, ought to have his head examined!

Shortly after this comes another Trumanism to insure the audience gets the point. Speaking of the Republicans he says:

That’s how they love the farmers! They want to bust them just like they did in 1932.

You have to hear his intonation of the word “bust” to really get the impact of this sentence.

He speaks next to labor, focusing especially on the most backward and despicable piece of anti-labor legislation ever passed in the history of this country–the notorious Taft-Hartley Act. Still on the books today, although modified over the years, Taft-Hartley essentially emasculated the Wagner Act, one of the great achievements of the New Deal, severely curtailing the power of unions to strike. There have been attempts to repeal Taft-Hartley, but fewer and fewer Democratic candidates speak about it as Truman did in 1948, much to the chagrin of organized labor.

Along with Taft-Hartley, Truman blasts the 80th Congress for failing to increase the minimum wage. Given that Democratic candidates are now again revisiting the minimum wage it is useful to hear Truman’s justification for it. In a few, well-chosen words it outlines the core belief of the Democratic Party and Liberal America:

The Democrats have believed always that the welfare of the whole people should come first, and that means that the farmers, labor, small businessmen, and everybody else in the country should have a fair share of the prosperity that goes around.

After attacks on the Republican policies on housing and high prices, Truman comes to the tax bill passed by the 80th Congress, one remarkably similar to the Bush tax cuts. Given that current Democrats seem to treat the Bush tax bill as if it were akin to a rattlesnake buzzing away, it is refreshing to hear Harry Truman pull no punches about the GOP’s “trickle-down” economics:

I asked that Congress to do something about high prices.. Oh, no, they couldn’t do that. But they could pass a rich man’s tax bill, a tax bill that benefited the fellow at the top income bracket, but didn’t do the poor boys any good.

Now, that rich man’s tax bill, which I vetoed three times-and they had to pass it three times before they could make a law out of it–gave a fellow who was getting $60 a week a saving of about a $1.58 a week. And the price spiral has taken that all away from him, and it has gone on out through the roof, and taken some of his savings away from him, too.

But that same tax bill gave the fellow who was getting a $100,000 a year $16,658.44 in savings. That is four times the net salary of the President of the United States!

You would think this would be enough, but Harry Truman does not stop there. He goes on to plead for further aid for education, stating:

I want to say to you that I think it is just as important to see that these children get the proper sort of place to go to school, and the proper sort of teachers to teach them, as it is to build roads for them to ride in buses over the roads to school.

Finally comes what has become the most famous Truman proposal of all–national health insurance. When you hear contemporary candidates debate the various details of their plans you might want to refer back to the original and hear what Harry Truman had to say about national health insurance in 1948:

I wanted an insurance program that would work, so that a fellow would have a little money saved up, when it came time to pay medical and hospital bills, and the doctor and the hospital would get paid promptly. But the Republicans are against that. They say that’s socialized medicine. Well, it isn’t. That’s just good commonsense, and some of these days we are going to get it, because the Democrats are going back in power, and we are going to see that we get it.

Truman closes his speech with an urgent plea to get out the vote. He knew that in St. Louis he was preaching to his own congregation, but the speech was also carried on the radio and the last thing Truman and his staff wanted was for people not to vote because they thought Truman did not have a chance.

People are waking up that the tide is beginning to roll, and I am here to tell you that if you do your duty as citizens of the greatest Republic the sun has ever shone on, we will have a Government that will be for your interests, that will be for peace in the world, and for the welfare of all the people, and not just a few.

John Franklin Carter describes the audience’s reaction:

Afterwards, they applauded continuously for about two and a half hours. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a wild, wild reception.

Can you imagine anyone applauding Al Gore or John Kerry for even half an hour? All this is enough to make you wish Harry Truman was running for president again, but instead we will need to be vigilant that the ideas he spoke about in the St. Louis speech do not die and that the candidates who seek the honor of being nominated by the same party that nominated Harry Truman speak with the same conviction he did.

IN CASE YOU FORGOT: Audio of St. Louis Speech. Alternate URL.

Crossposts: The Strange Death of Liberal America


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