Is it possible that Hillary Clinton, who is still heavily favored by the political establishments of both parties to win in November, will end up being the Thomas Dewey of 2016? For the sake of humanity, let’s hope not but there are some intriguing parallels to the 1948 Dewey-Truman contest that suggest the answer is more of a definite “maybe” than “no.”
In September 1948, most American political insiders were certain that New York’s Governor Thomas E. Dewey would be elected President two months later. Dewey was a flawed but experienced politician with a consolidated party machine behind him. His Democratic opponent― Harry Truman, who had taken over when FDR died in 1945―was a Missouri haberdasher who had been a compromise VP choice, who then accidentally became President. Even Roosevelt didn’t trust Harry that much and, in fact, Truman didn’t find out about the atomic bomb until after FDR died and he suddenly found himself in the position of having to decide whether to use it against Japan or not.
Truman trailed badly in the polls in the spring before the election and the Democrats were split into three armed camps. He was outflanked on the left by a progressive party led by Henry Wallace and on the right by the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond, who walked out of the convention after Truman and establishment Democrats supported the first major Civil Rights initiative.
Elmo Roper was so certain that Truman was toast that he stopped polling nearly two months before the election. Little wonder that when election night 1948 finally rolled around the Chicago Daily Tribune (which regularly called Truman a “nincompoop”) felt comfortable putting the early edition to bed with the blaring headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” although most of the votes hadn’t been counted. It was the most famous wrong call in the history of journalism.
How did Truman pull off the upset? That’s where the parallels to Trump come into play.
Like Trump, Truman decided to take his case directly to the voters. For several months, he crossed the country by train, logging almost 22,000 miles, making “plain talking” (politically incorrect?), often spontaneous speeches from the rear observation deck of his railroad car. Referring to the Republican “Do Nothing Congress” and Thomas Dewey, his Republican opponent in the 1948 election, Truman said: “I don’t give them hell. I tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” His motto was “Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don’t ever apologize for anything.” Like FDR, he was not above referring to Dewey as “a little man” and the Republicans as a bunch of “sonsofbitchs.”
As word of the outrageous things he was saying spread, the crowds grew increasingly larger and more enthusiastic. In Michigan alone, he spoke to more than a half-million people. A ticker tape parade in New York brought out a million souls. “Give ‘em hell” Harry had momentum but the Washington establishment, including the press, didn’t get it.
Because he thought he was so far ahead, Dewey—somewhat like Hillary today—decided to play it safe and try to run out the clock. He avoided taking firm stances or attacking Truman in return. He was the first presidential candidate to put his faith in pollsters and advertising but not the last to be disappointed. He went out of his way to be non-controversial. As an editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal put it: “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.” Truman joked that the GOP had come to stand for “grand old platitudes.”
Donald Trump is no Harry Truman. For all his partisanship, Truman cared about and understood real issues and the gravity of leading a world still emerging from a devastating war. He was a great, or near great, President. Trump is too much of a self-involved lunatic to be president of anything he doesn’t own but he is smart enough to know that you can go a long way in politics by figuring out what a great mass of voters is angry about and simply saying out loud what other politicians are too afraid, or not vulgar enough, to say.
You have to wonder what Harry Truman, if he were alive today, would say about Citizen Trump. I suspect it would be quite similar to what he once said about Richard Nixon. Substitute Trump for Nixon and you get the picture.
“Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”