The famous photo of a smiling President Harry Truman displaying the inaccurate Chicago Tribune headline Dewey Defeats Truman the day after the 1948 presidential election succinctly captures what may have been the most amazing upset in any race for the nation's highest office. In reality, the election was not that close. Truman won by more than two million in the popular vote and received 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189. One wonders, how could so many knowledgeable and sophisticated observers have been so wrong?Zachary Karabell explores this question in his enlightening and insightful The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election. The title refers to the author's contention that it was the last time in the 20th century that an entire spectrum of political ideologies was represented, (and beyond that, discussed) in the mainstream media. By the entire spectrum, he means not only the major party candidates, but also the Progressive Party on the political left and the States Rights' or Dixiecrats on the political right. The conventional wisdom was that Truman, already stymied by low approval ratings and a Republican Congress, would suffer severely from the loss of these two extreme groups of traditionally Democratic voters.
Karabell notes that television played a minor role in 1948. After that, it assumed a dominant role and is the major reason why, in the author's view, the conventions and the candidates themselves have become so pre-packaged and so reluctant to engage in serious discussion of the issues.
Karabell goes beyond the mythology of the campaign to dissect what really happened. Truman had opposition from many in his own party, including Eleanor and James Roosevelt. Dewey had to face challenges from Sen. Robert Taft and Gov. Harold Stassen.
An important component of Truman's win was the work of his staff, which Karabell describes as the first modern campaign team. By assembling a staff that systematically analyzed issues and personalities, Truman could react to developments, produce a speech, or take a stand on an issue with the benefit of intensive prior research and information. Dewey's staff couldn't effectively compete with this new style of campaigning.
Karabell tells his compelling story in a balanced way, and we learn much about the two smaller parties at each extreme. Truman's advisers followed a strategy originally devised by James Rowe, an important FDR adviser, and adapted by Clark Clifford. The approach was generally right on target, but failed to allow for the desertion of the Dixiecrats. This came about when Truman spoke of civil rights with genuine passion, a passion that in no way diminished the political expediency of the message. The author explains the crucial importance of the whistle-stop campaigns of the major party candidates, an exercise in which Truman excelled. But this is not an uncritical look. Truman . . . sought to lead the country for another four years, and to achieve that victory he was willing to sow dissension, stir up fear, and slander his opponents. Karabell contends that the rise of McCarthyism, which caused serious problems for Truman in his second term, was directly related to the way he won. Upset by the rhetoric of the campaign, Republican leaders did not stand in Joseph McCarthy's way when he launched his anti-communist crusade. Truman did not cause McCarthyism, but to a far greater degree than is usually cited, he helped provoke it, the author concludes.
This book is a thoughtful examination of a legendary presidential campaign. As we enter another political season, it should be a must-read for interested in our history.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.