Monday, November 5, 2012

An Election Apart: Harry Truman and the Last Time an Incumbent President Was Strapped for Cash

Philip White

John Trumbull's 1793 portrait of John Adams
In our hyperbole-infected 24/7, anywhere, anytime news cycle, many reporters have become too quick to judge elections in exaggeration. If you believed stories from the Obama-Romney coverage chapter and verse, you’d think this was “the most negative campaign ever.” Never mind that contest between two chaps by the names of Adams and Jefferson, in which Jefferson’s election managers slammed Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."  Sniping back, Adams’s team dismissed Jefferson as "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Depending on where your political sympathies lay, you’d also be resolved that Mitt Romney or president Barack Obama were the two most mendacious candidates of any that have vied for the White House. Hmmm. Because political candidates never stretch or bend the truth to further their arguments, of course. Like the time that Al Smith’s detractors took their anti-Catholicism line into comical territory by circulating a photo of Smith dedicating a new tunnel and claiming he was planning to extend the passageway under the Atlantic to Rome, so he could take direct orders from the Pope if he became president.

But one claim about this year’s Obama-Romney face off that is accurate is that it is the most highly funded election in US history, with more than $6 billion dollars flowing into Democratic and Republican coffers, and then out again to pay for TV ads, logistics, calling campaigns and the rest.

This cash-rich election is the opposite of another that I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time studying lately: The Harry Truman vs. Tom Dewey presidential election of 1948.

Clifford K. Berryman, October 19, 1948
Before we look at the money side, let’s first look at the context of this election. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been president for 12 years, authored the New Deal, forged the historic wartime alliance with Winston Churchill and become an indelible imprint on the nation’s consciousness, died on April 12, 1945. In his place was a man who had been vice president for just 82 days, and was as unlike Roosevelt as was possible. FDR was born into privilege, had been to the best schools, and mixed in the elite East Coast liberal circles, making his ascension to the presidency seem natural and, in some ways, almost pre-destined. In contrast, Harry Truman had been a soldier, a farmer and a failed haberdasher, had never been to college, and preferred to mix with his old friends from Missouri. Yet, with FDR gone, he was now at the helm of the US, which had become an industrial powerhouse during World War II.

Just three months into his presidency, Truman was charged with brokering a lasting peace with Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Potsdam – though Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe was a fait accompli and Stalin wasn’t well known for bending for anyone, let alone a rookie president, albeit it a fiery one.

Then, in August 1945, Truman was faced with the monumental decision of whether to use the fruits of the Manhattan Project to force Japanese surrender. Believing his generals’ assertions that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki would save up to 500,000 American troops, he authorized this decisive, and most deadly, action.

When the war ended, organized labor wanted pay rises to compensate for stagnant levels during the war, while industrial leaders desired increased prices and keeping wages steady. Massive strikes ensued, with 116 million of work days lost in 1946. Truman recognized the need to keep the Democrats’ traditional labor voting happy, but couldn’t tolerate it when the UAW, AFL, CIO, coalminers, John Lewis’s steelworkers and others brought the country’s economy to a standstill. So he seized the mines, the steelworks and the railroads, telling train worker leaders A.F Whitney and Alvanley Johnson in the Oval Office, “I’m going to give you the gun.” Truman was pulled back by special counsel Clark Clifford when he wanted to tell Congress he should hang a few strikers to send a message to Big Labor, though in his revised speech to a joint session on May 26, he did ask for the right to draft strikers into the Army – a proposal that didn’t become law.

To add to Truman’s woes, the GOP seized control of the House and Senate in the 1946 midterms. And as Truman’s lame duck Presidency continued to struggle, his pursuit of a bold civil rights plank, passage of Executive Orders to desegregate the US armed forces and ensure equality for civil servants of all ethnicity and speech to the NAACP caused Southern Democrats to break away and form the States Rights Democratic Platform. One split in the party would’ve been bad enough, but former vice president Henry Wallace captured the imagination of the far left when he formed the Progressive Party. To make matters worse, the New Deal old guard, including Eleanor and James Roosevelt, had little to no confidence in Truman, considering him to be a poor substitute for the giant of the age, FDR.

The hapless Truman had no reprieve in foreign affairs. Not only was Stalin securing his grip on Eastern Europe, he was also demanding bases in Turkey, providing support to Greek Communists and threatening the vital British trade route through the Suez Canal. In Asia, Moscow was backing Mao’s takeover in China and, foreshadowing the coming conflict, periodically cutting off power to South Korea. And then, Truman controversially recognized the nascent Israeli state on May 14, 1948, the first world leader to do so. A month later, the Soviets started the Berlin Blockade, refusing to allow food, medical supplies or other aid to flow from the Allied-controlled zones.

With such calamities at home and abroad, Truman would have struggled against any Republican opponents in the 1948 election. But when the GOP nominated the ‘dream ticket’ of New York Governor Thomas Dewey and popular California Governor Earl Warren, a whole forest was thrown onto the fire. Clare Booth Luce, wife of Time publisher Henry, spoke the opinions of many when she said that the Man from Missouri was a “gone goose.”

Electoral financiers certainly concurred. Wallace was getting funds from liberal backers, while Wall Street backing went to Dewey. Though this gave Truman more ammo for his soon-familiar populist claim that the Republicans were the “party of privilege” and in the pockets of “special interests,” Truman certainly would’ve welcomed trading balance sheets with his opponents.

Early in the campaign, Truman clambered up on a chair in the White House, telling would-be backers that his train wouldn’t go far without their help. The indignity! Radio networks got wind of the president’s campaign fund shortage, and several times cut him off in the middle of a broadcast. Can you imagine this happening to the president of the United States today?

The networks were playing hardball again as the hours ticked down to Truman’s crucial Labor Day address in Detroit’s Cadillac Square, demanding $50,000 up front. Oklahoma Governor Roy Turner came to rescue, rustling up the money just in time.

Turner was again Truman’s savior when the Whistle Stop Tour ground to a halt in Oklahoma City. The railroad demanded more money on the spot, or Truman’s train, dubbed “The Last Chance Special” would be stuck in the station. Turner organized a whip-round, and got the required sum.

Despite these privations, a dismissive press, the double split in his party, unrest at home and potential war abroad, Harry Truman did it, beating Dewey at the polls to win four more years. 31,000 miles, 356 speeches and the work of six bright, industrious young men in a makeshift Research Division overcame arid coffers.

President Obama and Mr. Romney face no such financial worries. But they shouldn’t allow bulging pocketbooks to breed complacency, as did Thomas Dewey. In the last few days of their campaigns, both candidates would do well to heed the timeless example of Truman’s 1948 bid: working 18-hour days, speaking their way to laryngitis, and, most importantly, appealing to undecided voters by, gulp, simply being themselves. Now that would be, as the kids say, “money.”


hcr said...

Philip, this is GREAT! The Truman-Dewey fight is one of those elections that no one remembers anything about other than that newspaper headline: Dewey Beats Truman! What no one ever says about that headline, though, is that it was on an early edition of the Chicago Tribune, which was so deeply in the tank for any Republican that it would soon become the driving force behind giving McCarthy legitimacy.

There is a whole, quite important, story tucked inside the 1948-- and virtually every, come to think of it-- election! Finding this on my laptop today made my day. Thanks.

Gabriel Loiacono said...

This essay shows just how to showcase an historical event in the light of the present - not too heavily, not too lightly. I really enjoyed it.

Frank said...

The great lesson of the Truman Dewey campaign is that every vote counts, and no election is over until the people have spoken. A fine post on an event that should be remembered for a long time.