Elections

Truman Library recalls politics from a gentler time: 1948 Truman vs. Dewey

“Historians will tell you history does not repeat itself. There are unique circumstances in every context,” says Kurt Graham, director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence. “And so while there can be some instructive examples and some interesting parallels that come out of an election like 1948, we are not experiencing a rehash of the 1948 election.” He recently discussed how the 1948 campaign relates to this year’s tumultuous race.
“Historians will tell you history does not repeat itself. There are unique circumstances in every context,” says Kurt Graham, director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence. “And so while there can be some instructive examples and some interesting parallels that come out of an election like 1948, we are not experiencing a rehash of the 1948 election.” He recently discussed how the 1948 campaign relates to this year’s tumultuous race. kmyers@kcstar.com

While the maelstrom of the 2016 presidential election churns ever onward, there is sanctuary of sorts to be found tucked away in Independence.

Things are more genteel in this black-and-white world, where there is no mention of locker room banter and no 24-hour polling updates.

Similar to 2016, the election of 1948 was a convulsive affair during tumultuous times. Everyone expected that Democrat Harry S. Truman, a former Missouri farmer, would be trounced by Republican New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, a popular former prosecutor.

It didn’t work out that way.

The story is told at the cozy Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. A large wall map tracks Truman’s famous “whistlestop” campaign, conducted from the quaint rear platform of a train. The divisive nature of the campaign is acknowledged by a husband and wife quarreling at the breakfast table, but it is softened in Norman Rockwell’s cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

Library Director Kurt Graham loves to tell the stories, to point out examples of the former president’s humor, to play for visitors the video clips showing every subsequent president quoting the man from Independence.

Graham, who grew up in Wyoming and is a former research director of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, knows about rough and tumble. He sees some similarities between the 2016 and 1948 campaigns — intraparty division, racial tension, economic worries — but he also notes profound differences.

“Historians will tell you history does not repeat itself,” Graham said. “There are unique circumstances in every context. And so while there can be some instructive examples and some interesting parallels that come out of an election like 1948, we are not experiencing a rehash of the 1948 election.”

For one thing, personal rancor was tamer 68 years ago. Confident of victory and worried about rocking the boat, Dewey refrained from direct attacks on Truman and was considered something of a lackluster campaigner. (Prominent socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth called him “the little man on the wedding cake.”)

Truman was more feisty, but not to the extreme.

“They certainly had strong disagreements,” Graham said. “The difference is Truman was not spending 80 percent of his speech talking about Thomas Dewey and Dewey’s not spending 80 percent of his speech talking about Harry Truman. They’re talking about issues. They’re talking about what their parties stand for.”

There was no room for PG-13 language, even if they had known what that meant.

“I mean, ‘Give ’em hell, Harry’ was about as rowdy as it got,” Graham said. “Today it serves a kind of shock value, and with the internet, people are exposed to these kinds of things more routinely. (Back then) so-called locker room banter would have been absolutely revolting. There wouldn’t have been any context for it.”

Further, the 1948 campaign did not slog on forever.

“Think about this current election,” Graham said. “We’ve been listening to these two candidates, and many other candidates, for 14 to 15 months. Truman and Dewey didn’t really start campaigning until after their conventions in the summer. So it was August before they really got things going. It just didn’t drag on that long. It was a two- to three-month process.”

Also, people back then were not as obsessed with quantification.

The last Gallup poll taken in the 1948 election was conducted in mid-October, and the results were not released until the day before the election. It showed Dewey at 49.5 percent and Truman at 44.5 percent. The returns were almost almost exactly the opposite.

“Polls were not nearly as sophisticated and they didn’t do them nearly as often,” Graham said. “We look at daily tracking polls. The pre-debate poll versus the post-debate poll.”

With a natural political instinct, Truman was seemingly the only person who was confident he would win. He could read the size and enthusiasm of the crowds that came to his whistlestops. He jotted down his prediction of the Electoral College outcome.

“He didn’t miss it by far,” Graham said.

Truman pulled the ultimate upset by winning 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189, even though Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond took four Southern states away from the Democratic column.

The Truman Library has a map of the electoral outcome, but with today’s conventional partisan colors reversed: states that went Democrat are red while the Republican ones are blue. (That will be fixed when the library undergoes a complete overhaul in the next couple of years.)

One other difference. There was more confidence, perhaps, that whatever the outcome, the republic would survive.

“Certainly there were strong feelings and strong preferences, but I don’t think anybody who voted for Truman thought the world was going to come to an end if Thomas Dewey had won,” Graham said. “I don’t think it had the kind of apocalyptic feel that it does now.”

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

The details

The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, 500 W. U.S. 24, in Independence, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. See trumanlibrary.org or call (816) 268-8200.

  Comments