Political upset can happen
Published 1:13 pm Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Most historians agree that the greatest upset in American presidential political history occurred exactly 60 years ago this fall. Harry S. Truman's 1948 come-from-behind victory over Thomas Dewey is the hallmark of American political lore.
Harry Truman, a haberdasher in a Missouri clothing store, was drawn into politics almost by accident. He became a product of the infamous Pendergast Machine of Kansas City, when Mayor Pendergast sent Harry to the Senate from Missouri. Truman had been an undistinguishable senator when Franklin Delano Roosevelt surprisingly plucked him out of obscurity and made Truman his vice presidential running mate in 1944.
Harry was one of the good old boys in Congress. A plain spoken regular guy. He was a member of the legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn's “Board of Education” club. Mr. Sam only invited certain people to join his exclusive club of congressmen and senators who met every afternoon in a private office beneath the Capitol to drink bourbon and branch water and talk politics. They were in the middle of their libations one April afternoon in 1945 when the Secret Service came and quickly whisked Harry away to the White House. FDR had passed away and Harry Truman was sworn in as president.
Truman quickly showed he had a propensity for leadership. He displayed a Missouri sense for plain speaking and decisiveness. He coined the famous line, “The buck stops here.”
After three years in the White House, Truman had earned the reputation as one tough and scrappy fighter. Therefore, his opponents should not have taken him lightly when they wrote him off in his bid for election in 1948. However, only one month prior to the Nov. 2, 1948 election, every poll and pundit said that New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of America's largest state, would win the presidency.
Earlier in the year, disgruntled southerners walked out of the Democratic Convention in protest over the Democrats' insistence on a civil rights plank in the party's platform. The southerners had warned that they would leave over the issue and they made good on their promise. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led the charge and became the nominee of the Dixiecrat Party.
The polls showed Dewey would win decisively. Historians suggested the polling, which was yet in its infancy, did not realize that a good many Democrats did not yet possess telephones and they were not reached by the pollsters.
There was such an assumption that Dewey would win, on Election Day the Secret Service ditched Truman and were en route to protect Dewey. When the votes were counted that night Truman had dumbfounded all the pollsters, pundits and media with a stunning victory. Truman garnered 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189.
The newspaper with the most egg on its face was the Chicago Daily Tribune. In one of the most famous photographs in American political history, Harry S. Truman stepped out of his train car in St. Louis and with a big grin on his face held up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the glaring bold headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
The paper, trying to get a jump on things, had made one of the greatest blunders in American journalism. The whole country believed Truman would lose, but “Give ‘em hell Harry” proved them all wrong.