William Manchester recounts in his superb book, "The Glory and the Dream, a Narrative History of America, 1932-1972", in a chapter called "A little touch of Harry in the night", how little faith anyone had in the failed haberdasher saddled with no evident charisma, a high nasal voice, and a deadly, read-it-right-off-the-page speaking style:
It was going to be so easy. "Truman is a gone goose", said Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, the lovely blond lawmaker from Connecticut, and although Democrats flinched, no one contradicted her. Since the Republican sweep of the off-year elections in November, 1946, every public opinion poll, every survey of political experts had spoken with one voice: If Harry Truman ran for the presidency, he would be doomed. Gallup reported that between October 1947 and March 1948 the percentage of Americans who thought the President was dong a good job had dropped sharply--to 36 percent--and that if he ran then we would lose to Dewey, Stassen, MacArthur or Vandenberg.
"If Truman is nominated," Joseph and Stewart Alsop told their readers, "he will be forced to wage the loneliest campaign in recent history." Even he had misgivings. . .he asked Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall to tell the general that if Ike would run for President on the Democratic ticket, Truman would be proud to be his running mate. Eisenhower asked Royall to convey his heartfelt gratitude to the President, but with it his regrets. Possibly he thought that with Truman as his vice-presidential nominee he would lose."
Almost immediately after Truman announced he was going to run, on March 9, 1948, most of the party's leaders demanded that he withdraw.
The Bronx boss, Ed Flynn, refused to appear on the same platform with him and he literally had to be strong-armed into his seat. People who should have been by his side snubbed him.
The Southern delegation made plans to break away from the party and support their own candidate, Strom Thurmond. It threatened to be a four-party race, with two of them Democrats. (The Progressive Party was the fourth.)
A planned meeting of wealthy Democrats--potential supporters--had to be cancelled when only three of them agreed to show up.
When Truman's name was mentioned at a Los Angeles rally the speaker was booed.
Some of the big names, including Elliott Roosevelt, Claude Pepper, Walter Reuther and Hubert Humphrey came up with an "extraordinary idea". Why not draft General Eisenhower instead? (That idea went up the chain without anybody apparently knowing that Ike was a conservative Republican.) They went so far as to insult Truman further by sending him a telegram asking him to be chairman of the Draft Eisenhower Committee. (The Dem leaders had high hopes for Ike right up until the day before the convention, when he finally announced that he "would refuse to accept the nomination under any conditions, terms, or premises.")
So they were left with Truman. The Republicans and the press were having a field day, but what nobody knew was that Truman's aides had finally convinced him that he had to play the underdog and go on the attack. Truman hated PR and gimmicks and anything else that smacked of phony posturing, but he knew how to get mad. According to Manchester, the brilliance of his campaign from then on was that Truman was throwing out his canned speeches--he never could read them without sounding wooden and insincere--and replacing them with plain Missouri talk.
After a couple of successful off-the-cuff speeches to small groups, his aides started thinking big. Someone came up with idea of taking the Presidential train across country to go stumping. Truman dipped into his $30,000 travel allowance--clearly unethical in any sense of the word but ignored by the Republicans, who saw it as a quaint trip to nowhere--and used it to campaign in as many whistle-stops as he could manage in two weeks. By the time he got back to Washington he had covered 9,500 miles and had delivered 73 speeches in 16 states. He followed Clark Clifford's advice: "Be controversial as hell." He got the crowds riled and he liked what he saw. They were with him. "Give 'em hell, Harry!" got its start on that trip when someone in the crowd shouted it out, and he was wily enough to keep it going.
The Washington press corp, following him, had to admit "the President had almost made [us] forget that he didn't have a chance."
But it was back to humiliation again in Washington when he found his own party still working feverishly to find someone to take his place. Almost to the last minute he couldn't find anyone to run with him as vice president, until finally Alben Barkley said he would do it.
So on July 14, the night of the Convention, Truman found himself in a small, dank room under the platform with a balcony overlooking an alley, trains shaking the walls as they thundered by. He waited there for more than four hours, as the nominating speeches and voting went on above him. It was nearly 2 AM before he was finally allowed to give his acceptance speech.
I can only guess that spending four hours nearly alone in that empty, smelly, noisy room made him mad. When Alben Barkley was nominated by acclamation but he, Truman, had to share the votes with others, that must have made him mad. That nobody in that hall thought he had a chance in hell to win must have made him mad. Whatever the reasons, Harry Truman gave the speech of his political life and got those people up on their feet. In the middle of the night, when it was over, Convention Hall rocked with the sounds of a standing ovation.
This, in part, is what he said:
I accept the nomination. And I want to thank this convention for its unanimous nomination of my good friend and colleague, Senator Barkley of Kentucky. He's a great man, and a great public servant. Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it -- don't you forget that. We'll do that because they are wrong and we are right, and I'll prove it to you in just a few minutes.
This convention met to express the will and reaffirm the beliefs of the Democratic Party. There have been differences of opinion, and that's the democratic way. Those differences have been settled by a majority vote, as they should be. Now it's time for us to get together and beat the common enemy -- and that's up to you.
Confidence and security have been brought to the American people by the Democratic Party. Farm income has increased from less than 2 1/2 billion dollars in 1933 to more than 18 billion dollars in 1947. Never in the world were the farmers of any republic or any kingdom or any other country as prosperous as the farmers of the United States; and if they don't do their duty by the Democratic Party, they're the most ungrateful people in the world. Wages and salaries in this country have increased from 29 billion dollars in 1933 to more than 128 billion dollars in 1947. That's labor, and labor never had but one friend in politics, and that was the Democratic Party and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And I'll say to labor just what I have said to the farmers; they are the most ungrateful people in the world if they pass the Democratic Party by this year. The total national income has increased from less than 40 billion dollars in 1933 to 203 billion dollars in 1947, the greatest in all the history of the world. These benefits have been spread to all the people, because it's the business of the Democratic Party to see that the people get a fair share of these things.
We have been working together for victory in a great cause. Victory has become a habit of our Party. It's been elected four times in succession, and I'm convinced it will be elected a fifth time next November. The reason is that the people know that the Democratic Party is the people's party, and the Republican Party is the Party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.
The record of the Democratic Party is written in the accomplishments of the last 16 years. I don't need to repeat them. They have been very ably placed before this convention by the keynote speaker, the candidate for Vice President, and by the permanent Chairman.
This last, worst 80th Congress proved just the opposite for the Republicans.
(Read the entire speech here.)
Later, on September 5, came the cross-country trip aboard the "Truman Special" (not the presidential car)--32,000 miles and 250 speeches. Manchester says this about the newly energized Truman:
"Much that Truman said was absurd or irresponsible and some of it mischievous. Harried and forlorn, supported by only 15 percent of the nation's newspapers, told on every side that he was wasting his time and everyone else's, he was capable of delivering demagogic lines. "The Republicans," he said, "have begun to nail the American consumer to the spikes of greed." He called them "gluttons of privilege," called Dewey a "fascist" and compared him to Hitler, and to over 80,000 listeners at the National Plowing Contest in Dexter, Iowa, he charged that "This Republican Congress has already stuck a pitchfork in the farmer's back."Even after his staff showed him an October Newsweek cover that read, "FIFTY POLITICAL EXPERTS UNANIMOUSLY PREDICT A DEWEY VICTORY", Truman believed he was going to win. He spent hours working the electoral numbers and finally put his predictions in an envelope, sealed it and gave to someone to hold until after the election. When they opened it later, they saw that he had predicted 340 electoral votes for himself, 108 for Dewey, 42 for Strom Thurmond and 37 marked "doubtful". He was so sure he was going to win he never flinched, no matter how bad it looked to everyone else. (The final electoral votes for Truman were 304, 189 for Dewey.)
You know the outcome. You know that every prognosticator gave Dewey the win. The Chicago Tribune wasn't the only news outlet to write their "Dewey Wins" leads ahead of time. When Truman got back to Washington, he passed a huge sign across the front of the Washington Post building that read, "Mr. President, we are ready to eat crow whenever you are ready to serve it."
Manchester writes: "In a letter to his own paper, Reston of the Times wrote that 'we were too isolated with other reporters and we, too, were far too impressed by the tidy statistics of the poll.' Time said the press had 'delegated its journalist's job to the polls.' Several angry publishers canceled their subscriptions to the polls. The pollsters themselves were prostrate. Gallup said simply, 'I don't know what happened.'"
What happened was that Truman didn't give up, he didn't compromise and he didn't conciliate. He went on the attack against the Republican-held 80th congress and whipped them to death with their own deeds (or non-deeds, as the case may be. The highlights of his stump speeches were his tirades against the "do-nothing Congress", and it worked. Along with Truman's victory, the Democrats took the majority in both houses).
One final footnote: After the election, the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan conducted a poll of the polls and found that two weeks before the election a full 14 percent of the Truman voters hadn't yet made up their minds. Both Roper and Gallup did their own after-election research and found much the same conclusion: One voter in seven made up his or her mind within two weeks of the election. So, as Manchester points out, "Using either the Michigan figures or Gallup-Roper's, one finds that some 3,300,000 fence-sitters determined the outcome of the race in its closing days--when Dewey's instincts were urging him to adopt Truman's hell-for-leather style and slug it out with him, and when he didn't because all the experts told him he shouldn't."
Is there something to be learned from this? I don't know. It's a different president, a different time and a different Democratic Party. What I do know as I'm writing this is that Mitch McConnell's speech before the Heritage Foundation is being played over and over again--the one where he says loud and clear, "we'll cooperate with you, Mr. President, when you give us everything we want".
In the background, in my head, I'm hearing our president's post-election speech--the one where he still thinks the answer is to make nice with those vicious megalomaniacs--and I want Give 'em Hell Harry to grab Obama the Oblivious by the scruff of his neck and whap him one upside the head.
If anyone could do it, Harry could. Harry was no angel; he was a politician, for god's sake--but he knew how to spot incorrigible rogues, and he knew how to destroy them with the truth. I doubt he stayed awake nights wondering if he was liked.
President Obama can't quite see the challenge in taking on his most relentless enemies. He's supposed to be working against them. They're supposed to hate him. He's supposed to be a Democrat and he's supposed to remember what that means. There's an employee handbook out there somewhere for Democrats but this new bunch refuses to read it. It says right on page 1, paragraph 2, they can be fired for that.
(Many thanks to my husband, who steered me to this chapter while we were talking about how Obama should handle a congress that just says no. It won't do a damned thing to change anything, but man, it felt good to be immersed in a story about a Democrat who wouldn't give up his principles.)