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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Truman’s Triumphs’

- - Friday, November 2, 2012

TRUMAN'S TRIUMPHS: THE 1948 ELECTION AND THE MAKING OF POSTWAR AMERICA
By Andrew E. Busch
University Press of Kansas, $37.50, 280 pages

Almost every candidate who is behind in the polls invokes President Harry S. Truman's come-from-behind victory over New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 to boost the spirits of their supporters.

That campaign, which has become the source of many urban legends, was a transition from the New Deal/World War II era to the Cold War. In "Truman's Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America," scholar Andrew E. Busch revisits the campaign in great detail and persuasively shows how it shaped politics for several decades.

Mr. Busch, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, has seemingly read everything written about the election aimed at both general and scholarly audiences. It's part of a series of books on American presidential elections being published by the University Press of Kansas.

Truman, who was completing FDR's term after Roosevelt's death in April 1945, faced significant obstacles. The economy was sluggish, the foreign-policy situation was volatile, the public was tiring of the Democratic Party, and the Democrats were divided.

"The nation and world were in uncharted territory and seemed to be poised on the brink of major decision points, one of which was whether the thrust of the New Deal would continue," Mr. Busch writes.

The unease was evidenced by the fact that two Democrats (former Vice President Henry Wallace on the left and South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond on the right) launched general election candidacies. Wallace thought the country was veering toward policies that were too pro-business and anti-communist while Thurmond thought the Democrats were moving too fast on civil rights.

The GOP, which was revved up by its large victories in the 1946 midterm elections, had its own drama. Dewey, the party's unsuccessful 1944 nominee wanted to try again, but was challenged by Ohio Republican Sen. Robert Taft from the right and Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen from the left. While Dewey was renominated, many in the party were concerned about his stiff demeanor and lackluster campaigning style.

In the general election, the Republicans' worst fears came to fruition. Dewey sat on his lead and was all but measuring the curtains of the Oval Office. By contrast, Truman took nothing for granted and embarked on his now famous "give 'em hell" campaign, in which he ran as a scrappy populist. He was also the first political candidate to air an advertisement on television.

Mr. Busch writes that "there is evidence that Dewey's quietude led to a serious voter confusion or lack of understanding about his position or record." Noting that Truman was extremely aggressive and often took liberties with the facts, the author points out that the president "claimed that the GOP only paid lip service to democracy itself."

In the end, Truman won 49.5 percent of the popular vote and received 303 electoral votes. Dewey received 45.1 percent of the popular vote and 189 electoral votes. Thurmond received 2.4 percent of the popular vote and 37 electoral votes. Neither Wallace nor socialist candidate Norman Thomas received any electoral votes and they received 2.4 percent and .29 percent of the popular vote, respectively.

The results of the election would resonate for the next generation in the parties and in some ways still do.

For Truman's party, Mr. Busch concludes, correctly, the results "confirmed that FDR had not been a fluke, and that Democrats had constructed a coalition that gave them a residual advantage going into national elections that was most favorable." He noted accurately that the combination of strong anti-communism and domestic liberalism defined the party's center for the next two decades.

In addition, Mr. Busch argues that Truman's "scrappy, if demagogic, campaign, could continue to offer hope for embattled incumbents from the presidency to the county courthouse."

While Dewey lost, the GOP wasn't taken over by conservatives during the next generation. Many of his aides and allies were behind the drafting of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Ike ran and governed as a moderate who wasn't afraid to spend money on highways and other domestic programs and was a supporter of expanding civil rights for blacks.

It wasn't until Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964 that the conservatives regained control of the party and that proved only temporary until former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was nominated and won in 1980.

Mr. Busch's points are well taken. However, his dry prose and tendency to get bogged down in minutiae may make it unlikely that his audience will expand much beyond hard-core political aficionados. Those who do read "Truman's Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America" will most likely come away thinking that their time has been well-spent.

• Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.