Truman holds the famous incorrect “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”
headline in the Chicago Tribune following the 1948 presidential election.
I will always remember November 3, 1948. It was the post World War II era and I had just turned seven years old in March of that year. I didn’t know much about politics; I was too busy collecting returnable pop bottles to buy important stuff like popsicles and banana flips.
However, on that fateful election night, I remember my dad being excited as he thought his Republicans would finally defeat the dreaded Democratic political machine that was Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Roosevelt had died in April, 1945 so Vice President Truman had to finish the president’s final three years in office after FDR’s win over New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944. FDR had won easily in ’44 with 432 electoral votes to Dewey’s 99 but Truman was considered vulnerable in 1948 after following the charismatic Roosevelt.
Once again the Republicans trotted out Thomas Dewey as their candidate feeling that although he was dominated four years earlier he would probably be able to beat Truman. The polls, Life magazine, and the New York Times agreed and predicted a Dewey win. To make matters even worse for Harry, he was battling his own party over legislation to guarantee rights to blacks plus a 1948 Gallup poll showed that only 36% of the country thought he was doing a good job.
It looked like Dewey would coast to an easy win but he made the fatal mistake of reading his own headlines and becoming a bit too comfortable. While Truman was heavily beating the bushes for votes, Dewey’s laid back campaign combined with an air of superiority eventually became unpleasant to voters compared to the outspoken pitch of the Missourian.
As Election Day approached, Truman had narrowed Dewey’s lead but was still behind. Most of the press and the polls still discounted any chance for a Truman victory.
The stage was now set as my dad and I settled in on the couch in Cincinnati next to the big Stromberg-Carlson radio awaiting the great election news that we now had President Dewey. Since I was seven I wasn’t quite sure what was going on but I got an idea of it as the evening passed and my dad’s optimism faded. Truman was the winner collecting 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.
Looking back, I have to hand it to Harry. He was an outgoing “man of the people” and a likable guy who inspired the saying “Give ‘em hell, Harry.” Dewey was more serious and exhibited a sternness that was not particularly appealing. I guess being a district attorney in New York City could have contributed to that.
I was living in Kansas City in 1972 when Harry died on the day after Christmas at age 88. He had been holding on for a few weeks during which time we were kept on constant alert about his condition. He was immensely popular in his home state for his never give up attitude.