Harry S. Truman

33rd President of the United States
In office from 1945 to 1953

Fun Fact:

The “S” doesn’t stand for anything.

Honesty defeats Dewey.

The Chicago Tribune had never supported President Harry S. Truman, and the editorial staff didn’t like him. (The feeling was mutual.) With the election seemingly assured for months, the newsroom staff made the now-infamous call to emblazon the wrong headline across their front page for Wednesday’s morning edition.

In retrospect, it seems ridiculous. But that begs the question: Why was everyone so sure Truman would lose? There were plenty of reasons, but one of the most obvious was Truman’s blunt style. He was brutally honest. If he thought it, he said it. That’s just who he was.

How honest was Truman?

You’d think Truman would shy away from insulting his supporters. Nope. This is a (typical) clip of one of Truman’s stump speeches during the campaign:

“You remember the big boom and the great crash of 1929. You remember that in 1932 the position of the farmer had become so desperate that there was actual violence in many farming communities. You remember the insurance companies that banks took over much of the land of small independent farmers – 223,000 farmers lost their farms. I wonder how many times you need to be hit on the head before you find out who’s hitting you.”

Or how about this?

“If you send another Republican Congress to Washington, you’re a bigger bunch of suckers than I think you are.”

“Suckers” was more of an insult in 1948 than it is today. If Truman was giving that speech today, he might replace the “S” with an “F”.

“Two-thirds of you stayed home in 1946 and look what a Congress we got. That is your fault. That is your fault.”

When was the last time a politician told you it was your fault?

Honesty is not a word we’re used to hearing associated with politics – or marketing, for that matter. If we get “honesty,” it’s usually about how the other side isn’t accepting the “facts” as we see them. When we see honesty directed at a group’s supporters or a company’s customers, it’s often seen as chiding and scolding. That may work in certain circumstances, but it doesn’t work for long.

Truman teaches us how to use honesty as a strategy.

How does honesty work? As taught by Harry Truman.

1. Likability helps.
Being “liked” doesn’t need to mean “being funny,” although VW used this to good effect in its advertising of the Beetle. People tend to like people (and things) where they can see a part of themselves. The VW Beetle was a car you could actually own. Truman was a politician you could talk to at the bar.

2. Acknowledge flaws.
People aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being lied to, and one of the best ways to know is when everything seems too good to be true. One ad featured 7’1″ Wilt Chamberlain trying to fit into a VW Beetle – he couldn’t. Yes, the car was small. It was ugly too. By claiming what it was not, VW advertising helped people understand what it was. Similarly, Truman swore and lost his temper. It’s a flaw people understood and could relate to. Honesty is the antidote for skepticism.

3. Be specific, not general.
Explicit claims are verifiable. Claiming you’re the “best” is not. VW was specific that it was cheap, light, and air cooled. Truman said exactly what he would do with another term as president. It might seem like you want to keep your options open, but clarity gives people something to relate to. Whether they like it or not, they respect it.

If everyone is being direct and straightforward, honesty probably isn’t the best policy (if you want to get people’s attention). That doesn’t mean lying, however. It means that if there is too much hyperbole, hearing an honest message is refreshing. Luckily for VW in the 1950s, auto advertising was full of fluffy language and outrageous claims. The Beetle’s quirky and honest approach broke through. Truman’s opponent in the 1948 election, Thomas Dewey, was skilled (even among politicians) for saying nothing in a 60-minute speech. Truman’s “call it like it is” approach stood in sharp contrast.

The opposite of honesty isn’t a lie, its flattery.

Historian’s Perspective

The run-up to the 1948 campaign:

1. Harry Truman enjoyed one of the highest Presidential approval ratings ever recorded (87%, if memory serves) at the close of World War II. Certainly, part of that positive sentiment was “halo effect” from the war being over, but how was it that Truman was “certain to lose” the election less than three years later?

There were economic issues with demobilization and inflation, the labor situation deteriorated, and Republicans took control of Congress in the 1946 midterm elections, which led many people to believe Truman’s political demise was next. Truman’s approval rating dropped substantially, and for much of 1948 he was trailing Thomas Dewey. Not least, Franklin Roosevelt was a very tough act to follow.

The campaign itself:

2. How would you briefly compare and contrast Dewey’s versus Truman’s campaign strategies?

Dewey’s campaign was based on the assumption that the election was his to lose. He consequently ran a “high level” campaign that refrained from vigorous attacks, and did not seek to sharpen distinctions with Truman. Truman, on the other hand, had a concrete strategy of both governing and campaigning in such a way as to bring back the Roosevelt coalition, pieces of which had started drifting away. He appealed to organized labor, Catholics, blacks, and others through important decisions as President. Then he campaigned hard, always on the attack and never taking anything for granted.

3. Campaigns never exist in isolation from national and world events. How did major outside events impact those strategies?

Probably most important, the Cold War heated up, in the form of the Berlin blockade and U.S. airlift. The sense of crisis confirmed to Dewey that his non-divisive, “high-level” approach was most appropriate. It also gave Truman the chance to be a decisive commander-in-chief.

4. Harry Truman faced a three-way race within his own coalition. It’s easy to see how a divided base would hurt a candidate, but how did the split help him in the campaign?

The split could have been much more damaging, but it helped Truman by anchoring some key groups to him more firmly, Henry Wallace’s far left, pro-Soviet challenge helped Truman with anti-communist Catholics, while Strom Thurmond’s segregationist challenge tied black voters more closely to Truman. These were the voters he needed in key states in the north. Also, connected to the previous question, the Soviet blockade of Berlin made Wallace look foolish and Truman wise by comparison.

5. I’ve always been fascinated by one line in Truman’s stump speech. Although it varies a bit, he chides the voters that it was “their fault” Republicans gained so much ground in the midterm elections. This was a dose of brutal honesty that seemed so out of place in campaigns – before or since. Was this part of Truman’s message a deliberate and planned strategy, or more of Truman’s personality coming through in a desperate campaign where he had little to lose?

It is definitely quite unusual for candidates to blame voters for anything. I tend to think this was mostly Truman’s natural bluntness coming through. To the degree that it was connected to strategy, it was useful to contrast Truman’s directness with Dewey’s slippery and milquetoast demeanor, which Truman often criticized.

In Retrospect:

6. Was Dewey’s loss more a matter of his own campaign style and Republican electorate overconfidence, or was it Harry Truman’s campaign style and Democratic energy?

These are two sides of the same coin. The fundamental problem Dewey faced, and the advantage Truman held, was that FDR had bequeathed to Truman a Democratic Party that was stronger than the Republicans, as long as it was mobilized. Truman still had to mobilize it. So I guess Truman’s style and Democratic energy were the most important. However, it was also true that public opinion was not on Truman’s side on a number of key issues, and Dewey never worked to take advantage of that. It is an interesting but unanswerable question whether Dewey might have won with a different campaign.

7. How do you think the 1948 election results changed Presidential campaigns? What specific evidence have we seen since then?

One thing 1948 did was to give hope to underdog candidates, who have emulated (or claimed to emulate) Truman ever since. Gerald Ford in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Barack Obama’s advisors in 2012 all explicitly referenced Truman as a role model. Television made its first, tentative appearance as a force to be reckoned with. Pollsters learned not to stop polling until Election Day. Although Truman won, in some ways Dewey was the first “modern” presidential candidate: groomed and scripted.

8. This is an impossible question, but what if Dewey had indeed beat Truman? Perhaps the more specific question is: What lessons from the 1948 campaign would still apply in that case?

If Dewey had beaten Harry Truman, I’m not sure what campaigning lessons would have been drawn. People rarely draw lessons from expected events, after all. Substantively, Democrats would have been in disarray, and much would have hinged on whether Wallace or Thurmond (or both) were judged to have made a difference in bringing the President down. If Wallace had been considered responsible, Democrats would have felt pressure to modify their Cold War stance, and the bipartisan consensus for containment might have broken down much sooner. If Thurmond had been seen as more responsible, Democrats might have slowed down in civil rights, and Republicans (who had traditionally been the more pro-civil rights party) might have filled the gap.

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Books and Reference Materials

1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America

By: David Pietrusza

The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election

By: Zachary Karabell

Truman’s Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America (American Presidential Elections)

By: Andrew E. Busch

Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul

By: A. J. Baime

Memorials and Official Sites

Harry Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Harry S Truman National Historic Site, Missouri

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