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The President’s popularity was waning, and he was facing an able Republican as well as two rebels from his own party. At hand was the with the nation in peril at home and abroad. Then Harry S.Truman set out to give ’em hell.
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
In thirteen years F. D. R. had left an indelible mark on the Presidency. Inevitably Truman was compared to his predecessor, a comparison that nearly always worked to his disadvantage. A bitter jest summed up the difference between the Hyde Park squire and the son of the Middle Border: “For years we had the champion of the common man in the White House. Now we have the common man.”
Roosevelt, with his leonine head and patrician features, was a strikingly handsome man. Truman, with his square-cut midwestern face and thick-lensed glasses, was undistinguished in appearance. Roosevelt’s manner was the epitome of elegance and grace; Truman’s bearing brought to mind a shopkeeper—which, it was remembered, he had been, and a bankrupt one at that. In no comparison did Truman suffer more than when it came to oratory. Roosevelt’s sonorous tones and superb timing had enhanced his eloquence; Truman’s rasping monotone seemed to dull the edge of every point his speech writers sought to make.
His performance at the 1948 Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner was all too typical of what Americans had come to expect from their President. Truman’s address lasted only twenty-two minutes, but it seemed a good deal longer to many in the audience; at the head table Leslie BifHe, secretary for the Senate minority and one of Truman’s closest friends, doxed off.
Halfway through his address, Mr. Truman tried to rouse his audience by poking fun at the “reactionaries” who opposed his program. “These men who live in the past remind me of a toy … called the ‘floogie bird,’” the President said. “Around the floogie bird’s neck is a label reading: ‘I fly backwards. I don’t care where I’m going. I just want to see where I’ve been.’” The laughter was scarcely uproarious, and understandably so. Only two months before, Henry Wallace had told the same story about the “oozle finch.” And before that, Franklin Roosevelt had given Republicans the same bird, which he called the “dodo.”
Listening to the President tell his warmed-over joke, mindful of the decline in his popularity, the assembled Democrats may very well have considered Truman an albatross hung on their necks which would drag them and their party down to overwhelming defeat in November.
These features of the political landscape that the Democrats perceived witli such foreboding were, of course, equally apparent to the Republicans, who were unanimously convinced that 1948 was the year when a Republican would at last return to the White House. But which Republican? The Grand Old Party, like the Democrats, had to contend with a bitter intramural dispute between its eastern liberals and its midwestern Old Guard.
The dominant faction appeared to be the liberals. On major domestic issues their differences with the Democrats were more procedural than substantive; on foreign policy their disagreements were almost nonexistent. Their candidate was Thomas E. Dewey, who at forty-six had been governor of New York for six years and a national figure for a decade. Dewey had risen to prominence in the 1930’s as a racket-busting district attorney in New York City. At the 1940 convention he had led the race for the nomination before being swept aside by the boom for Wendell L. Willkie. But this setback was only temporary. In 1942 Dewey became the first Republican in twenty years to win the governorship of New York. In Albany, a traditional forcing ground for presidential timber, Dewey estab lishcd a reputation as a moderate on economic and social problems, and as an exceptionally efficient manager of the state’s bureaucracy. In foreign affairs he moved from isolationism to active support of the United Nations. By 1944 Dewey’s prestige was so great and his political staff so adroit that he won the Republican nomination without openly campaigning for it.
In the election he could not overcome Franklin Roosevelt’s great personal popularity or the electorate’s reluctance to depose a Commander in Chief during wartime. But Dewey made a better showing than any of Roosevelt’s previous Republican opponents. And this respectable defeat was followed by an impressive victory in 194(1 that returned him to the governor s mansion in Albany.
Dewey was not a dramatic or compelling figure. His critics found his manner cold and smug. Harold Ickes, the former Secretary of the Interior under Roosevelt and Truman, caustically likened Dewey to “the little man on the wedding cake” and said he reminded him of someone “who, when he had nothing to do, went home and cleaned his bureau drawers.” But Dewey had a rich baritone voice, ideal for radio; lie was clean cut and well groomed; and he combined youthful vigor with the political seasoning gained in the 1944 presidential campaign. All these things, the liberal Republicans felt, made Dewey the party’s logical choice for 1948.
Stubbornly arrayed against the Dewey forces was the conservative Old Guard of the Republican party. Its ranks were made up of party stalwarts whose efforts held the Republican machinery together between national elections. Their roots were in the Midwest hinterland, their views harked back to William McKinley, and their champion in 1948 was Robert Alphonso Taft of Ohio. The son of the conservative Republican President, the fifty-eight-year-old Taft had emerged as a formidable political figure. He had proved his skill as a political tactician in the Senate, where he was de facto leader of his party. More than that, to conservatives Taft had come to symbolixe thrift, honor, patriotism, and other old-fashioned virtues that they felt had been subordinated during two decades of bewildering change.