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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
Taft was a shy, sour-looking man, almost totally lacking in personal magnetism. Too often his comments on controversial issues were blunt and politically ill-considered. In 1947, for instance, he advised Americans confronted with skyrocketing food prices to “eat less,” a comment that predictably brought a chorus of derision from the Democrats. But despite his faults, or perhaps because of them, Taft remained the hero of the Old Guard and the most serious threat to Dewey’s nomination.
The very fact that the GUP had two contenders as strong as Dewcy and Taft, in a year when Republican chances seemed so bright, kindled the hopes of a number of lesser men who hoped that the party might turn to one of them in the event of a convention stalemate. Prominent among those being groomed as Republican dark horses in the winter of 1947–48 were General Douglas MacArthur, then the American proconsul in Japan; Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, one of the chief architects of the nation’s bipartisan foreign policy; the very popular Governor Earl Warren of California; and Ioe Martin of Massachusetts, Speaker of the House in the Republican Eightieth Congress.
But by far the most vigorous dark-horse candidate was Harold Stasscn. In 1938, Stassen had startled the nation by winning the governorship of Minnesota when he was only thirty-one. Two years later he had been Willkic’s floor leader at the Republican convention. After wartime service in the Navy, Stassen had returned to the political scene more ambitious than ever. In December, 1946, he became the first Republican to declare his candidacy for the Presidency and then launched a campaign that was eventually to cover 160,000 miles in forty-two states. As a midwesterner, Stassen had some appeal for conservatives, while liberals found his internationalist views attractive. But unlike Dewey ;incl Taft, lie had no backlog of delegate strength that he could count on at the convention. His only chance for the nomination was to make an impressive showing in the preconvention primaries, and accordingly he entered nearly all of these.
In March of 1948, Stasscn lost the opening round to Dewcy in New Hampshire. But the result was not significant, because Dewcy was operating near his home base and with the backing of the New Hampshire Republican organization. In the next primary, in Wisconsin, where Dewey enjoyed no such advantages and made only a token effort, the returns told a different story. Stassen scored a smashing victory, winning nineteen delegates to eight for MacArthur and none for Dewey.
The Wisconsin vote had two immediate results in the battle for the nomination. Because of his poor showing in what was nominally his home state, MacArthur was eliminated from serious consideration. Dewey, who until then had not taken the primaries seriously, was forced to change his strategy. He suddenly broke away from Albany and plunged headlong into campaigning for the Nebraska primary, which followed Wisconsin s by seven days. But Stassen had been barnstorming in Nebraska at a furious pace for weeks, and it was too late for Dewey to catch up. Nebraska Republicans gave Stassen forty-three per cent of their vote to thirty-five per cent for Dewey.
On the strength of his primary victories, Stassen jumped ahead of Dewey in the Callup poll. Next was the Oregon primary, where another Stassen triumph would make it almost impossible for the party to deny him the prize he sought. The Oregon polls showed Stassen had a commanding lead.
Dewey was finally alerted and ready for a fight. Three weeks before the balloting, the New Yorker swept into Oregon and began campaigning by bus in every corner of the state. No hamlet was too small for Dcwcy to visit, no hand too humble to shake. As Dewcy poured it on, it was Stassen’s turn to become alarmed. In his panic, he made a crucial error. He challenged Dewcy to a debate on whether the Communist party should be outlawed; Stassen offered to take the affirmative.
Dewey eagerly accepted. His courtroom experience proved ideal training for such an encounter. While voters around the country listened in on their radios, the ex-district attorney tore Stassen’s arguments to bits. After that, Oregon’s verdict at the polls was no surprise. Dewey not only captured the state s twelve convention delegates but also greatly increased his prestige across the nation on the eve of the Republican convention.
More than 2,000 delegates and alternates convened in Philadelphia on June 21, and the day marked the dawn of a new political age. Television had arrived. The cameras transmitted the deliberations at Convention Hall to the largest audience in history ever to witness an event as it was happening. The eighteen stations that beamed the proceedings “live” reached ten million potential viewers from Boston to Richmond. And beyond the range of the East Coast cable system, millions more watched Rimed highlights a day or two later.
All this foreshadowed the time when television would reshape the conduct of the conventions and completely transform the face of national politics. But in 1948 the medium was still a novelty with limited reach—there were in all the United States only about one million TV sets, and most of these were in bars. Besides, at the 1948 Republican convention, as at most political gatherings, the major decisions were being made well out of camera range.
Dewey arrived in Philadelphia with 350 votes, gathered in open primaries and behind-the-scenes mancuverings. The New York governor needed about aoo more to secure his nomination. Conceivably, he could be stopped if his foes united behind one man. But that would take time, and time was running out.