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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
His 1940 triumph gave Truman abundant confidence as a campaigner and political tactician. In 1948, as he considered his chances of remaining in the White House, his confidence was bolstered by his understanding of the Presidency. No President, not even F. D. R., had a keener appreciation of the powers of the office or a greater willingness to use them than Truman. He had brought the Second World War to an end by ordering the first atomic bomb dropped. In the midst of the postwar labor unrest he had staved oft a national railroad strike by threatening to draft the trainmen into the army. And with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan he had involved the United States in an unprecedented overseas commitment to save the peace.
It mattered little to Truman if the press and Congress objected to what he did. The decisive judgment, as he saw it, rested with the people, who were the ultimate source of presidential power. “I have always believed that the vast majority of people want to do what is right,” Truman said later, “and that if the President is right and can get through to the people he can always persuade them.”
His campaign to carry “a personal message” to the people began when he accepted the offer of an honorary degree from the University of California, which enabled him to list the trip as “nonpolitical” and to have it paid for by the federal treasury rather than by the impecunious Democratic National Committee. On June 3 he set off by special train for the West Coast on a journey that took him across eighteen states, with stops for major addresses in five key cities and more than three score off-the-cuff rear-platform talks. Everywhere he went, Truman jauntily announced that he was on his way “fur to get me a degree.” Having established the nonpolitical pretext for the trip, Truman then got down to his personal message: “There is just one big issue. It is the special interests against the people, and the President being elected by all the people represents the people.” Who represented the special interests? Why, the Republican party, of course, and most particularly the Republican-controlled Eightieth Congress. “You’ve got the worst Congress in the United States you’ve ever had,” the President declared. “If you want to continue the policies of the Eightieth Congress, it’ll be your funeral.”
It was on this trip that the first shouts of “Give ’em hell, Harry!”—soon to become the battle cry of the Democratic campaign—were heard. Truman later claimed that it was originated by “some man with a great big voice” in Seattle. “I told him at that time and I have been repeating it ever since, that I have never deliberately given anybody hell. I just tell the truth on the opposition—and they think it’s hell.”
The spectacle of the President of the United States rampaging across the land, spewing hell-fire and brimstone at them, and all at federal expense, was more than the Republicans could stand. “The President,” Senator Taft protested bitterly, “is blackguarding the Congress at every whistle station in the country.” The Democratic Committee immediately wired officials along Truman’s route, asking if they agreed with Taft’s description of their communities. As might be expected, they emphatically did not. “If Senator Taft referred to Pocatello as ‘whistle stop,’ ” the indignant head of the Idaho town’s Chamber of Commerce wired back, “it is apparent that he has not visited progressing Pocatello since time of his father’s 1908 campaign for President.”
Whatever the Republicans might say about his trip, Truman was highly satisfied. “I had never lost the faith, as some of those around me seemed to,” he wrote later, “and I found renewed encouragement and confidence in the response that came from the crowds.” In addition, the journey west established the free-swinging style Truman was to use in later campaign trips, and it set up the Republican Congress as his punching bag. But before he squared off against the Republicans, Truman had to overcome elements within his own party that were determined to deny him the nomination.
The idea of running General Dwight D. Eisenhower for President had occurred to the Republicans months before. Rut in January of 1948, when his admirers appeared to be getting serious, Ike had firmly declared: “I am not available for and could not accept nomination to high political office.” That seemed to settle matters—so far as the Republicans were concerned. But some Democrats, in what must surely be a classic example of wishful thinking, concluded that Eisenhower’s rejection of politics applied only to Republican politics. Eiseuhower had never voted, and no one knew his views on the issues of the day. AH this made little difference to the “Eiscncrats,” who included such strange political bedfellows as liberals James Roosevelt and Chester Bowles, big-city bosses Frank Hague and Jake Arvey, and southern segregationists Richard Russell and Strom Thurmond. They were drawn to Elsenhower simply because they were sure he could win.
But Elsenhower, who was then president of Columbia University, still was not interested in politics. A week before the Democratic convention opened in Philadelphia on July ia, he announced: “I will not at this time identify myself with any political party and could not accept nomination for any political office.”