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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 his nationally broadcast speech, the President lost no time in bringing up Taft-Hartley, which, as he reminded his listeners, the Eightieth Congress had promptly passed over his veto. “If the congressional elements that made the Taft-Hartley law are allowed to remain in power,” Truman warned, “… you men of labor can expect to be hit by a steady barrage of body blows. And if you stay at home, as you did in 1946, and keep these reactionaries in power, you will deserve every blow you get.” A Republican victory, the President went on, threatened the welfare of the entire nation. “I would fear not only for the wages and living standards of the American workingman, but even for our democratic institutions of free labor and free enterprise.” The President obviously was swinging wildly. But judging from the cheers and shouts of “Give ’em hell, Harry!” that went up from the crowd, some of his blows were striking home.
From organized labor and its discontent with TaftHartley, Truman now turned his attention to the farmers, who had their own reasons for grumbling that year. All summer, grain prices had been dropping steeply; corn, for example, had fallen from $2.46 a bushel in January to $1.78 in September. Blaming the Eightieth Congress for the price slide was more complicated than blaming it for the Taft-Hartley Act, but Truman managed to do it.
The basis of the farmer’s trouble was the enormous crop surplus produced in 1948. Ordinarily, the farmer could store his surplus grain in government silos until prices rose, when he could sell it at a profit on the open market; the federal government, or more specifically the Commodity Credit Corporation, loaned the farmer money on the crops stored. But in renewing the C.C.C.’s authorization in 1948, Congress failed to give it the power to acquire additional storage bins. When the bumper 1948 harvests came in, the C.C.C. ran out of storage space and the farmers were forced to sell at the low market price.
The whole problem seems to have stemmed as much from oversight and confusion over the complexities of the farm program as from anything else. Truman had never raised the issue until the campaign. Now he brought it up in his first major farm speech, at the National Plowing Contest at Dexter, Iowa, on September 18. “This Republican Congress has already stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back,” the President declared. “They tied the hands of the administration. They are preventing us from setting up storage bins that you will need in order to get the support price for your grain.” Whatever the oversimplifications of this argument, it had a powerful appeal to the farmers who were feeling the pinch of depressed grain prices.
Using the Taft-Hartley Law and the storage-bin issue like blunt weapons, the President swept across the land, bludgeoning the Republicans. He travelled in the Presidential Special, a seventeen-car train that also carried the press and a retinue of advisers and Secret Service men. A converted Pullman car, luxuriously fitted and protected with armor plate and bullet-proof glass, was set aside for the President, his wife, Bess, and his daughter, Margaret. The car was called the Ferdinand Magellan , and in it Truman covered more distance than the Portuguese explorer who circled the globe. Counting his “nonpolitical” trip to California in June, the President reckoned that he travelled 31,700 miles, made 356 prepared speeches and 200 more extemporaneous talks, and was seen by twelve to fifteen million people.
The scale of Truman’s campaign was all the more remarkable for the fact that it was plagued by severe financial troubles. The overwhelming pessimism about Democratic chances cut the normal flow of campaign contributions down to a trickle. Finance Chairman Johnson was often forced to reach into his own pocket to meet day-to-day expenses. At the very start of the campaign, a radio network threatened to cancel the scheduled broadcast of the Labor Day speech unless it got its $50,000 payment in advance. But a lastminute phone call to Oklahoma Governor Roy Turner, who managed to raise the money in a few hours, saved the day.
As time went on, the Democrats learned to make a virtue of their financial adversity. On several occasions Johnson, to dramatize the party’s financial plight, allowed the networks to cut the President off the air before he had finished a speech. Once, when a network official warned that Truman would be cut off unless the Democrats put up more money, Johnson told him: “Go ahead. That will mean another million votes.”
The financial uncertainties contributed to the helter-skelter atmosphere that prevailed on the Presidential Special. “Things were done… as if we were operating just one jump ahead of the sheriff,” Charles G. Ross, Truman’s press secretary, recalled. “Many of the speeches were written as we went along.… We were understaffed. The White House girls sat up night after night, typing and retyping.”
None of these practical problems seemed to discourage the candidate. He was too busy campaigning, and he got better at it as he went along. At first, his delivery of speeches was as unimpressive as always. But by early October, Truman was writing the final drafts of all his major speeches, shaping raw material provided by his staff to his own style. He abandoned attempts at rhetorical flourishes and relied on short, punchy sentences and straightforward construction. His delivery also became noticeably more relaxed and effective.