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My Brush with History

The Old Days

June 2024
4min read

He looked just as you always remembered him. There was that trim, dapper stance, the black hair sleek against the head, the signature black mustache. Unmistakably Thomas E. Dewey. The man who couldn’t lose the 1948 presidential election and nonetheless did. He was dressed severely in a dark striped suit, a bit more formally than any of the other guests on the yacht, the F ORBES Highlander . But after all, he was a public eminence, somewhat grayer, older than he was when he was shaking up the rackets during my childhood or, later, when he was governor of New York and then running for the Presidency of the United States: in 1944 against Franklin Roosevelt and in 1948 against Harry Truman.

I seem to remember that he carried a cane that day, perhaps as much for show as for any need of it. He was in his early sixties by then but was as vigorous looking as ever. His wife was with him, a pretty, rather wan-looking woman with reddish hair now streaked with gray. They seated themselves in a protected corner of the yacht by the rail and stayed there most of the day, holding court with the other guests rather than wandering about and exploring the boat as everyone else did.

The year was sometime in the midsixties, and the occasion was a daylong trip up the Hudson River to a fall football game at West Point, an excursion that in those days F ORBES magazine conducted on most weekends during the season when there were home games. It was an exclusive and somehow memorable event, one that the executive guests and their wives were flattered to have been invited to, especially since it seemed a family affair rather than some sort of promotion, with the Forbes children dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes to lend a note of Scottish thrift to what was otherwise a luxurious occasion.

My wife and I were there because I worked for the magazine, and the others because they represented the magazine’s constituency. The guest list included the heads of some of the country’s largest and most powerful corporations, and afterward we would recount the incidents of that afternoon in corporate terms—what Mr. and Mrs. Rockwell Manufacturing said to Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Aircraft, or what Mrs. Kimberly-Clark said to Mr. General Telephone: “Well, if Junior wants his own plane, I suppose we’ll have to let him have one.” That sort of thing.

The Deweys were always the Deweys, though maybe he would be called “Governor.” He spoke in that famous deep and rich and beautifully modulated voice, and recounted in measured tones the considerable achievements of his tenure as governor of New York. Most conspicuously, there was the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson, under whose erratically curved span The Highlander passed that morning. It was an accomplishment Dewey ranked with the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, which, as it happened, crossed the bridge on its five-hundred-mile route from New York to Buffalo. The bridge was located where it was, Dewey explained, for sheerly political reasons—thirty miles north of the City of New York and just beyond the jurisdiction of the New York Port Authority and the formidable highways czar Robert Moses.

The Deweys had a rather remote, underwater manner: she faded and self-effacing, he studied and deliberate, as if he had already been embalmed by history and could no longer alter the image. He had been one of the idols of my childhood—the gangbuster, the fearless district attorney—and if I had been old enough to vote for him in 1944,1 most certainly would have done so. In those days politicians were largely defined by their radio voices—the guttural snarl of Hitler, the patrician vowels of Roosevelt, and, for people who lived in New York, the commanding resonance of Dewey. It made him governor of New York in 1943 and a presidential contender in 1944. But by 1948 that magnificent voice had begun to sound a little synthetic beside the smart-alecky chirp of Harry S. Truman, and sympathies had shifted or sharpened, so when I voted that year, I voted not for Dewey, Truman, or even Henry Wallace but for Norman Thomas, whose voice I had never heard. Time had diminished Dewey. And now, less than fifteen years later, he had come to seem what his enemies had begun calling him: the little waxen figure on a wedding cake.

By the time The Highlander pulled up at the dock at West Point, everyone had been wined, dined, and overwhelmed with hospitality, and there were buses waiting to carry us from the riverside to choice seats in the stadium at the top of the cliff. I don’t remember the game or who won, but I remember what happened thereafter.

Two or three hours later the buses took everyone back to the dock again. But The Highlander had disappeared. One of the great side-wheelers of the Hudson River Day Line had pulled up at the dock—the Alexander Hamilton perhaps—and when we piled out of the bus, one of the yacht stewards announced we would have to wait a halfhour or so until the Day Line had collected its passengers and departed. The boat was jammed.

And so we huddled together in small groups on the dock watching the crowds stream down the hill onto the gangway. They were a rumpled, raucous, exuberant lot, all fired up by the briskness of the air and the excitement of the game. We sat on some benches by the pilings on the wharf—Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dewey, Willard and Connie Rockwell, the Douglas Aircrafts, and ourselves—and made small talk until it was time to go aboard. Not really impatient. Resigned. You could see The Highlander , now at anchor out in the middle of the river, bobbing like a toy boat on the tide. The conversation was fitful. Everyone was pretty much talked out.

And then, in one of the interstices in the conversation, as we sat watching the crowd streaming down the hill to the wharf, Tom Dewey sighed and said slowly, deliberately, with a sort of wry laugh, “You know, in the old days they would have waited for us.”

I have always thought that in 1948 the voters sensed he had such an attitude toward them, and that was why in the end, Harry Truman beat him out—in that election he couldn’t lose—by a nose.

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