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A Sophisticated Look at Why Dewey Didn't Defeat Truman

THE LAST CAMPAIGN, How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, by Zachary Karabell

Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50, 312 pages


"The Last Campaign" is a lively retelling of one of the oddest yet most interesting presidential campaigns of the 20th century. Despite its subtitle, it is not confined to Truman's winning "Give 'em hell" campaign but covers with equal thoroughness the glacial but principled campaign of Republican Thomas E. Dewey; the mystical, self-defeating campaign of Progressive Henry A. Wallace; and the sullen racist campaign of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond.

Along the way, Karabell, who has written books on American education, and the United States and the Third World during the Cold War, takes us back vividly to the vain attempts of Harold Stassen, former governor of Minnesota, and Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio to wrest the Republican nomination from Dewey, and liberal and conservative Democrats' failed hopes to take the Democratic nomination from a much-despised Truman and give it to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.


Karabell nostalgically argues that 1948 was the last presidential election--it was the last in which American voters had real ideological choices. But he also points out that Dewey had so adopted the basic premises of the New Deal that there wasn't such a vast difference between his and Truman's approaches to government. (And what kind of choice is it, really, when one candidate is a blatant racist and another is a slightly goofy man who thinks dreamily of the prospects for peace with Stalin's Soviet Union?)

Karabell recalls some striking moments in the campaign that are now too often forgotten. Just as the Cold War was getting underway but before the hunt for "Reds" was in full swing, Stassen, in speech after speech, called for the outlawing of the Communist Party in this country. Dewey called this proposal "so dangerous, so destructive of the security, safety and freedom of our nation" that he would make his opposition to it the center point of his campaign against Stassen in the Oregon presidential primary.

"I am unalterably, wholeheartedly and unswervingly against any scheme to write laws outlawing people because of their religious, political, social or economic ideas," Dewey said in a debate with Stassen. Dewey won the primary handily.

But in a nation in which the voters of at least one state thought it unwise to outlaw the Communist Party, communism cut the other way against Henry Wallace. There were communists in the Progressive Party, and he refused to disavow their support even as Americans for Democratic Action and other liberal Democrats stepped up attacks on their influence.

Wallace, who had been vice president in Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term, became all the more mystical and fervent as the election approached, and in the end got only 1,157,172 votes, more than half of them from New York City and its environs, and no electoral votes. Thurmond carried four states--Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi--with 1,119,021 votes and 39 electoral votes.


But the great story of that election 52 years ago was how Truman defied the pollsters and the pundits and beat Dewey, as he always said he would, with 24,105,812 votes to Dewey's 21,970,065, and 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189. Karabell argues plausibly enough that during the campaign, Truman moved leftward toward a policy resembling the old New Deal, stealing Wallace's thunder and some of his potential votes. And Karabell rightly credits the Republican Congress' failure to provide government-built storage bins for surplus grain for Truman's substantial victories in the farm states.

Karabell, however, is less persuasive on three main points in "The Last Campaign." He argues that Truman's attacks on the Republicans went beyond the pale of fair political comment. But at that time, as Karabell does note, politicians said rough things about each other, and Truman had himself suffered mightily at the hands of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Karabell also suggests, rather dubiously, that Truman's attacks on the Republicans bred in them a hatred for him that led to their exploitation of the country's anti-Communist sentiment. Truman was not without fault in the unpleasant aspects of the anti-Communist furor that gripped the country. But the hunt for Communists was well underway before the 1948 campaign. Republicans already had plenty to dislike Truman for, including his failed veto of the Taft-Hartley Act curbing labor power.

Karabell argues more subtly that, in a way, Dewey actually did beat Truman because his bland, offend-no-one campaign was the forerunner of the television age of presidential campaigning, while Truman's blunt Populist style is now forever a thing of the past. This idea is as provocative as "The Last Campaign" is entertaining and informative.

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