Past & Present: Harry Truman's 1948 Comeback Campaign

Harry Truman managed the greatest political comeback ever, Robert Schlesinger writes. Find out how.

U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman" on November 4, 1948. The president told well-wishers at St. Louis' Union Station, "That is one for the books!"

President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman"

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The candidate is down in the polls. The media are writing him off. As surely as his attacks will get more negative, as surely as he will exhort his followers to annoy the media by voting for him, at some point, they will invoke the patron saint of losing pols: Harry S. Truman.

Just this week, Sen. John McCain, running behind in the polls, invoked Truman in chiding Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama for (ultimately incorrect) reports that he was already working on his inaugural address.

"My friends, when I pull this thing off, I have a request for my opponent," McCain said. "I want him to save that manuscript of his inaugural address and donate it to the Smithsonian. And they can put it right next to the Chicago paper that said 'Dewey Defeats Truman.' "

The greatest comeback in politics took place 60 years ago, forever set into the political imagination by its capping image: Truman triumphantly holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with its banner headline.

The roots of Truman's comeback strategy lay in late 1947, with a memo from Clark Clifford, the president's close aide. Clifford, "like a Greek god—way over 6 feet tall and handsome," as Truman staffer Kenneth Hechler later recalled, had started in the White House as assistant to the naval aide in 1945 and had worked his way into Truman's inner circle. His duties grew, eventually including organizing and eventually joining Truman's poker games, speechwriting, and all areas of policy development.

Clifford's memo—a tweaked version of a 34-page political analysis from Democratic lawyer James Rowe—argued that the Democratic Party consisted of "an unhappy alliance of Southern conservatives, Western progressive, and Big City labor." The key in 1948 would be getting these groups to turn out in sufficient numbers.

The 1948 State of the Union address was the campaign blueprint. It "must be controversial as hell, must state the issues of the election, must draw the line sharply between Republicans and Democrats," George Elsey, Clifford's assistant, wrote in a memo in late 1947. The speech did exactly that, and it was interrupted for applause twice in its 43 minutes. It was, one White House intimate told Time, "the Bible for the Democratic Party." Truman was so pleased with the speech that he celebrated with a few aides in the Oval Office afterward, pulling bottles of scotch and bourbon from his desk and toasting, "Success in '48!"

Numerous problems lay ahead for Truman, including approval ratings that reached the mid-30s in the spring of 1948. Another big liability was an abject inability to deliver a prepared address: He had poor eyesight that prompted him to lean so far over his text that his audience would see the top of his head. He easily lost his place. He nasally droned through his texts so quickly that it seemed he was concentrating so hard on getting his words out that he could spare no thought for which to emphasize.

In private, the president could be garrulous and engaging, and his aides puzzled over how to get that Truman before the public. They hit upon a successful formula in April: They liberated him from his text by giving him an outline. He could follow the basic structure and wing it. "He was suddenly a very interesting man of great candor who discussed the problems of American leadership with men as his neighbors," one observer noted. The extemporizing Truman delivered his remarks with rising and falling tones, quickening and slowing pace—infectious energy.

In June, Truman departed on an ostensibly nonpartisan cross-country train trip en route to give the commencement address at the University of California-Berkeley. He delivered five major speeches in the trip and around 40 minor ones. GOP Sen. Robert A. Taft blasted the president for "blackguarding Congress at whistle stops all across the country." It was a political blunder—a "whistle stop" was a town too small to merit its own train station. The Democratic National Committee solicited outraged telegrams from the mayors of denigrated cities.