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 campaign began in earnest in September. Seeing Truman off at Washington's Union Station, Vice President Alben Barkley yelled, "Mow 'em down, Harry!"

"I'm going to give 'em hell," the president shot back.

The train pulling out of Union Station had a single prepared speech. Over the next two weeks, Truman would deliver 133 talks, most from the back of his train. Most of the speeches stemmed from outlines prepared for Truman with suggested lines, important local information, and so on. They would sometimes be handed to the president as the train was rolling into the station.

"Now, in 1946, just one third of the people who were entitled to vote in this country elected the 'do-nothing,' good-for-nothing 80th Congress," he said in Efaula, Okla., in late September. "And see what you got. I won't feel a bit sorry for those people who stay at home and don't vote and then complain about what they're getting out of this Republican Congress."

"Truman was entertainment: He not only had something to say, but he always said it in a manner that the audience liked, even if they weren't going to vote for him, and even if they knew he was going to lose," Elsey told me years later. "He was free entertainment."

Reporters loved him, too. At each stop, they scrambled out of the train, afraid to miss Truman's comments. And with the help of his aides, he would hit as many different topics as he could in a day, and he approached them with relish and wit. All of which would be faithfully repeated in the next day's papers.

By contrast, Thomas Dewey, the GOP nominee and presumptive president-in-waiting, gave the same platitudinous address at every stop. Dewey put his speeches "on a very high level, so high they are above discussing the specific and serious problems which confront the people," Truman said at one rally. "Republican candidates are apparently trying to sing the American voters to sleep with a lullaby about unity." Reporters would not bother to leave the Dewey train when the candidate spoke.

"Perhaps the best way to describe the atmosphere on the campaign train during this trip is to use the characterization of a newspaper man who rode with us," one White House staffer recalled. "On the Dewey train, he said, the newspapermen played bridge and drank martinis and manhattans. On the Truman train, they played poker and drank scotch and bourbon."

It was not so wonderful for everyone. Clifford suffered form an attack of boils and, for months after the election, would wake in cold sweats, convinced that he was still stuck on the campaign train. "I remember it as a miserable, ceaseless, and exhausting treadmill," he wrote in his memoirs, telling his collaborator, "I cannot remember any fun on the train at all."

All of which played out against a backdrop of certain doom. Opinion polls leading up to Election Day gave Dewey a 5 to 15 point lead. Leading pollster Elmo Roper declared in September that the race's conclusion was so foregone that he would issue no new polls, and other pollsters also stopped early. On election night, the head of the Secret Service was in New York with Dewey, whom he assumed would be his new assignment.

Truman was unperturbed. In mid-October, he was chatting with Elsey about an upcoming whistle-stop talk. He interrupted his aide and told him to start writing. From memory, he started ticking off the 48 states of the union (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states) and their electoral votes, assigning them to columns for Truman, Dewey, Henry Wallace, FDR's former vice president who was running on the Progressive Party line, Strom Thurmond, who was running on the Dixiecrat platform, and "Doubtful."

"George, how many do I have?" he asked when he finished. Elsey added the figures—340 electoral votes. Elsey later showed the tally to Clifford, who shook his head in wonderment that the president could be so deluded.

Truman was overly optimistic, but not so much as Clifford and Elsey thought. "He did not think he would win," Elsey later recalled. "He knew he would win." At around 9 p.m. on election night, Truman told an aide that he was going to sleep and to wake him if anything "important" happened.