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.
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.
Obama partisans and McCain partisans can choose their lessons from the Truman story: a warning against complacency, final courage for a flagging campaign. No one has yet matched the feat. The next chance comes Tuesday.
Robert Schlesinger is a deputy assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. He is also the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster, 2008).