Origin of the 1948 Turnip Day Session of Congress

Article excerpt

In August 1996, as President Bill Clinton's train, the Twenty-First Century Express, made campaign stops en route to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I thought back to another Democratic president, Harry S. Truman. In 1948, Truman's whistle-stop campaign, conducted from the back of his train car, the Ferdinand Magellan, carried him to victory. At the time, Truman, like Clinton, was said to be not up to the job, and he was pitted against a strident Republican Congress. Campaign strategists no doubt will continue to review the political fracas of 1948 to glean insights from Truman's come-from-behind victory.

A campaigner's ability to seize political opportunities may decide an election's fate. Truman's decision to convene a postconvention special session of Congress called the Turnip Day session was one such opportunity. I worked on Truman's 1948 campaign as director of the Democratic National Committee's Research Division. Over the years, historians, journalists, and others have recounted aspects of the Turnip Day session. None has fully revealed the Research Division's exact involvement. This article describes my recollection of the Turnip Day session's origin and how the idea got to Truman.

During the campaign, I recruited and led a team of young dedicated Democrats whose job was to prepare background papers on major issues, commentaries, and first drafts of back platform speeches for the president's staff.(1) We reported directly to Clark Clifford, the special counsel, and to Charles Murphy, the assistant White House general counsel, but were attached to the Democratic National Committee "for quarters and rations."

Between the Republican National Convention in late June and the Democratic National Convention in mid-July, an extraordinary idea took shape, resulting in one of American political history's more imaginative campaign tactics. The president decided to call a special session of Congress to complete work on the nation's legislative agenda. The Republican platform triggered the decision, which was to give Truman's campaign a tremendous boost. It was vital to regain the fighting spirit the president had displayed in the first half of June during his preconvention western tour. The foremost contribution the Research Division may have made to Truman's campaign was in pressing for the special session of Congress.

On June 24 at the Republican National Convention, New York Governor Thomas Dewey was nominated for president and California Governor Earl Warren was nominated for vice president, both from the liberal wing of the party. The Research Division, in studying the platform adopted by the convention, found it to be very respectable. It backed "a `bipartisan' foreign policy, foreign aid to anti-Communist countries ..., `full' recognition of Israel, housing, anti-inflation and civil rights legislation,"(2) all of which represented eastern Republican middle class values. Many of the measures advocated had been proposed by the president but blocked by Congress. Republicans failed to pick up on the nuance that the platform was at absolute odds with the performance of the Eightieth Congress.

After the Republican National Convention, the Research Division sought an innovative way in which to dramatize the differences between the platform and the obstructionist performance of the Congress. Calling Congress back into session to pass measures advocated in the platform, we ventured, should dramatize the president's case. I volunteered to raise the idea at the next meeting of an ad hoc group we called the Kitchen Cabinet, which provided political advice to the president, and did so on the evening of June 28 at Jack Ewing's apartment.(3) I spelled out the political advantages of calling Congress back into special session, the idea clearly had not occurred to any member of the group. I presented the best arguments I could, but the group turned down the idea. It might have appeared too audacious. …