Dewey Defeats Dewey; 1948: Fifty Years Ago

Article excerpt

On November 2 President Harry S. Truman was returned to office by the voters, defeating Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York in the greatest upset in the history of American presidential elections. The famous Chicago Tribune headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, held triumphantly aloft by a gleeful Truman the morning after, is the most famous of the inaccurate predictions that preceded the election, but far from the only one. Virtually every publication and "expert" had taken a Dewey victory for granted.

In retrospect, observers attributed the surprising outcome to the two candidates' campaign rhetoric. Truman had come out cutting and slashing from the start, decrying the "do-nothing" Republican Eightieth Congress over and over in nearly every speech. Dewey, comfortable with his safe lead, apparently decided to imitate Calvin Coolidge--the only successful Republican President of his adult life --by saying nothing. He opted for warm, fuzzy addresses praising freedom, justice, and unity, rarely deigning even to mention Truman. The result was a stultifying blandness, something not usually seen in New York politicians. By going into the "prevent defense" too early, Dewey and the Republicans allowed a scrappy Democratic team to come from way behind.

That's one way to look at it. Another way is that Dewey took the high road and Truman took the low road, and the result was what usually happens when those two approaches collide. Truman blamed all the country's ills on the Republican-controlled Congress, skillfully deflecting suggestions that a Democratic President (and fourteen years of Democratic Congresses, against which the voters had rebelled so strongly in 1946) might have been involved in some fashion. He decried the "antilabor" Taft-Hartley Law, although he had invoked its terms seven times in a little more than a year.

Dewey took a more nuanced view: "I will not contend that all our difficulties today have been brought about by the present National Administration. …