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Give ’Em Hell, Barry?

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Moreover, Thomas E. Dewey was a bad candidate. Pietrusza, a vivid writer, variously describes the New Yorker as “insufferably confident” and “bland” and his campaign as suffering from “overwhelming vapidity” and “simple, unspeakable, blundering arrogance.”

Obama might get that lucky, but it seems unlikely.

Perhaps most importantly, despite the economic problems the country faced in 1948, underlying support for continuing the New Deal was strong. Obama faces an even tougher economy, and his economic program inspires little loyalty beyond the Democratic base.

Nearly as significantly, Truman’s personality fit the moment. Can Obama, the cool intellectual, be convincing as the fiery populist? Perhaps, but he lives in a much more open and diverse political world than did Truman, who could get away with saying things that no candidate could utter today without his words being instantly reported and just as quickly condemned.

In a speech in Gary, Ind., just days before Election Day, Truman said, “If anybody in this country is friendly to the Communists, it is the Republicans.”

Then, Pietrusza writes, “Having smeared the GOP as Reds by day, by night he proceeded to condemn its leadership as Nazi and fascist” and effectively called Dewey a front man for Hitlerites, raw talk three years after the end of World War II.

It’s the sort of thing carried out these days by surrogates or super PACs. Pietrusza notes that it was unheard of even then at the presidential level. If a modern candidate tried it, he would rightly be pilloried.

Beyond the lessons — or lack of them — for 2012, “1948” is a treasure trove of historical minutiae. 

Mini-biographies of all the wannabe candidates — Arthur Vandenberg, Bob Taft, Harold Stassen, Earl Warren, Joe Martin and Douglas MacArthur — offer invaluable insights into their failings. The book brims with little-known or long-
forgotten characters, such as Glenn Taylor, a country-and-western singer and Senator from Idaho who was Wallace’s running mate.

The sections on Wallace are perhaps the best parts of the book. Pietrusza pulls no punches on the man who might have been president had Roosevelt died only a few months sooner. Of course, indicting Wallace requires little more effort than quoting him.

“I would say that the Communists are the closest thing to the early Christian martyrs,” Wallace once declared. 

After that, Truman must have looked pretty good. Obama can only pray he’s that lucky in his opponents.

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