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Give ’Em Hell, Barry?

‘1948’ Shows Why Truman Victory Is No Model for Obama in 2012

W. Eugene Smith/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

There is talk that President Barack Obama plans to reprise President Harry Truman’s strategy from the 1948 campaign and run against the “do-nothing Congress” in hopes of pulling out a similarly Trumanesque come-from-behind victory.

After reading David Pietrusza’s “1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America,” count me as skeptical. 

“1948” is the author’s third campaign book and, by a healthy stretch, the best of the lot.

The 1948 campaign had a compelling cast of characters, easily rivaling 1920’s “Year of Six Presidents” or 1960’s “LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon.” 

What made 1948 a watershed was the cementing of a new Democratic coalition that had begun to form under President Franklin Roosevelt but was made firm by the splitting of the party into three parts, with former Vice President Henry Wallace claiming the leftist faction made up mostly of communists and fellow travelers, and Strom Thurmond peeling away the segregationist Dixiecrats. 

That left Truman with the rump of a party, in search of a bloc of new voters. Pietrusza concludes that he uncovered them, ironically, thanks to the exits of Wallace and Thurmond, whose bolting made the Democratic Party less leftist and less racist, making it safe for Catholics and African-Americans to support. 

Having lost the Solid South and the leftist intellectuals, Truman created a new coalition centered on those black and Catholic urban dwellers, anti-communist liberals who couldn’t stomach Wallace and Midwestern farmers who liked the New Deal.

That coalition appears to be unraveling now, as all political coalitions eventually do, and Obama is hoping to forge a new one that brings in well-off social liberals, blacks and organized labor because he appears to have lost the white working class.

That could make Obama, like Truman, competitive in states that were previously Republican territory, while requiring that other states once competitive for Democrats be written off.

That certainly appears to be the future of the Democratic Party, in any case, and it could work in 2012, but the book demonstrates that other analogies to 1948 are based on faulty interpretations or are simply false.

For starters, the “do-nothing Congress” label will be much harder for Obama to sell than it was for Truman. 

Certainly, even in 1948, Republicans rejected the notion that Congress had done nothing and published long lists of measures passed by both chambers that Truman had vetoed. In reality, the 80th Congress was not a “do-nothing Congress” but a “do-nothing-that-Truman-wanted-done Congress.”

The 112th Congress has actually done less than the 80th and is viewed with more disdain by voters. But the Senate is in Democratic hands, diluting any Congress-based sales pitch by the president.

Obama will not benefit, if that’s the word, from a divided party — there are not likely to be any radical third parties peeling away from the Democrats and driving worried voters to the incumbent. 

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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