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It was the last presidential campaign in which Americans truly had a choice across the ideological spectrum, from the far Right to the far Left. And the winner, according to pundits and pollsters alike, would be the Republican standard-bearer, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. After sixteen years of Democratic rule, Americans seemed tired of the party and, in particular, of the somewhat inept incumbent, Harry Truman. Furthermore, Truman's chances appeared doomed by the growing strength of Henry Wallace's left-wing Progressive Party and Strom Thurmond's right-wing States' Rights Party, both drawing upon traditional Democratic constituencies.
Zachary Karabell tells the fascinating story of all four campaigns. We see how Truman's staff developed a superb reelection plan that ignored the South and concentrated on the farm vote — a scheme that would give birth to Truman's historic "whistle-stop" tour of the nation's heartland. We learn how Dewey nearly lost the GOP nomination to Harold Stassen and how, in the last weeks, his gentlemanly campaign fell victim to complacency, owing to the candidate's wide lead in the polls. We meet Wallace, the naive, disaffected former vice president who — preaching racial equality, economic justice, and accommodation with the Soviet Union — took a tour through the South accompanied by black aides, and was pelted with fruit for his pains. And we witness how Thurmond led the white supremacist Dixiecrats in a walkout of the Democratic convention and contested the election throughout the South.
In 1948, the United States was on the cusp of changes that would transform the political landscape forever. Television was still an infant technology, a newfangled toy that many predicted would be a passing fad, unable to compete with radio. Karabell argues that 1948 was the last time a presidential race would be dominated by radio and print media, and the last time progressive and far-Left viewpoints were openly debated and covered in the mainstream press, before the Cold War consensus placed an entire spectrum of political views beyond the pale.
Finally, Karabell shows why the polls were totally wrong, and how in the end Truman indulged in questionable political tactics to win the presidency. And he explains why this victory came at great cost to Truman's second term and to the country, paving the way for a Republican backlash and the virulent anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s.
This vivid narrative is political history at its most absorbing. And it is a cautionary tale that is highly relevant to the quandaries of presidential politics at the beginning of a new century.