Sunday, October 16, 2011

FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944

FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944 by David M. Jordan focuses on the neglected story of that election, and Jordan does a fine job of telling it, from the pre-primary maneuvering among both parties, but especially the Republicans, through to the surprisingly energetic campaign, both on the part of ailing FDR and his remarkably young opponent. Dewey was only 42 at the time, the youngest-ever Republican nominee for the top job and the first major-party presidential candidate born in the 20th century.

This particular election is generally glossed over in histories of the period, probably because hindsight considers it a foregone conclusion. In the event, it wasn't that close: FDR-Truman took 432 electoral votes and 53.4 percent of the popular vote vs. Dewey-Bricker's 99 electoral votes and 45.9 percent of the popular vote. Still, before the election, pollsters weren't quite so sure of the outcome, with some even predicting Dewey's election. That and '48 might tell us that pollsters weren't very good at predicting national elections in the 1940s, but that's with the benefit of hindsight. A Dewey upset was considered plausible at the time, even if not very likely, and in point of fact '44 was the closest presidential election in which FDR participated. As Jordan makes clear, Dewey ran a spirited campaign in the face of the odds.

But at a curious distance from the electorate. Apparently Dewey and his men thought it best, at least at first, to focus on radio speeches more than personal appearances. During an early campaign trip by train to the West Coast, for example, Dewey only made a handful of rear-platform speeches, the kind so effective for President Truman four years later. No doubt the strategy reflected Dewey's personality. "The man had one of the coldest personalities of anyone who ever contemplated a run for the American presidency," notes Jordan. "David Brinkley wrote, 'In public, Dewey came across as pompous and cold. And for good reason. He was both.' He was generally conceded to be intelligent, efficient, a master of detail, 'serious-minded to the point of severity' as one contemporary noted. 'He is as humorless as a man can be,' noted another."

Balancing the Republican ticket that year, at least in one respect, was Gov. John W. Bricker of Ohio. "The governor of Ohio... was an almost complete opposite of Thomas E. Dewey," says Jordan. "John William Bricker, it was said, was 'excellent company.' People liked being around Bricker, and he enjoyed being around others... Big, jovial John Bricker, one author wrote, 'had the essential of popularity, a real and lively interest in people.' " Bricker also represented the conservative wing of the Republican Party, as opposed to the more moderate Dewey, and had the endorsement of Sen. Robert A. Taft ("Mr. Republican") in the early '44 primaries. Bricker didn't fare well in those contests, however, but well enough to be an acceptable choice for the number-two slot.

No one is forgotten faster than a failed vice presidential candidate (e.g., William Miller, who did a "Do you know me?" Amex ad after the '64 election), and Gov. Bricker certainly falls into that category, though some lingering memory of him might remain in Ohio. Bricker did, however, offer the ticket a rhyming slogan, an example of which the book shows in a photo of Republican campaign memorabilia: "Win the War Quicker With Dewey and Bricker." Apparently the slogan wasn't that commonly used, and not destined for the fame of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Dewey and Bricker lost, after all, but even before that the Republican ticket probably didn't want to emphasize that their victory would indeed mean a change in the management of the war effort, since that was in fact what the Democrats were emphasizing as a negative ("don't change horses in mid-stream").

As for the Democrats, the Roosevelt campaign didn't show much zing until the "Fala Speech" in late September, during which the president had some amusingly choice words for the Republicans, much to the delight of the audience, who were mainly Teamsters leadership. Late in the campaign, and thus late in the book, FDR went on an open-car motorcade through four of the five boroughs of New York City, which Jordan describes in fascinating detail. The president began at an Army base in Brooklyn, went through downtown Brooklyn, then on to Ebbets Field, then through Queens, then across to the Bronx, then down through Harlem and finally on down Broadway and into Times Square. "Through it all, the rain kept coming down, the wind blew, and Franklin Roosevelt kept smiling and waving to the thousands watching for him, with Fala by his side," Jordan says. "After all was over, the police estimated the total crowds at 3,050,000, though it may have been, as Ray Brandt of the St. Louis Post Dispatch put it, "a mere million or two."

The book spends an entire chapter and more on the central mystery of the 1944 election, namely how and why Harry Truman was chosen as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. No account of that event that I've ever read quite spells it out clearly, probably because it isn't quite possible to do so, but Jordan takes a good whack at it. Vice President Henry Wallace wanted to keep the job, but boll weevils and other conservatives in the party wanted him out. President Roosevelt seemed to prefer James Byrnes, but he also seemed to accept the judgment of other party leaders that as a Southerner, Byrnes would cost more votes (Northern blacks, labor) than he would win -- something FDR never told Byrnes he believed. Other names were bandied about, such as Sam Rayburn, Alben Barkley, William O. Douglas, Truman and even John G. Winant (American ambassador to the Court of St. James's at the time), though he wasn't very seriously considered.

Eventually, Democratic Party leaders held an informal but important meeting with the president at the White House before the convention that seemed to settle matters in favor of Truman -- except that it didn't quite, and Truman wasn't really told about it anyway, going to the convention supporting Byrnes for vice president, and even planning to put his name in nomination. When FDR's men told Truman, at first he said he didn't want it, but was famously persuaded by a brusk phone call from President Roosevelt to a room that Democratic leadership had rented in the Blackstone Hotel (not the first time the Blackstone made a president). Even then, Henry Wallace might have been re-nominated by his supporters at the convention, but FDR's men put a stop to it using hasty parliamentary maneuvers, and almost resorted to cutting an electric cable to stop the convention organist from playing "Iowa, Iowa, That's Where the Tall Corn Grows," a song associated with Wallace at the time.

The book also offers interesting sketches of some of the lesser figures in the election. The Republicans' 1940 surprise candidate, Wendell Willkie, wanted another shot and entered the early '44 primaries, only to lose to Dewey. Even more interesting for us (though not for him) was the fact that Willkie died unexpectedly about a month before the election, without endorsing Dewey -- or Roosevelt either, and while it seems hard to believe he might have, it was considered possible because he didn't believe Dewey was internationalist enough, or at least was bowing too much the isolationist elements in the Republican Party (presumably those isolationists would have finished the war and then rejected American participation in the likes of the UN, the Marshall Plan and NATO).

Another supporting character is Harold Stassen. Good old Harold Stassen, always running. That's how we remember him now, but 1944 was before all that. That year, Lt. Comdr. Stassen was off in the Pacific theater as Adm. Halsey's flag secretary, having resigned the governorship of Minnesota to do his part. He wasn't really a contender in '44, but his star was rising (he'd given the keynote at the Republican national convention in 1940), and he later had an important part in nominating Dewey again in '48 and Eisenhower in '52, after which he settled into his recurring-candidate mode. That's another story.

The book also provides some food for speculative thought. After all, we know that FDR was near the end of the line in November 1944, even if at time the electorate didn't. What if he had died six months sooner -- a few weeks ahead of the voting? Who would the Democratic National Committee have picked to take his place? Would Dewey have won against that person, and if so, how would have he deployed the atomic bomb? Assuming that FDR dies in 1945, as he did, what kind of president would Wallace have made, had he been allowed to stay on the ticket? Would he have used the bomb? And what kind of president would John G. Winant made, anyway? In history as it happened, the three-time Republican governor of New Hampshire, first chairman of the Social Security Board, head of the International Labor Organization and ambassador to the United Kingdom through much of World War II, retired to private life after the war and put a bullet through his head in 1947.

That's just my digression, but it only goes to show how many fascinating stories there are in a good work of political history, such as FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944. Well worth reading.

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