A careful dissection of Harry S. Truman’s improbable presidential win reveals just how far behind the eight ball “Give ‘em Hell Harry” really was.
Today, the 33rd president of the United States is popularly known as the irrepressible, silver-haired scrapper who dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and proclaimed, “The Buck Stops Here.” But as Pietrusza meticulously illustrates, that wasn’t necessarily the case in 1948. Quite the contrary, back then many viewed Truman as a profoundly flawed individual who was too weak and unqualified for the White House. He had ties to corrupt party bosses, was weaned on Jim Crow racism and couldn’t give a decent speech if his life depended on it. The famously false Chicago Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” indeed said it all—the little seat-warmer from Missouri who had inherited the White House following FDR’s death was not supposed to win in 1948. While rogue Democrats undercut him, nervous rank-and-file members sought his ouster. Rival Republicans circled for blood, and not one but two World War II heroes—Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower—loomed in the pack. The author fields each of these competing components deftly, building one on top of the other to weave a coherent, compelling narrative that illuminates the time while also raising implications for today’s political climate (as noted here, 1948 was the first time that television became a factor in politics). Much of the intrigue and brinkmanship involved in those party conventions of old has transformed, but the political considerations and closed-door dealing shaping potential nominees remain salient as ever. What the reader learns here is that the long-term veneer that often sticks to political figures always clouds the reality. And understanding what actually transpired is not only more important, but also far more intriguing.
A skillful, authoritative investigation into one of the most famous presidential elections in U.S. history.