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Whistle Stops: The 1948 Presidential Campaigns

Harry S. Truman with "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline at Union Station the morning after Election Day, 1948. Photograph by Lloyd Spainhower, 1948 Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection. Portraits n13427
Hall/Missouri History Museum
Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection
Harry S. Truman with "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline at Union Station the morning after Election Day, 1948. Photograph by Lloyd Spainhower, 1948 Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection. Portraits n13427

In 1948, Pee Wee Hunt and His Orchestra were headed for the top of the charts with the 12th Street Rag. 

The Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves were headed to the World Series.

And it looked like Thomas Dewey was headed for the White House.

The pollsters, politicos, and pundits agreed that Thomas Dewey would be the next president and the campaign was just a formality.

“Nobody expected Harry Truman to win that election. All the surveys, all the polls indicated that Dewey would be the winner,” said longtime Mutual Broadcasting reporter Fred Fiske. 

“The polls indicated that he was going to lose. The general temper of the country seemed to indicate he was going to lose. Dewey was convinced he was going to win and so was much of the country, I think, said Walter Cronkite, a United Press reporter in 1948 and longtime CBS News anchor.

“The odds against him weren’t just formidable; they were overwhelming. And nobody -I mean nobody- thought he could win,” said David McCullough who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Truman.

“The pollsters and a lot of the commentators and virtually all the editorial writers were just covering the whistle stop campaign as something they were obliged to do. But everybody knew that Thomas Dewey would be the next president,” said Walt Bodine, a longtime reporter for the Kansas City Star who covered the campaign. 

A political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman illustrating the futility of the race according to columnists, pundits, and others.
Clifford K. Berryman
Public Domain
A political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman illustrating the futility of the race according to columnists, pundits, and others.

The 1948 presidential election would be one of the biggest upsets in American political history.

Harry Truman's fellow Democrats thought he would lose. His campaign staff had its doubts. Even First Lady Bess Truman asked a campaign aide if Truman really thought he could win. The Republicans were supremely confident Dewey would win.

A Dewey campaign recording was distributed across the nation. It assumed the people already knew him.

“At this time, our committee for Dewey for President presents a program to remind you of the policies, actions and achievements of Thomas Dewey, the record that makes Governor Dewey the best Republican for nomination and election as president this year.”

Thomas Dewey was in his second term as Governor of New York. But a filmed campaign biography put together by the Republican National Committee reached out to voters who might not care about New York politicians.

“Though it was in New York that he rose to fame, he was a product of a small town in the Middle West, having been born over a general store in Owosso, Michigan in 1902. He was the only child of George Martin Dewey, county Republican leader and publisher of a local newspaper.”

The Republican Party officials knew that being the governor in a big state on the East Coast would only get him so far. The party made a point of reminding Midwestern voters that he was one of them.

“He was a child raised in a political household because his father was a newspaper man at a time when newspapers were basically party organs, extensions of one party or another,” said Richard Norton Smith who wrote the book Thomas E. Dewey and His Times. 

“And there's no doubt Dewey grew up in a culture where you were born into a political party, like you were born into a church, you never deviated,” Smith added.

As a student in Owosso, Dewey already something of a perfectionist. As an only child, his parents expected much of him. 

Dewey graduated high school, attended the University of Michigan, and then went on to law school at Columbia.

The law, though, was just a fallback plan. Dewey wanted to be an opera singer, and if that didn't pan out, then he joined a law firm and make a lot of money.

He did neither of those things. He ended up working for the government. He was appointed as the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York before he was 30 years old. He took on New York City's crime organizations.

He was a gangbuster.

“Hollywood was cranking out a movie a month about a very thinly veiled version of Dewey, who took on the racketeers in New York City. And this is at the depths of the Great Depression. People were looking for heroes. Here is this young, incorruptible Midwesterner who has come to, in effect, clean up the big, bad, wicked city of New York,” Smith said.

Dewey was meticulous and efficient in his investigations. It turns out those traits are awfully helpful in a campaign.

Thomas E. Dewey, a Michigan native who was twice the Republican nominee for president and a long-serving governor of New York.
Public Domain
Thomas E. Dewey, a Michigan native who was twice the Republican nominee for president and a long-serving governor of New York.

In 1948, Governor Dewey had stiff competition for the Republican nomination from the son of a president and the current Senate leader, Robert Taft. And there was another senator, as well as respected Republican governors in the running.

Dewey had already been the Republican nominee once before in the last election in 1944. That year, Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented fourth term. Dewey lost as many expected, but he had run a better campaign and won more votes against Franklin Roosevelt than anyone else had before. Since then, it seemed people were getting pretty tired of the Democrats running things in Washington.

" Just two years earlier, in 1946. Republicans had taken back Congress in a landslide in reaction to what was perceived to be the failings of the Truman administration," said Smith.

After the end of World War II, there was inflation, a housing shortage, and fears of unemployment. There was the perception that things weren't going very well. With things swinging their way in 1946 and the fact that Democrats had held the White House for 16 years, it looked good for a Republican candidate. And in 1948, Dewey won the delegates' support and was nominated once again.

The Republican convention in 1948 was the first ever to be televised. At the time, Philadelphia was where all the television network lines came together. So the Republican and the Democrat political conventions were held in the same city. Speaker of the House Joe Martin chaired the Republican convention and introduced the nominee.

“Convention will come to order. We privileged to present to this country the right kind of leadership. And I am happy tonight to present to you the next President of the United States Governor Thomas E. Dewey.”
“I pray, God, that I may deserve this opportunity to serve our country. In all humility, I accept the nomination,” Dewey told the convention. 

His theme was about unity: unity of party and of country. 

“Fortunately, we are a united party, our nation, and tragically in need of that same unity. Our people are turning away from the meaner things that divide it. They have a yearning to move to higher ground, to find a common purpose in the finer things that unite. We, the Republican Party, must be the instrument of achieving that aspiration,” Dewey said.

Underscoring the speech was the increasing concern about the spread of communism. Thomas Dewey stressed the nation needed to peacefully work to help people everywhere achieve liberty.

“We have declared our goal to be a strong and free America in a free world, a free man, free to speak their mind, to develop new ideas, to publish whatever they believe is free to move from place to place, to choose their occupations, to enjoy and save, and to keep the fruits of their labor and free to worship God each according to His concept of His grace and of his mercy. When these rights are secure in this world of ours, the permanent ideals of the Republican Party shall have been realized,” Dewey said to the crowd.

Richard Norton Smith said despite all the talk of unity, there was the reality of the politics of the Republican Party.

“He was the nominee of a party that was much more conservative than he was, and that in 1948 turned out to be a fatal divide.”

But no one could see that at the convention. The Republican Party could only see that they had a winner in Thomas E. Dewey as a campaign song illustrated. 

We want Dewey. He’s the man who get things done.

He has won so many battles one by one.

Like the beacon in the lighthouse, he’ll be shining in the White House.

We want Dewey. He’s the one and only one.

While the Republican convention was practically a coronation. The Democratic convention was more like a donnybrook.

Some Democrats started a draft Dwight Eisenhower campaign, even though they didn't know whether General Eisenhower was a Democrat or a Republican. That fizzled out before the convention.

But there was more opposition to Truman. Some leading Democrats, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son, Jimmy, didn't think Truman could win or even had the bearing and dignity to hold the office.

“Truman was upset with Jimmy Roosevelt's actions. If one thing Harry Truman was, it was a loyal Democrat and he didn't like people who were not being loyal Democrats. And that's what he really felt about Jimmy Roosevelt's actions in the summer of ’48,” said Clay Bauske with the Truman Presidential Library.

That was just the beginning of problems for Truman and the Democratic Party. Earlier in the year, the President issued an executive order, ending racial segregation in the armed services and in the federal government. He was fully aware that it was not popular among many people who were about to vote in the fall.

“One of the wonderful moments to me in Truman's presidency was when his advisers and when some of the people at home in the Kansas City area wrote to him and said, if you do this, if you go ahead with this, you know, this desegregation, or if you insist on all this, you're going to lose in November. And his answer was, ‘If I lose, I will have lost for a good cause,’” said historian David McCullough.
That's not to say Harry Truman wanted a civil rights plank to be a major debate at the Democratic convention. But the mayor of Minneapolis, who was running for the US Senate that year, advocated for civil rights to be included in the party platform. Hubert Humphrey made his argument to the convention.

“To those who say to those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states rights, I say this the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states rights and a walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” 

Truman called it a crackpot amendment because he felt it would antagonize the Southern Democrats.

It did. Several Southern Democrats walked out of the convention in Philadelphia and later formed their own party, the States’ Rights Democrats, which came to be known as the Dixiecrats. Truman was losing the right wing of his party.

He was also losing the left wing to one of Roosevelt's previous vice presidents, Henry Wallace, who formed the Progressive Party.

Clay Bauske said that three way split help confirmed for many that 1948 was not going to be a win for the Democrats.

“All that was left in the Democratic Party was sort of the big middle. So it was a big handicap going into the campaign.”

An aide to President Truman, George Elsey, said the Democrats attending the convention were disorganized and disorderly.

“It had been a turbulent week. The Dixiecrats walked out over the platform plank, strongly endorsing President Truman Civil rights stand. The convention dragged on and on and on.”

Historian David McCullough said by the time Truman and his running mate, Senator Alvin Barkley of Kentucky, were to give their nomination acceptance speeches, it seemed as though all the life had been drained out of the party.

“That was a very sorrowful, defeated, beaten and exhausted, perspiring crowd that waited for Mr. Truman to come out and make his acceptance speech at the Philadelphia convention. It was the first convention covered by television, and the lights were very hot, but it was very hot in Philadelphia anyway. Just that movement of air in that arena was practically nonexistent. And and he didn't come out to almost 2:00 in the morning.”

“I accept the nomination. And I want to thank this convention for its unanimous nomination of my good friend and colleague, Senator Barkley of Kentucky. He’s a great man and a great public servant. Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it. Don’t you forget that,” Truman said defiantly from the convention podium.

“It was the first time anybody had used the verb ‘win’ in all the speeches that had been given at the Democratic National Convention that year. And he brought them up, brought them up from their chairs. This was that fighting, confident, exhilarating call to arms that nobody thought possible,” McCullough said.

Harry Truman's nomination acceptance speech revealed his campaign strategy. Instead of emphasizing his own party's platform or attacking the Republican Party's platform or its candidate, Thomas Dewey, Truman planned to hammer away at the Republican-led Congress. He started out by calling Congress back into session in the middle of the summer of an election year.

“My duty as president requires that I use every means within my power to get the laws the people need on matters of such importance and urgency. I am therefore calling this Congress back into session on the 26th of July." Truman said as the crowd rose to their feet. 

“He really tried to nail the Republican controlled Congress to the wall,” said Truman aide, George Elsey.

“The Republican platform was really a pretty moderate with some good liberal ideas in it. The Republican control in Congress, however, was extremely conservative. And Truman was in effect saying, ‘Okay boys, this is your platform. Now if you mean it, go to work and pass some of the legislation.’ And, of course, not a single thing that the platform said or that Dewey had endorsed was enacted by Congress,” Elsey went on to explain.

After the shouts of approval and applause died down, Truman continued.

“On the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day, I’m gonna call that Congress back and I’m going to ask them to pass laws halting rising prices and to meet the housing crisis which they say they’re for in their platform.”

The Turnip Day reference was lost to a lot of people, but it was Truman attempting to make a subtle jab at Dewey’s claims of being for the farmer. He later said he knew Dewey would know nothing about Turnip Day.

George Elsey said pointing a finger at the Republican-led Congress at the convention was good political strategy.

“And that helped very greatly in sharpening the focus for the campaign. In essence, Truman could go around talking about the do-nothing, good for nothing Congress and saying, ‘If you elect these boys again, you’ll get more of the same.’” 

David McCullough said it was very characteristic of Truman. He was a scrapper. 

In World War One, the newly minted Captain Truman and his four-gun artillery group had been pinned down on a mountainside at night as German shells exploded around their position. There was confusion and rumors that it was a gas attack. The men panicked.

“And Truman stood there in the middle of all that and and in the old expression, gave them hell, told them, ‘You get back here and do what you've got to do.’ And that was exactly the same Harry Truman years later, who walks out onto that platform and all those lights. At the Democratic convention in 1948. It’s in his character. It's in his nature, you see, to react that way, McCullough said. 

“You know, politicians have a good time when they get into a fight,” said Truman’s daughter Margaret, who was at the convention.

“There'd been a lot of fighting and contention, a lot of contentious people around, let's put it that way, because you had the Dixiecrats. You also had the Wallace people. It was a good thing to have it all over with. And he made a very good speech. And got them all up told them they had to go to work.” 

That work was not so much defeating Thomas Dewey, but defeating Republican congressional policies. 

“Look, it's the party that you have to contend with, not just the titular leader. If Governor Dewey is elected -incidentally, he never mentioned Dewey by name in the campaign- if the other fellow is elected, you'll still have the same party still running things the way they have in this 80th Congress. Yes, it was a very intentional, deliberate strategy to focus on the Congress and what the Republicans were standing for,” Elsey said. 

Those political positions included weakening the power of unions and policies that Truman felt hurt farmers.

A few days after the Democratic National Convention, the Southern Democrats who had walked out held their own convention in Birmingham, Alabama. Under the state's Rights Democrats banner. They selected South Carolina Governor Jay Strom Thurmond as their presidential nominee, and he railed against Truman and civil rights.

“It simply means that it's another effort on the part of this president to dominate this country by force and to put into effect these uncalled for and these damnable proposals he has recommended under the guise of so-called civil rights. And I tell you, the American people from one side or the other have had better wake up and oppose such a program. And if they don't, then next thing will be a totalitarian state and the United States.” 

Fifty years later, then U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond was much of the same mind.

“Now we felt that unless policies were reversed, it will not be many years until we no longer would live under a democratic government as we know it, but it finally would result in a dictatorship.”

Thurmond and the Dixiecrats knew they wouldn't get enough electoral votes to win the election outright, but they thought they had a strategy that had an outside chance of winning the White House.

“I felt if we could get enough votes in the South away from Truman and throw it in the House, that the only chance we had was throw it into the House. And then the House would select from the three highest, that would have been Truman and Dewey and myself,” Thurmond said.

Like the Republicans and the Democrats, the Progressive Party's convention was also held in Philadelphia. The party's nominee was Henry Wallace.

As a young man, Wallace had been instrumental in developing and promoting hybrid corn that was more hardy and produced better grain yields. It was revolutionary and contributed to the industrialization of agriculture. Along with some partners, he started a company that was a forerunner to today's Pioneer Hybrid International.

President Roosevelt appointed Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, the same position Wallace’s father had held just a dozen years earlier.

He became Roosevelt's second vice president in 1941, replacing Texan John Nance Garner, who later reportedly said “The vice presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit,” when Lyndon Johnson asked him whether he should accept John F. Kennedy’s offer of being his running mate.

Like Garner, Henry Wallace was also frustrated with the vice presidency. In 1944, Roosevelt chose Truman as his VP candidate and appointed Wallace Secretary of Commerce, a position he continued to hold under Truman, at least for a while.

Wallace gave a speech that warned the U.S. should not follow the ‘get tough with Russia’ policy that Truman favored, but that it should find ways to reconcile its differences with the Soviet Union. The tougher we get, the tougher the Russians will get, Wallace argued. It was in direct conflict with an administration report that was to be released two weeks later and described the Soviet Union as militaristic and bent on attacking capitalism around the world. Truman asked for Wallace's resignation. Henry Wallace held a news conference.

“Dear Harry, as you requested, here is my resignation. I shall continue to fight for peace. I am sure that you approve and will join me in that great endeavor,” he said with microphones before him and cameras filming.

In a radio address about creating a new party, Wallace said if the Democratic Party continued to be part of war and depression, he would see that the people had a chance to vote for peace and prosperity.

A Wallace campaign song was quite optimistic. 

Everyone wants Wallace.

Henry Henry Wallace.

Henry, Henry Wallace in the White House.

The Progressive Party nominates Henry Wallace to be its presidential candidate in 1948.
Public Domain
The Progressive Party nominates Henry Wallace to be its presidential candidate in 1948.

During his nomination acceptance speech at the Progressive Party Convention, he noted that the now simmering Cold War and the Red Scare within the U.S. were not causing the problems of the common man, such as inflation or the postwar housing shortage. But instead, right leaning politicians were to blame. 

“I am committed to stopping the creation of fear, to using all my powers to prevent the fear makers from clogging the minds of the people with the red issue. Millions know and millions more must see that it is not the Kremlin, not the Communists who have sent milk to 24 cents a quart and meat to a dollar-30 a pound, that it is the red issue and not the reds who did this to us.”.

Wallace campaigned around the nation, including in the South, where he was despised for his anti-segregationist stance. At some campaign stops, Wallace was pelted with eggs. At nearly every stop, he was cursed. He kept campaigning.

Truman had skipped touring the South. But George Elsey said there were good reasons not to go.

“Well, the votes weren't there. The electoral vote. The South did not then have the population that it does now. Dixiecrat was part of it and there was a little bit of over optimism that the South was pretty solidly Democratic. Anyway, going into the South could have exacerbated some of the feelings on civil rights issues.”

After the Progressive Party convention, newspapers reported Wallace's campaign had received donations from Communists. They were American citizens, but who were or had been affiliated with the Communist Party. That was the beginning of the end of any chance Wallace had as a candidate. While Wallace was urging the nation not to fear the Soviet Union, developments in post-World War two occupied Germany made it difficult not to be wary.

People in theaters across the nation saw newsreels that explained the chaos in Berlin.

“Seven weeks after four power rule in Berlin came to an end, the Russians hauled down their flag before the Kommandatura, symbolizing a complete rupture of relations and dividing the German capital into two armed camps.”

If the conventions set the stage for the 1948 presidential campaigns, world events offered a dramatic backdrop. The Soviet Union had begun what was known as the Berlin Crisis in late June. The USSR cut off land access to Berlin, hoping its World War Two allies would withdraw. Two days later, President Truman ordered the beginning of the Berlin airlift, sending in planes full of supplies and tools for the people of the German capital who lived in the US, British, and French sectors. Historian David McCullough said the president could have used the Berlin crisis to his political advantage, but he didn't.

“He could have played up the fact this crisis was a testing time when all America must unite behind the commander in chief, etc., etc. He didn't do that.”

The same can be said of Thomas Dewey. He could have criticized the Truman administration for its foreign policy, including its handling of the Berlin blockade, but only expressed dismay for past failings and stressed bipartisan support for present policy.

George Elsey says this was a time when American politicians showed a united front to the rest of the world, even if there were disagreements behind the scenes.

“While the Berlin airlift was very definitely not a partisan political issue. If either candidate had tried to somehow capitalize on it, it would have would have backfired. No, this was most definitely not something that you wanted to play politics with. The issues were too serious,” explained Elsey.

1948 was also the year the Jewish state declared its independence as a nation. Minutes after Israel made the declaration, the Truman administration recognized the new nation.

“The recognition of Israel was an important event. But the Republican Party was entirely for the recognition of Israel, too. It wasn't as if one party took one position and the other took another,” said David McCullough.

Some of Truman's critics did see his decision to recognize Israel so quickly as a cynical attempt to win the Jewish vote. Clay Bauske said if that was the truth, it didn't work out.

“Ironically, as it turns out, of the three states with the greatest Jewish population, Truman lost all of them in the election.”

One of the other issues that people today often ask about is how important was the debate about 'the bomb' in the campaign? What did people think of Truman after he had approved dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, killing a quarter of a million men, women and children with horrendous deaths for many years after from radiation poisoning? 

“This is a classic instance of the dangers of contemporary consensus, if you will,” said historian Richard Norton Smith.

“There are many, many more questions raised 80 years after the fact about the decision to use the bomb not once, but twice than there were in the immediate aftermath,” Smith said.

The consensus of Americans in 1948 was that the atomic bombs were necessary to end the war. Without them, the U.S. would have lost another half million men in the war, according to one estimate. And at the time, the people who developed the bombs were considered heroes of science. Although, some of those scientists later deeply regretted what they unleashed on the world.

The only thing Truman and Dewey mentioned, regarding splitting the atom was its great potential as an energy source. Only Henry Wallace questioned the development of the bomb, its use, and its potential of being used again.

Most Americans wouldn't fully understand the lasting horrors of the atom bomb for another two decades.

The whistle stop campaigns of 1948 have become political folklore. Few campaigns have captured the imagination of the people in the way those train trips crisscrossing the nation did in ‘48. 

But why trains? During World War Two, the U.S. became masters of producing airplanes. At the time, a plane trip only got you from one big city to the next, skipping over a lot of smaller cities with a lot of voters. 

There was radio and TV. 

“Radio, of course, could reach a lot of people, and both candidates used radio a lot,” explained Clay Bauske at the Truman Presidential Library. 

He noted, though, that the television networks were not nationwide yet. They were primarily in eastern cities and really not that many people owned a television.

“The only way to sort of be seen around the country was to do something like a whistle stop campaign where you actually went out to the people. And with a train you could cover a lot of ground and all in a relatively short amount of time. And everywhere you showed up, it was an occasion. And so people would show up to see you. So whistle stop became a good way to move around the country quickly,” Bauske explained.

Using trains like this was not new. Franklin Roosevelt made the idea popular with what he called ‘inspection tours.’ He would ride around the country to look over federal facilities or projects.

The official purpose of Truman's first train trip in June, before he was the party's nominee for president, was to accept an honorary degree from the University of California at Berkeley. There were a lot side trips and a lot of stops along the way as Truman conducted his own inspection tour of the Midwest and West.

Truman took to the rails because he didn't think the press would give him a fair shake. He decided to take his campaign directly to the people, and this so-called nonpolitical trip was a good test run.

The Republicans used the term ‘whistle stop’ as a derogatory reference to that June trip, saying Truman was speaking at every little whistle stop along the way. The Democrats ran with that, and they sent letters to the mayors of the big cities Truman had visited, asking them if they felt their city was merely a whistle stop along the tracks.

George Elsey said sometimes the stops on that first trip didn't go very well. Truman got the names of towns and local people wrong at times.

“Actually, in some respects, it was not very successful because not enough staff preparation had gone into the trip and the president was unprepared at the many, many small towns which he stopped en route. He didn't have enough information and he made several gaffes and errors. So that taught us that we were going to have to do a whale of a lot of work for the big campaign trips that would begin on Labor Day.” 

At one Oregon stop, Truman made a statement about Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that got him into some hot water. He was quoted in the newspapers around the country as saying, “I got very well acquainted with Joe Stalin, and I like old Joe. He's a decent fellow. But Joe is a prisoner of the Politburo.” Saying he liked the Soviet dictator at a time when tensions between the countries were rising was not the smartest thing Truman could have said.

“No, on that old Joe statement. I got an astonished telephone calls from the State Department immediately. And I got on the phone as soon as we had a telephone connection to the train to talk to my then boss, Clark Clifford, saying, for gosh sakes, we'd better see that the boss doesn't repeat any mistake like this again, What President Truman was referring to is the fact that he had gotten along amicably with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. Stalin, when he wanted to be pleasant and agreeable, could put up a very good show of it. Of course, it was a mistake, a gross mistake, because by 1948 we knew that Stalin was anything but a friendly old bear,” Elsey said.

Beyond the gaffes, the June train trips seemed to rejuvenate Truman as they do for some other politicians and celebrities. He was energized by being out among the people.

“And I think that's exactly what happened with Harry Truman,” said Clay Bauske, adding, “He loved people. He loved to get out among the people and being out among what you might call the common people, he was one of them, invigorated him and he received an additional boost from that, I think.” 

By 1952, the next presidential election, Richard Norton Smith said for the most part, candidates used airplanes instead of trains that helped make the only whistle stops campaign seem special.

“So, ‘48 in many ways is the last hurrah for this kind of campaigning,” Smith said.

When the candidates train trips began in earnest in September, reporters preferred riding on the Dewey Victory Special. It was a model of efficiency. It was well financed and well staffed. It was air conditioned not only in Governor Dewey’s car, but also the cars of staff and press. It was almost always on time. Loudspeakers were mounted on the inside of the press cars, so news reporters didn't have to scramble to the rear platform of the train to hear the candidate's remarks. 

Richard Norton Smith said it was typical Dewey. 

“Dewey was a superb administrator and he surrounded himself with highly competent people who shared those talents. And you saw that in the organization of his campaign. You saw that in the train trips.”

Reporters who spent time on both the Truman train and the Dewey train said they were a lot happier traveling with Dewey.

Dewey had a good voice. Undoubtedly, training to become an opera singer helped.

“There's an element of theatricality that comes through. It doesn't feel insincere, but it never feels spontaneous or relaxed or conversational,” Smith said.

“I propose that we bring a sense of teamwork to our government, that we get people who are willing to work together without all the backbiting and the quarreling and the bickering we've had in our government in recent years. And if there's anybody who's there who doesn't play on the team, he won't stay on the team. And then next January, with your permission, I should like to start the finest, largest, unraveling, unsnarling housecleaning operation our government has had in its whole history,” Dewey said at one of the stops.

Governor Dewey usually gave the same speech at each town, occasionally adding a tidbit or two from his next upcoming major address. At the end of his speeches, Dewey would always introduced his wife, Frances, who would wave at the crowd. The Dewey Victory Special didn't make as many stops as the Truman train did, but it still managed a fairly busy schedule.

Often the candidates would speak in the same towns only a day or two apart. The Truman campaign kept abreast of the Dewey Victory Special through newspaper accounts and reporters who rode on both trains as well as Democrats who went to the Dewey speeches and reported what was said..

“Dewey was a splendid governor. He probably would have made a pretty good president. But my gosh, he was a terrible campaigner,” said Truman aide George Elsey.

“He was so overconfident -and all Republicans were so overconfident that he would win the election- that he coasted along, not really addressing any of the issues. His rare platform appearances, in contrast to Truman, were just platitudes. One of his favorite lines was 'Your future is ahead of you.' Well, what does that mean? Not a darned thing,” Elsey said. 

Dewey's biographer, Richard Norton Smith, agreed there’s some truth to that.

“Dewey's failing was in his inability to recognize and acknowledge the extent to which Franklin Roosevelt had changed. The political weather had changed public expectations of a president, of a presidential candidate, and of the government over which he presided.”

FDR used radio to take the presidency from speeches and proclamations and turned them into fireside chats. He would address the people as my friends and then explain why the government was doing what it was doing and how it was helping folks. These radio chats were revolutionary in their ability to communicate, in essence, one-to-one with people.

Dewey's campaign advisers were telling him not to do anything different that would disrupt his really easy path to victory. It went against the instincts of a prosecutor ready to fight. But, he went along with his campaign expert's advice.

Throughout the summer and into fall, Harry Truman kept hammering away at the Republican Congress. Clay Bauske said the steady beat of the campaign was to persuade people that the Republican led Congress was not working for them.

“Truman went out really on the attack and it wasn't necessarily it wasn't the kind of negative attacks you get in campaigns today, which are personally vitriolic. But they were definitely hard attacks on the Republican party,” Bauske said.

“That Congress tried its level best to take all the rights away from labor. That Congress tried its level best to put the farmer back to 1932. That Congress tried its level best to put small business out of business. For what purpose? To help the big interests that they represented,” Truman said at many stops.

Using the lessons learned from the less than perfect train trip in June, George Elsey had devised a way to take advantage of President Truman's off the cuff style, but get across the information important at each stop.

“I would prepare an outline. President Truman didn't read particularly well. His eyesight was something of a problem in trying to follow the manuscript, but he could take the salient points of the names of candidates, the things that that particular town was concerned in and in his own words, in his own direct colloquial style, express himself very forthrightly and poignantly," Elsey said.

The stops were fairly predictable. A band might play Hail to the Chief or one rendition or another of The Missouri Waltz. The Truman campaign theme song was I'm Just Wild about Harry. Clay Bauske has studied Truman's whistle stop speeches.

“He would make some comment right away that had to do with that town in particular to try to connect himself with that town. And then he would start giving his mini-campaign speech. He was always attacking the 80th do-nothing Congress.”

President Truman would usually end this speech by introducing the first lady, Bess and daughter, Margaret.

“I wonder how would you like to meet my family? Here's the boss (meaning Bess Truman) And here's the boss's boss (meaning daughter Margeret Truman,” the President would say to the laughter and applause of the crowd.

“My mother got a little tired of that. So he dropped that,” said Margaret Truman 50 years later.

Aside from being presented to crowds at the back of the train up to 15 times a day, Margaret Truman said family life was surprisingly normal traveling across the country.

The rest of the train passengers were not as fortunate that summer. Unlike the Dewey train, Truman's train did not offer reporters and staff the latest comforts such as air conditioning. And if they wanted to hear the president's speech, they had to hurry to the rear of the train to take notes and then scurry to get back on the train before it left.

There were times when the train was delayed. That's because the Democrats didn't always have the money to pull out of the station. An impromptu fundraiser would have to be held on the spot to continue Truman's whistle stop campaign.

A contingent of national reporters were always on the whistle stop tour, but local reporters could hop on a train for short trips across their state.

“His crowds just kept getting bigger and bigger as he went along,” said Walt Bodine who was reporting for the Kansas City Star in 1948. He rode on the train as it went across Missouri.

He said columnists and commentators were too quick to dismiss the growing crowds at Truman stops as simply the celebrity of the presidency.

“Well, he's drawing big crowds, but he's drawing big crowds simply because he's a President of the United States, and he's in, say, Marceline, Missouri. How many presidents have they ever had there? So that's why the big crowd was there,” Bodine said was the typical response of the pundits.

George Elsey said they were hearing something different from reporters.

“Newspapermen who would travel a few days on Truman's train and then Dewey's and then come back to ours would say, ‘Gee, Truman is picking up audiences all the time, and Governor Dewey just is not getting any response from the public.’ That was a tip off as to what was going to- what did happen in November.

On Dewey's Victory Special, the campaign staff said everything was going along just fine. Everybody said so. One of the press secretaries, James Hagerty, talked about how well the Republican candidate was being received.

“I have yet to meet a newspaperman or a radio reporter or commentator who does not believe that the governor has been doing himself immeasurable good.”

David McCullough said Dewey’s staff should have paid less attention to the commentators and more attention to the people.

“Dewey's crowds were not only less than they should have been in numbers, but they were tepid. They were, there was no fire there because he had no fire.”

However, the newspaper columnists and radio commentators agreed Truman just didn't have a chance against Dewey. About ten days before the election, 50 columnists and commentators were polled, and every one of them said Thomas Dewey would be elected president. 

One pollster actually stopped polling in mid-September. He felt it was senseless to continue because the outcome was so obvious.

Political cartoon by Jim Berryman "Down by the station."
Jim Berryman
Political cartoon by Jim Berryman "Down by the station."

At times, there was something of a carnival atmosphere about the 1948 campaign. Political cartoons and satirists were having a great time lampooning both of the leading candidates.

In late October, the Saturday Evening Post cover was a hilarious Norman Rockwell painting of a young couple arguing over the breakfast table about their choice for president.

The Staley Milling company used bags of chicken feed to conduct a poll of farmers. Customers could buy a sack of chicken feed with a donkey or one with an elephant, Depending on whether voting for Truman or Dewey. Some 20,000 farmers in six states participated until September. The Chicken Feed Sack poll showed Truman winning with 54% of the farmers. The company said, Hey, it was all in fun. The results were improbable since the Gallup and Roper polls showed Dewey to be the clear winner. But after the election, people looked back.

“The Republicans just took for granted that they'd get the farm vote. And as Dewey later sorrowfully said, we lost it because we ignored the farmers,” George Elsey said.

Elsey traveled with Harry Truman throughout his entire campaign and has often been asked if Truman really thought he could win the election when everybody else in the nation, it seemed, believed he would lose.

“And my answer always is no, Truman didn't think he would win. He knew he would win. And here's my evidence for that. I was sitting alone with the President in the Ferdinand Magellan, his car going over some outlines for future whistle stop speeches. And he said, ‘Elsey, let's stop that and let's get down to business.’ I took out a pad of paper and he began rattling off the states, giving the electoral vote for each. And telling me which column to put them in. Truman, Dewey, or Henry Wallace or Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat candidate. So the point was, two weeks before the campaign when all the people who allegedly knew what they were talking about were saying an overwhelming defeat for Truman, Truman, in his own mind, was absolutely convinced, positive that he was going to win.”

Truman was a little overoptimistic in his tally, but not that far off from the final electoral count.

Truman's last major campaign speech was given in St. Louis at Kiel Auditorium the day before Election Day. The speech which was broadcast on the radio nationwide. 

“I think by that time people- Truman hadn't given up, but most other people had given up on the campaign. So many people who were watching the speech, I'm sure, were thinking, this is the last speech we're going to hear from this president,” Clay Bauske said.

His speechwriting staff had been taking the best parts of all the speeches throughout the whistle stop campaign and weaving them together to finish with the best Truman speech yet. In her book, Margaret Truman quotes her father as saying, ‘I'm sorry, boys, but I just haven't got the time to get all of this into my head.’ He threw it aside and gave a completely extemporaneous speech.

“Of all the fake campaigns, this one is the top so far as the Republican candidate for president is concerned. He's been following me up and down this country and making speeches about home and mother and unity and efficiency and things of that kind. He won't talk about the issues, but he did let his foot slip when he endorsed the 80th Congress. He endorsed that Congress,” Truman said to the packed house.

He went on to outline the plight of the farmer and blamed the Republican led Congress, the plight of the union laborers and blamed the Congress. And then he attacked the conservative commentators and the press.

“I've been all over this United States from one end to the other. And when I started out, the song was ‘Well, he can't win. The Democrats can't win.’ And 90%, 90% of the press is against us. But that didn't discourage me one little bit, you know. I had four campaigns here in the great state of Missouri, and I never had a metropolitan paper for me in that whole time. And I licked them every time,” said Truman to loud cheers.

On Election Day. The Trumans voted in their hometown of Independence, Missouri. And then the president, along with a couple of Secret Service agents, quietly slipped away. That night, the news media began gathering at the Truman home, where they thought Harry Truman was listening to the election returns. Walter Cronkite was a reporter for United Press at the time.

“We were on the stakeout to await his coming out on the porch and giving us the announcement, which was believed that would come of his concession.”

Walt Bodine of the Kansas City Star was also standing outside the Truman House that night waiting on the president.

“The certain feeling we all had was that he's in there and at the moment when he thinks it's right, he'll come out and we're going to see history.”

Margaret Truman was in the house. She said, with all the traffic of local people driving by and the noise of the reporters out in the yard. Her father did the smart thing.

“Yes. He got away, went to bed, went sleep. I stayed up all night. I had I was fending off the press in the front yard. “

“We waited all night long, taking shelter in cars parked on the street for a little comfort from the cold,” Cronkite said.

“And as time went on, it began to dawn on people that maybe he isn't here. Where is he? And as we all know now, he was at the Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, where I guess he gave the night clerk the shock of his life when he walked in,” said Bodine.

“So we were staking out the wrong location,” Cronkite said, laughing.

“Well, they learned that I was telling the truth. I knew they would in time,” Margaret Truman said.

As reporters watched the vote totals come in on the teletype. They saw Truman pull ahead of Dewey. Many were in denial, explaining away the lead. So was the Republican headquarters, as one reporter relayed.

“As in all elections, the big cities in which the Democrats normally have majorities are reported during the early hours after the polls close. The Democratic majorities in practically every instance have been substantially smaller than would be necessary for the Democratic candidates to win. So we conclude here at the Republican headquarters that Dewey and Warren are elected. That's the statement of Herbert Brownell here at Republican headquarters.”

In New York City, Governor and Mrs. Dewey voted, and then they followed their election night custom of dinner with another couple, publishing friends of theirs. After dinner, the Deweys returned to their hotel. The press gathered there to hear a victory speech from Thomas Dewey. But biographer Richard Norton Smith said Dewey was a numbers cruncher. He knew it was close. Too close.

“About three in the morning or so, he's standing outside the suite in the hall and observes in a very muted way to a friend, 'Well, the little son of a bitch won.' And that pretty much summed up his reaction. Publicly, he was gracious,” said Smith.

Dewey briefly talked to reporters shortly after that.

“We waged a clean and instructive campaign. And I have no regrets whatsoever,” he said. 

Later in the morning, he held a formal press conference.

“I've sent the following wire to President Truman: My heartiest congratulations to you on your election and every good wish for a successful administration. I urge all Americans to unite behind you in support of every effort to keep our nation strong and free and to establish peace in the world,” the Republican nominee said.

“And that's Dewey at his best,” said Smith, adding, “He has a convincing smile on his face. Dewey was a figure of great urbanity. I mean, he was a New Yorker. Urbanity, sophistication, self-control, all of those qualities. He may have been from Michigan, but you can only understand Dewey as a New Yorker.”

A lot of Dewey voters stayed home because they assumed it was a done deal. Their vote wasn't needed. A lot of people who thought Truman had no chance of winning voted for him anyway.

Back in Independence, Missouri, no one had planned a victory celebration, so a hastily arranged rally was put together and their neighbor, Harry Truman, elected to the presidency in his own right, made a few brief remarks:

“I can't tell you how very much I appreciate this turnout to celebrate a victory, not my victory, but a victory for the Democratic party for other people.”

A dozen or more flashbulbs went off as President Truman holds the Chicago Daily Tribune aloft with an incorrect headline.
St. Louis Mercantile Library
A dozen or more flashbulbs went off as President Truman held the Chicago Daily Tribune aloft with an incorrect headline.

“On his way back to Washington, Harry Truman's train stopped briefly at Union Station in St. Louis. Someone handed the president a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the banner headline 'Dewey Defeats Truman.' With a big smile, the President held it up to show the crowd. A dozen or more flashbulbs went off. Truman biographer David McCullough says that photograph is one of the lasting images of American political history.

“It was a sweet, sweet moment for it, particularly as it was for the Chicago Tribune, which had been after him all along,” McCullough explained. 

The following day, a young broadcaster for Mutual Radio, Fred Fiske, was on the train platform in Washington, D.C., awaiting the president's arrival.

“And as the train comes down the platform now, it's about 25 yards from me. President Truman is standing right in the center of the back platform with a big broad grin on his face, waving to everybody. And if any man has a right to be happy today at President Truman, there is the man whom everybody thought was wrong like that, 22 and a half million American voters. Listen to the big cheer go up now that Senator Barkley shaking hands with his running mate. A great big hand,” he said. 

Decades later, Fiske laughed at himself.

“I listen to the tape nowadays and say, boy, I wish I could have been a little bit more restrained. Too excited for journalist.”

After chuckling a bit, he said he'd never seen anything like that day in Washington before or after.

“I can't recall a more euphoric occasion. People were just delighted. Everybody was welcoming Harry. He was a very, very popular president with the people.”

Margaret Truman said mostly that day was something of a blur for her. But she did notice a newspaper that had predicted a Truman loss, welcomed his win with a bit of humor.

“The Washington Post had hung out a big sign, ‘Mr. President, we will eat crow.’”

Truman's win was not a landslide. He got close to 50% of the vote. Dewey got 45%. Strom Thurmond came in third with just over 1 million votes. And Henry Wallace close behind with just over 1 million votes.

The Democrats that election picked up 75 seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate, giving them control of both chambers of Congress. Many people credited Truman for that one too since his whole campaign had been based on bashing the Republican led 80th Congress.

All of those pollsters, pundits, columnists and commentators, as well as some news reporters, lost credibility because of the 1948 campaign. Polling became much more refined in the coming years. Most reporters refrained from stating their assumptions about elections from then on. Pundits, well, not a lot changed.

In the wake of the election, Thomas Dewey, at age 46, was an elder statesman. He continued as one of New York's most successful governors until 1955. He then became a prominent lawyer.

It was Harry Truman's last campaign. He declined to run for reelection and instead went back to Independence, Missouri, in 1953.

Both men were influential on party politics long after they left public office. Historian David McCullough said to him the 1948 campaign was one of the last to capture what was best of American politics and will long be remembered because of that. 

“A big part of the appeal of Harry Truman today is a consequence of the contrast of what's happened since the falseness of political campaigns and the political process has become so overbearing. And once there was a time when there was a man who just spoke straight from the shoulder, who had the backbone to stand up for his point of view, including risking the loss of an election, all that is tremendously appealing to us now. It's a great story.”

Whistle Stops: The 1948 Presidential Campaigns was produced and narrated by Lester Graham. The concept was inspired by historian Matthew Algeo. Help with this project came from the Harry Truman Presidential Library, Independence, Missouri, KCUR, Kansas City, WAMU, Washington, D.C., Saint Louis Public Radio, Northern Public Radio, DeKalb/Rockford, Michigan Radio, The University of Rochester Library, and the Missouri Historical Society. It was distributed by PRX.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.