Truman victory was based on different factors Bush does not have good economy of '48

September 09, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- If President Bush wants a blueprint for an incumbent who is an underdog in his bid to stay in the Oval Office, he can find it among the memorabilia of the 1948 "give-'em-hell" campaign here at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

But Mr. Bush may need more than a blueprint of how an upset was pulled off 44 years ago, for at least three reasons. First, this is 1992, not 1948. Second, opponent Bill Clinton is not the stuffy Thomas E. Dewey. And finally, George Bush, as former First Daughter Margaret has reminded him, is no Harry Truman.

The year 1948 was one of economic well-being, unlike today when the country is bogged down by a stagnant economy. Unemployment nationally was below 4 percent, compared with the present 7.6 percent, and American industry was humming in postwar conversion from military production to the making of long-denied consumer goods of every kind.

Mr. Dewey, then governor of New York, was a stiff and proper establishment figure often ridiculed as "the little man on the wedding cake." He would never have been found playing blues saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, even had there been one at the time. The musician in that race was Mr. Truman himself at the piano.

As for the personalities, the man from Independence was famed for having the common touch, for his ability to relate to the "little guy" he championed vigorously before, during and after the 1948 campaign. The man from Kennebunkport by way of Greenwich and later Midland, Tex., remains too much the Yankee aristocrat to be comfortable in Harry Truman's shoes, let alone his wide-brimmed hat and spiffy two-tone shoes of the Forties.

Still, there are the similarities, to be found in a colorful exhibit at the Truman Library and Museum called "The Whistlestop Campaign," chockful of photos, newspaper headlines, cartoons and personal correspondence depicting how 1948's underdog incumbent pulled off the political "miracle" that 1992's underdog incumbent is now seeking to emulate.

To start with, there is the low standing in the polls of the two incumbent presidents. In August of 1948, Mr. Truman trailed Mr. Dewey in the Gallup Poll by 37 percent to 48 percent--not much worse than Mr. Bush's 40 percent to Gov. Bill Clinton's 49 percent in the latest NBC News poll. Another 1948 poll, by Elmo Roper, had Mr. Truman trailing by 31 percent to 46 percent--so far back that Mr. Roper stopped interviewing and "gave" the election to Mr. Dewey.

Mr. Truman then, like Mr. Bush today, put a Congress controlled by the opposition party in his sights. Mr. Truman did not use Mr. Bush's current label of "the gridlocked Congress" in the 275 speeches he made from June to November; he preferred "the do-nothing Congress." But he made Capitol Hill the whipping boy of a campaign that carried him nearly 22,000 miles across the country and aimed, as Mr. Bush does today, to throw the opposition rascals out.

Among the memorabilia here of the "give-'em-hell" campaign of 1948 is an exchange of letters between President Truman and Hubert H. Humphrey that summer, when Mr. Humphrey was mayor of Minneapolis and like Mr. Truman a critic of the GOP-controlled Congress.

Mr. Humphrey, writing two days after the Democratic president had called Congress back for a special session to consider a host of his legislative proposals, hailed the move and told the president it was time for the GOP to "put up or shut up." Mr. Truman replied:

"The Republican Party does have to 'put up or shut up.' I am of the opinion that they will do neither one and it is going to be necessary either to give them complete control of the Government, or to throw them out completely. I am going to do my best to throw them out."

The Man from Independence was right. The Republicans rejected his special-session agenda and Mr. Truman thereupon went on the warpath, painting the "do-nothing 80th Congress" as the roadblock to progress and singling out individual Republicans who should be retired by the voters. Not only was he elected himself, but the Democrats won decisive control of both houses of Congress.

Mr. Bush is on much less hopeful ground this year in his call for voters to break the legislative gridlock between a Republican president and a Democratic-controlled Congress by re-electing him and also putting the GOP in charge on Capitol Hill.

Hardly anyone is forecasting sufficient Republican gains to capture either house, although the president clings to the hope that the large number of seats open as a result of retirements and incumbent primary defeats in the wake of the House bank scandal may produce an ideological bent more favorable to his conservative agenda.

Also among the Truman papers here is a candid memorandum dated Nov. 11, 1947 entitled "The Politics of 1948" from a young aide named Clark Clifford, now the grey eminence of Washington caught up in the BCCI banking scandal.

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