Jan 27, 2016

The spiritual challenge of a political campaign, 1948 edition

Harry S Truman's campaign advisors were thinking in religious terms in 1948. Winning was a spiritual challenge. 

Much like the Republican Party today, the Democrats of Truman's time faced serious internal divisions. There was a strong anti-establishment movement. 

The political scene, Truman's advisors said in an undated campaign memo, was "one unholy, confused cacophony." 

Henry Wallace, the New Deal champion whom Truman replaced as Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president, had attacked Truman from the offices of the New Republic and now was running a progressive third-party challenge. Southern Democrats, meanwhile, were splitting off into a different third-party challenge, these traditionally reliable votes rebelling with the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. The Democratic Party seemed to be cracking up.

On top of that there was the Republican opponent, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who appeared unstoppable to many.

Truman's advisors looked at all this. They decided Truman nevertheless had some advantages. People believed he was personally a moral man and they had some faith in the authority of the White House.

"The Presidency," the memo said, "possesses the only platform authoritative and creative enough to be of political and spiritual significance in the chaos of 1948."

The President just had to find his prophetic voice.

The memo outlined the plan:

He had to be prophetic, but also monosyllabic. 

He had to speak, according to point 5, like "a fellow believer." 

Truman did adopt this strategy, according to his campaign manager, William J. Bray. He learned to speak extemporaneously and more passionately, more persuasively. Truman started some speeches by saying he had a prepared text, but would put it aside to speak to this crowd "of everything that is in my heart and soul." As he spoke to crowds on his "whistle-stop tour" across the country, supporters starting shouting out, "Give 'em hell, Harry!"

"Above all," point 9 says, "this is a time for spiritual greatness." But "great issues," point 7 cautions, "can be told in monosyllable language."

Some of this advice, I suspect, is exactly what Republican candidates are hearing from their advisors today. 

Truman won the election with 2.1 million more votes than his Republican opponent. The Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurman came in a distant third, carrying four states and one "faithless elector" in Tennessee. Wallace, who wouldn't disavow Communist endorsement or segregate his campaign, came in fourth with 2.4 percent of the vote.