1948–Truman Acceptance Speech–James Marconi
Every good presidential campaign needs a clear central theme, a single message that will resonate with voters and drive all of the campaign materials that follow. For Harry S. Truman, that message is captured in his acceptance speech July 15 at the 1948 Democratic nominating convention.
Living in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman did not command the same reputation for eloquence as his predecessor, whose policies and rhetoric had dominated the White House for more than12 years. Roosevelthad an expressive, mellifluous voice and an elegant, soaring style of rhetoric heard in speeches like his first inaugural address with the enduring line that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Truman, by contrast, appeared almost wooden in some of his earlier speeches as president – his language and delivery style a bit stilted even in the notable “Truman Doctrine” speech. This changed in 1948, according to Robert Schlesinger in his meticulous account of presidential speechwriters.
The nominating convention presented an opportunity for Truman to alter his reputation, and energize the following campaign. As Schlesinger details, the conditions were not particularly stacked in Truman’s favor. The heat inPhiladelphiawas stifling, and Truman himself did not begin speaking until the wee hours of the morning, long after the convention began. But when Truman did speak, the difference in style is noticeable. Listening to the “Truman Doctrine” speech and the nominating convention speech are two very different experiences. In the former, Truman makes a major policy statement in a straightforward, matter of fact manner. It’s correct, but somewhat dull. In the more informal setting of thePhiladelphiaconvention hall, Truman sounds more at ease, comfortable enough to crack a small joke at the start of the speech. He certainly sounds more enthused, more energetic, more alive.
Part of this, no doubt, is due to his topic, justifying and setting the stage for his campaign. In the speech, Truman acts the part of the true believer, a partisan proud of his party’s accomplishments. “Victory has become a habit of our Party,” Truman states. “The record of the Democratic Party is written in the accomplishments of the last 16 years. I don’t need to repeat them.” While he is not Franklin Roosevelt, Truman very ably taps intoRoosevelt’s memory and his legacy as a means of building credibility.
Truman also targets two key constituencies that become important in his later “whistle-stop” tour around the country; farmers and labor unions. Farmers across the country, Truman asserts, are the most prosperous in the world. The drastic increase of material wealth between 1933 and 1947 means that farmers owe their allegiance to the Democrats, “and if they don’t do their duty by the Democratic Party, they’re the most ungrateful people in the world.” It’s a logically fallacious argument, but one designed to appeal on an emotional level.
After Truman made a similar point about labor, he moved on to the majority of the speech, which meticulously constructed the enemy for the duration of the campaign – Congress. Rather than run against his Republican opponent,New Yorkgovernor Thomas Dewey, Truman chose to blacken the record of the Republican-controlled Congress. It’s an intelligent choice of adversaries, given the way that Truman constructed his argument. Point by point, he claims responsibility for having the vision to see the problems and trials of the American people, every issue from prices to health care. In each case, Truman claimed that he tried to take action by proposing solutions to Congress. In each case, Truman claimed, the Republican Congress ignored the problem and did nothing.
The arguments gained force through Truman’s construction of a legislative body that had the capacity to act and supposedly agreed with many of Truman’s proposals but deliberately chose not to enact them. And so Truman seized the opportunity to lay a trap. Congress had not acted in the past, Truman claimed, but surely with their legislative power and unity of purpose, they would take the opportunity to address the issues that the president had documented?
“Now the Republicans came here a few weeks ago, and they wrote up a platform,” Truman said. “They promised to do in that platform a lot of things I’ve been asking them to do… I am therefore calling this Congress back into session on the 26th of July! On the 26th day of July…I’m going to 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.”
Congress did not rise to Truman’s challenge, and he castigated them for it later in the campaign when he toured the country by train. Through a problem-(lack of) solution framework, he simultaneously transferred responsibility for action to Congress while painting himself a tireless champion of the common American.
Robert Schlesinger. White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).
Harry S. Truman, “Democratic National Convention Nomination Acceptance Address.” American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/harrytruman1948dnc.htm.
Harry S. Truman, “The Truman Doctrine,” http://www.youtube.com/user/umcommnews#p/c/10/wmQD_W8Pcxg.