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1948–Whistlestop Oratory–James Marconi

In an era where presidential candidates regularly go on whirlwind tours of the country, it’s easy to lose sight of the incredible effort it takes to campaign.  Presidential campaigns start far in advance, sometimes by more than a year.  Politics is pervasive in our culture – it’s blasted across the radio waves, onto television sets, and instantly accessible in a variety of media formats via the Internet.  Speeches, town halls, and a bevy of other events are routine, mundane even.  Sometimes, however, campaign events can and do make a more significant impression on society’s political consciousness.

Such was the case during the 1948 presidential contest between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey.  Despite several obstacles, it was during this campaign that Truman found his fire and his political voice, according to author Robert Schlesinger. 

From the outset, the election looked grim for the president.  Unpopular with elements of his party, Truman watched the Democrats splinter into three separate tickets.  Truman’s executive order integrating the armed forces prompted the so-called “Dixiecrats” to rally around Strom Thurmond.  Meanwhile the extreme left wing of the party endorsed Henry Wallace ofIowa.  For the duration of the campaign Truman’s Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, remained far ahead in the polls.  In short, no one expected Truman to have a fighting chance, let alone win a term as president in his own right.

Nonetheless, Truman ran one of the most vigorous presidential campaigns in the nation’s history to that point, beginning the famous “whistle-stop” tour in September of 1948.  Now, it has become a staple of political culture for presidential candidates to visit small towns across the country.  However, at the time the idea – although not entirely novel – was certainly not commonplace.  It was made all the more memorable by the fact that as a mainstream candidate, Truman had center stage.  Dewey, with his broad margins in the polls, never bothered to mount a similar speaking tour.

Traveling by train, Truman spent more than two weeks delivering speeches.  The pace was frenetic, and Truman sometimes gave ten or more speeches in a single day.  While a scant few were prewritten, most of the addresses were conceived and presented on the fly, according to Schlesinger.  One example of a typical whistle-stop oration is this speech, given September 6 inToledo,Ohio.  Truman highlights, in the introduction, the extent of his travels, stating “I have appeared before six Labor Day audiences inMichigan today and I am glad to finish up the day in the great State ofOhio.”

Despite what must have been an exhausting journey, Truman’s rhetoric conveys a sense of energy, and purpose.  Part of the speech is spent exploring and developing a connection between Truman and the ordinary folks he visited.  “Most of you here are working people,” Truman stated, “just as I have been all my life.”  Such a statement would not have worked for someone like the wealthy, well-educated, decidedly northeastern FDR.  Truman, though, was different; he was fromMissouri, spoke plain, unadorned English, and never went to college.  His rhetoric does well to emphasize these qualities.

The president furthered this connection to the people not only through empathy, but through action.  “I have tried time and again to get the Congress to pass a price control law so you people won’t have to suffer from high prices,” Truman said. “I appeared personally before the Congress and pleaded with them to help the American people.”  Truman, in other words, understood the needs of the average citizen, and had fought for them in turn.  This is explicitly contrasted to a foreign, alien, unfeeling enemy – the Republican-controlled Congress.  Like the majority of the other speeches in the tour, Truman does not attack his opponent, Dewey, but runs against the record of the Republican 80th Congress.  While Truman battled for the well being of all Americans, he said, Congress passed insidious legislation detrimental to the public good, and refused to pass other, necessary laws.  Truman notes the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, enacted “for the sole purpose of weakening the strength of labor unions,” to which a number of his audience members no doubt belonged.  “Big Business does not want lower prices, and again the Republican Congress knuckled under to the wishes of Big Business.”

Truman concludes the relatively short speech by making the contrast even more explicit. “You people are faced with a choice.  You can choose the Republican party and live in fear…Or you can choose the Democratic Party and live in confidence…”  Truman’s simple words are strong, belligerent even, reflecting the determination that inspired the tour and helped win the election.             

Sources: 

Robert Schlesinger. White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters. (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2008). 

Harry S. Truman, “Rear Platform Remarks of the President at Toledo, Ohio.” Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/1948campaign/large/docs/documents/index.php?documentdate=1948-09-06&documentid=11-3&studycollectionid=Election&pagenumber=1

“Harry S Truman’s Whistle Stop Campaign Remembered.” Missouri Secretary of State, 2002, http://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/exhibits/TrumanProject/intro.asp.

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