1948–Berryman Cartoon–James Marconi
What’s the true value of conventional wisdom? In the case of the 1948 presidential campaign, it was worth very little. President Truman, ascending to the office only after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was not particularly popular. Deciding to run for a White House term in his own right, Truman’s campaign seemed destined for failure right until the bitter end. This cartoon, by longtime political cartoonist Clifford Berryman, neatly illustrates the point.
In it, we can see a visibly dispirited Truman gazing at a bulletin board filled with poll after poll after poll. Each one predicts a Truman defeat, claiming “Dewey to get 30 states,” or “Dewey given 27 states.” One statistic displays a very precise electoral count, foretelling a blowout with Dewey awarded 333 electoral votes and Truman given a mere 82. Interestingly, the same count mentions Iowan Henry Wallace, a Democrat on the extreme left wing of the party running against Truman. Berryman must not have seen him as a viable candidate, because he receives absolutely no electoral votes. While Truman looks on, the cartoon shows a fairly smug-looking Dewey taunting Truman. Hands tugging on his lapels and wearing a satisfied grin, Dewey asks condescendingly “What’s the use of going through with the election?”
As history records, Dewey’s attitude, as portrayed by Berryman, turned out to be unjustified. The polls were wrong and the prevailing sentiment was incorrect. Even a political observer as experienced as Berryman was swept away. That in itself is worth noting, because Berryman had spent literally a lifetime, since 1891, capturing political commentary in cartoons. His 1902 portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear cub is the first time the teddy bear appears on public record.
Berryman’s cartoon poking fun at Truman would perhaps have been more memorable had it come after the election, giving it a sardonic twist. That might have put it on par with the iconic photograph of Truman the day after the election, holding a newspaper boldly proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Berryman’s work, though, perceptively captured conventional wisdom just weeks away from election day, on October 19, 1948. Conventional wisdom indeed – Truman won handily with 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189 votes.
The 1948 election demonstrates that there is no such thing as a sure victory in the political realm. Or, more precisely, the anticipation of that victory can avert the actual victory itself. Truman certainly campaigned harder, launching the famous whistle-stop tour around the country to bring his message directly to the public. Dewey, perhaps complacent in the certainty of a win, did comparatively little to increase his own visibility. Whatever the cause, Berryman’s cartoon can serve in the present day as a warning, a cautionary tale about taking votes for granted. Although, in today’s money-saturated political climate, it would probably be preaching to the choir.
Clifford Berryman, “What’s the Use of Going Through with the Election?” U.S. Senate Collection Center for Legislative Archives, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/running-for-office/.
Robert Schlesinger. White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).