Thomas E. Dewey, the one-time mob busting New York City prosecutor and later governor of New York, made three different runs at the White House, twice winning the Republican nomination. He never won the biggest election and the question of why is pertinent to our political life now, long, long after Dewey is mostly forgotten.
On a handful of occasions in American history – 1864 during the decisive year of the Civil War being one of the earliest and 2004 during the tough early days of the Iraq war begin the latest – the country has chosen a president during wartime.
I’ve long argued that Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 was the most important presidential election in our history. Had Lincoln lost that election to Gen. George McClellan it is altogether possible that the winner would have sought a negotiated end to the War of Rebellion, while maintaining the status quo regarding slavery. Lincoln won, thanks in part of Sherman’s timely victory at Atlanta, and refused to consider anything other than the complete capitulation of the rebellious states. America history was set on a course as a result.
In 1944, Tom Dewey won the Republican nomination for president and with it the chance to deny Franklin D. Roosevelt a fourth term. That election occurred at a decisive moment during World War II. As an insightful new book on that election – FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944 by David M. Jordan – makes clear, Dewey failed to make a compelling case against either Roosevelt’s handling of domestic or war issues and instead ran a campaign, one of the first, that attempted to exploit the threat of Communism influencing the federal government.
As Jordan notes, the “campaign of running against the Communists” was “a preview of what would become a standard of Republican campaigns in the years ahead, but in 1944 it did not play all that well.” In 1944, after all, Soviet Russia was a U.S. ally and the Red Army was bleeding the Nazi Wehrmacht white on the Eastern Front.
Jordan’s book, filled with insight into how both FDR and Dewey approached the election and particularly how FDR rather unceremoniously dumped Vice President Henry Wallace from the Democratic ticket in favor of Harry Truman, also puts the lie to the old notion that debates over foreign policy once stopped at the water’s edge. Dewey bitterly criticized FDR’s handling of the war, in particular suggesting that the administration was short changing the war effort in the Pacific to the detriment of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who willingly engaged in the sort of partisan politics that we would find completely inappropriate from a senior military commander today.
Republicans also eagerly circulated rumors, more accurate than not, regarding FDR’s health, but the GOP candidate and campaign were no match for the great campaigner – Franklin Roosevelt. By Jordan’s account, with which many historians agree, Roosevelt turned the entire 1944 campaign with one memorable speech delivered to the Teamsters Union on September 23. Today’s it’s remembered as “the Fala speech,” because of FDR’s humorous use of a story about his little Scotty dog – Fala.
Roosevelt opened that Teamster speech brilliantly: “WELL, here we are together again – after four years – and what years they have been! You know, I am actually four years older, which is a fact that seems to annoy some people. In fact, in the mathematical field there are millions of Americans who are more than eleven years older than when we started in to clear up the mess that was dumped in our laps in 1933.”
Dewey couldn’t keep up with such rhetoric in large part because FDR’s taunt rang so hard and true and because Dewey couldn’t begin to match Roosevelt’s personality as a candidate. Dewey suffered from a frequently deadly political malady. He was stiff and boring. Think John Kerry or today’s GOP contender Mitt Romney. Dewey also had a Romney-like tendency to quote FDR completely out of context, while modifying his own position on issues like the scope of a post-war United Nations.
At the end of the 1944 campaign, and remember that the Allied invasion of Normandy occurred just before Dewey was nominated in Chicago, American voters were unwilling to “swap horses in the middle of the stream.” FDR won his closest election polling 3.5 million more votes than Dewey. The contest was no contest in the Electoral College. Roosevelt won a 36 state landslide, including Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Utah. The war election of 1944 was also the last election where a Democrat won every state in the solid south.
There are many what ifs associated with 1944. What if the Democrats had not dumped Wallace from the ticket? The very liberal Iowan was very popular with the organized labor constituency of the Democratic Party and deeply resented his dumping. Some speculate Wallace would have been more accommodating of the Soviet Union than Truman turned out to be and that he would never have authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Japan.
And what if Dewey had won? Would the post-war world have been different? Would the humorless new president, a man unknown to Churchill and Stalin have gone to Yalta and done better – or worse – than Roosevelt who was clearly in seriously failing health?
Dewey lived to fight and lose the White House a second time. Today Dewey, who died in 1971, is best remembered as “the little man on the wedding cake,” a wonderfully snarky put down that is attributed to a half dozen wits of the 1940’s, and as the hapless candidate Truman beat in 1948.
Thomas E. Dewey, like so many who have run and lost the White House,was a fascinating, complicated man. He may have been just fine in the White House. Who knows. By the verdict of history Dewey was a two time loser, but also a victim of a great and almost always under appreciated factor of politics – timing. He ran an off key campaign against a brilliant campaigner in the war year of 1944 and, while Truman was stumping the country in a fighting mood four years later, Dewey tried to sit on a lead and run out the clock.
Where I advising any candidate today, I’d tell them to study both those elections. They each contain some enduring politic truths.