On June 3, 1948, President Harry S. Truman departed from Union Station in Washington DC. He rode aboard the Ferdinand Magellan, a luxury train. It accommodated him, his staff, and the press. Truman's destination was Crestline, Ohio. It would be the first stop in a 9,000 mile campaign trip. Truman intended to travel through political battleground states in the Midwest and West. He was working to build a coalition of farmers, labor, liberals, and Black people. This would include the National Citizens Committee for the Reelection of President Truman. It was the first organized effort to have Black people influence a presidential race. Its director, Anna Arnold Hedgman, was instrumental in arranging major Black support to re-elect Truman..
Truman had developed this campaign plan in response to a 36% approval rating. It seemed to be a steep climb to re-election in 1948. Democrats had lost both chambers of Congress in 1946. The economy was steering towards stagnation, and inflation was in the double digits. His own party questioned his ability to win over enough Americans to beat moderate Republican Thomas Dewey.
This spring trip would be the first of three leading up to the general election, totaling 31,000 miles. It covered eleven states. The tour visited large cities like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But, it focused on getting the president in direct conversation with individuals in small-town America. He spoke plainly and called out the Republican congress as “the worst in history." He noted that the typical Republican was a “shrewd man with a calculating machine where his heart should be.” He spoke of the “gluttons of privilege” on Wall Street. The papers noted that “few candidates for the Presidency have ever used such ferocious language from the stump
Stops in places like Gary, Cheyenne, Missoula, Pocatello, and Eugene caused Sen. Robert Taft to whine that Truman was “blackguarding Congress at whistle stops all over the country.” This comment caused many people in the Midwest and West to question Republican commitment to working class Americans. This, and the other two “whistle-stop tours,” were key components of Truman’s surprise victory over Dewey in November.
Truman’s stops in Oregon were evidently not compelling. Oregon and Nebraska were the only two Midwest and Western states to vote for Dewey. While Oregon is a reliably blue state today, it voted for Dewey by almost 18,000 votes in 1948. Fortunately for Americans, Truman’s victory allowed legislation for Social Security, housing, and veterans support to proceed. This lay the groundwork for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society fifteen years later.
Plain Talk for Plain People
Truman was an effective speaker. He used direct language to persuade working-class Americans to accept his progressive policies. These included
- nearly doubling the minimum wage
- funding low cost housing
- strengthening social security
- establishing publicly owned utilities, and
- creating a national health insurance plan.
Truman’s three whistlestop tours focused on the west, midwest, and northeast sections of the United States. They sought to connect him personally to working class Americans who wanted to see Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive policies continue. Republican opponents coined the term whistlestop to describe Truman’s train-based campaigning. It came to be seen as a slur against small town values and culture.
Truman arrived in Portland on June 11, 1948. He took time from his hectic campaign schedule to visit Vanport, the site of the Memorial Day Flood just a week earlier. He offered comfort to flood victims and endorsed the use of dams upriver as flood controls that had prevented even worse damage. Truman’s Oregon welcome was chillier than his Washington and California receptions. This was reflected in the election results five months later.
Dewey defeats Truman
Truman’s win in the 1948 election is considered one of the biggest upsets in presidential election history.
Many historians credit the whistlestop campaigns, Truman’s personal interactions with voters, and his plain talking folksy style as major factors in his come-from-behind win.
Give ‘em hell, Harry!
Truman was not just a plain talker. He was also a fiery speaker. “The Republicans had begun to nail the American consumer to the wall with spikes of greed,” he said. In Iowa, he declared Republicans had put a “pitchfork in the farmer’s back.” He called on voters to deliver a new Congress, one that cared more about “the common people” than “the interests of the men who have all the money.”
In Bremerton, the day before he visited Portland, he gave a speech that caused one audience member to purportedly boom out “Give ‘em Hell, Harry.” That phrase became forever associated with Truman and his speaking style.
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