Wednesday, March 07, 2012

What We're Reading: FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944

FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 by David M. Jordan

Perhaps the modern assumption is that an account of a Roosevelt victory, since he was elected to the Presidency four times, could only recount the expected and would not be a story that held much suspense. This book will definitely change the outlook of those laboring under such a misapprehension. Although Roosevelt racked up an impressive Electoral College total in 1944, the popular vote was closer than any election in which he had previously run, and in the summer of 1944 the odds were running at barely even that he would be reelected.

1944 was only the second presidential election in American history where the nation went to the polls to elect a president while the country was at war (the other time was the Lincoln vs. McClellan contest of 1864). When Thomas Dewey was asked on election eve why he lost, his two word answer, “the war,” was probably correct. The explanation sounds apparent in retrospect, but it was by no means certain at the time that the Democratic argument about “not changes horses in mid-stream,” would ultimately prevail with the electorate. The country it turned out was largely comfortable with the accomplishments of the New Deal and with Roosevelt’s leadership of the war. By election time, it was clear that the Allies would win, but how much longer that would take was in question. The Republicans thought their chances would be improved with a pre-election end to the war, but voters were also concerned about who would be in office to secure the peace.

The election of 1944 is an interesting lesson in how the dynamic of a particular election campaign can turn things around, as it did for Roosevelt. After their party’s nomination, each candidate intended to take the high road and avoid the fray. Roosevelt said that he would not campaign in the ordinary sense because of his grave responsibilities in wartime. Dewey thought his chances would be best served by running a largely “positive” campaign, emphasizing his youth, health, and competence. He could not easily raise foreign policy issues during wartime. His intention was to run on domestic issues and present himself as an alternative to what Republicans branded as tired old leadership, Democratic political bosses, and the bureaucracy of the New Deal, without challenging its major programs. It was to be more a campaign of insinuated rather than direct criticisms of the Democratic administration, and this strategy it was hoped would allow Dewey to harvest the latent discontent over the state of the domestic economy without getting too specific. But Roosevelt largely flushed him out, taking to the hustings late in the campaign in a popular style that contrasted sharply with Dewey’s formality and reserve. It ended up being a bitter campaign in which both foreign policy and domestic issues were fought over. Dewey tried to rally the Republican base by accusing Roosevelt and the Democrats of being puppets of labor and communist party organizers, and he tried to play to both his party’s isolationists and to its nationalists by accusing Roosevelt of having deceptively led the country into war while at the same time not preparing the country adequately to fight such a conflict. Roosevelt was offended by such attacks and ended up developing a deep personal animus towards Dewey, something he had never felt regarding his previous opponents. But more importantly, Dewey by employing such a strategy ended up losing the important swing (independent) vote in many states.

Perhaps the most interesting sections in this book concern two issues that were inextricably related to each other, the decision to remove Henry Wallace from the Democratic ticket and replace him with Harry Truman, and the reticence that was kept over issues concerning Franklin Roosevelt’s failing health. The country never knew that Roosevelt had serious medical problems. His personal physician gave reports to the press that were untrue, and the press in large measure colluded in this deception by not challenging information that they suspected was partial and misleading. The Republicans guessed Roosevelt had serious problems and stoked a rumor campaign, but Roosevelt was able to convince voters that it was all untrue, especially after a marathon 53 mile visit through New York City and the surrounding boroughs where he greeted hundreds of thousands of visitors who lined the way, smiling and waving from an open car in a downpour. As it turned out, Roosevelt lived only 83 days into his fourth term.

In accepting the Vice-Presidential spot on the ticket, Truman probably didn’t know what the odds were that he would soon succeed Roosevelt. The decision to dump Henry Wallace from the ticket was made less on the basis on whether he was or was not a suitable successor to Roosevelt (although that might have been a factor for some, especially the few in the know about Roosevelt’s health) but rather what drag his very liberal reputation might have on the ticket in getting Roosevelt reelected. The jockeying for position of potential candidates to replace Wallace, and Roosevelt’s evasiveness and some might say deceptiveness and betrayals, opens a very interesting window into the hard game of politics.

It will be fairly clear to the reader that Jordan is a Roosevelt admirer, but the apparent partisanship has its virtues here. Without it he probably could not have done such a good job of conveying Roosevelt’s charisma, his skills as a politician and campaigner, and his great speaking voice and wit. You come to understand that in 1944, there was no one else in either party as large and storied as Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican’s argued in their campaign that he wasn’t indispensible, and that may be true, but the voters decided in the end that he was irreplaceable.

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