Defying Expectations

“[The result of the election of 1948] was the most dramatic and surprising result of any presidential election in history.”1 During the duration of the election, Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, seemed an unlikely candidate with a slim chance of winning the election compared against his rival candidate, the Republic nominee, Thomas E. Dewey. Under ordinary circumstances, Dewey’s victory over Truman seemed inevitable; however, the election of 1948 was anything but ordinary. In the case of changing times and new technology, traditional campaigns involving public speeches addressed to crowds of hundreds of thousands decreased with the introduction of radio and television, broadcasting the candidates’ voices across the nation. This technological revolution brought a permanent change on the method of campaigning and interacting during elections that would follow the one of 1948. In The Last Campaign, by Zachary Karabell, this revolutionary election and the individuals involved are covered in scrutinous detail. Analyzing each candidate and his respective campaign tactics, Karabell reveals the inner working of the various parties and their rise, or decline, in popularity within the nation. Following the States Rights’ Democratic Party, or the Dixiecrats, the Progressive Party, the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party, The Last Campaign offers readers a look into the inner workings of these political parties.
A leading candidate in the election, Thomas E. Dewey, nominee of the Republican Party, initially struggled for the position against a powerhouse of candidates including Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, Governor Earl Warren of California, and General Douglas MacArthur of New York. Representing a specific mindset at the time of the election, each runner ran for the sake of achieving a personal agenda. With every candidate scrambling to gain public favor and approval in the upcoming election, Dewey, Taft, Stassen, and Arthur Vandenburg proved to be the primary forerunners. As the nomination election continued, Dewey’s advantage over the candidates became apparent and his opponents quickly rallied to defeat the Republican giant. During the 1948 Republican Convention located in Philadelphia, Taft, Stassen, and Vandenburg discussed possible plans in order to prevent Dewey’s victory. However, their efforts failed because no candidate would agree to drop out of the race and support the other. This disagreement within the party led way to an easy victory in the Republican primary among the divided party and Dewey entered the presidential election as a strong competitor against President Harry Truman of the Democratic Party, Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrats, and Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party. In the early stages of the election, Dewey had appeared to be the favorite, outpolling President Harry Truman. Believing that “only a political convulsion...could keep [him] from the White House,”2 Dewey proceeded on through the election with a soft and subtle tactic. Dewey’s carefulness led to Truman’s unexpected rise in voting and brought along Dewey’s demise in the election that once seemed to be an easy victory.
Following his previous term, Harry Truman hoped to achieve a second stint as President with the support of his party. However, the Democrats, after seeing that early polls showing Truman’s popularity was spiraling, wavered in their support of. In spite of his party’s attempts to replace him with Eisenhower, Truman continued to strive towards gaining national favor and continuing his presidency. Embracing his role as the underdog, Truman fought an upwards battle while relying on the support of the diminishing unions and labor that had once been the backbone of his campaign. In April, Truman’s most difficult month of his campaign, “Truman’s support…seriously considered jettisoning a sitting president and [looked] for a candidate who could at least not embarrass himself.”3 During this month, even his strongest supporters began to crumble beneath him and most soon joined the ranks of his opponents. Persevering on however, Truman continued to fight popular belief in his loss and gradually earned recognition for his efforts in the voting polls, slowly regaining his support. Utilizing the method of whistle stops, the Truman campaign is best remembered for “Give ‘em Hell, Harry.”4 This tactic was best represented by Truman’s relentless verbal attacks on Dewey and the Republican Party. Taking advantage of railroads, Truman crossed the country countless times, delivering notorious speeches that criticized the Republican controlled Congress, all while earning bulk voters’ trust. What had seemed initially as an inevitable loss for Truman slowly blossomed into an optimistic situation for Truman, the Democratic underdog. As Dewey continued to proceed through the election cautiously, Truman took the offensive firing shot after shot at his opponents, gambling his unstable foothold in the election in hopes of winning. When the campaign had reached its end, it became clear that Truman and his committee had emerged as the victors of a grueling election, beating the highly favored, Thomas Dewey, as well as Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace.
Initially a response to Truman’s civil rights plan, the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or Dixiecrats, emerged with the primary intention of gaining recognition for their cause. Rallying under the leadership of Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrats strove to protect the South, “built upon segregation.”5 Proceeding throughout the election, Thurmond and his running mate, Fielding Wright were optimistic of the outcome of the election despite having the support of only three states. Primarily supported by the South, the Dixiecrats fought against the civil rights movement supported by Truman. Waging a two-front campaign, Thurmond employed memorable speeches that were both emotional and histrionic. In hopes of gaining favor in other regions of the country, Thurmond moved his campaign into the heart of the North. Because of the low income and budget that the Dixiecrats worked with during the election, the sudden source of which the party money was very suspicious and continues to puzzle decades after. Coupled with the latest information regarding the election, compiled from research, it had been revealed that the source of the funds of the States’ Rights Democratic Party came from a few select wealthy individuals who had evaded the increased tax that would have resulted from their support. It becomes apparent that in this election, the Dixiecrats were primarily disregarded by the populous and strove only to elucidate the Old South’s opposition towards the civil rights movement which had come to jeopardize the lifestyle.
Similar to the Dixiecrats, the Progressive Party too did not seem favorable to win this election apparent through the results of the polls. Representing communist ideals in an American setting, the Progressives selected Henry Wallace as their presidential candidate in the election. After several months of touring the country, Wallace and his party had “refined the art of the rally as fund-raiser.”6 While campaigning and travelling across the country, Wallace kept a close association with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, echoing its beliefs to the American people. During the election, “the Progressives [became] more than any other political movement,”7 instead, it had become a feeling. The press treated the Progressives with derision and hostility but its supporters had cheered on the party and its cause. Contrary to what the press and majority of the population thought, Wallace gained inner solidity from the elevating acidity of the external barrages. What was seen as intense attacks on Wallace, the man himself interpreted the aggression as an indication that he had struck a note that needed to be struck. Although the general population had turned away from Wallace, groups scattered around the country had placed their hopes in the dark horse. Helen MacMartin of Burlington was part of such a group in supporting Wallace in his. Spreading letters across the nation in hopes of garnering more support for Wallace, MacMartin was a prominent figure in the American Progressive Movement and in supporting the Progressive candidate. MacMartin was not alone however; the Progressive Party consisted of hundreds of other characters similar to Helen MacMartin. Whenever Henry Wallace sat down to dinner or met with a cluster of people in a hospitality suite, he encountered people who had spent days working out the logistics, arranging his visit, all while dreaming of meeting their idol. In response to this overwhelming support from the Progressive Party, Wallace strove to be what his supporters had wanted and needed him to be. Fighting Truman at every step of the campaign, the Progressives, however, failed to create a lasting effect on the American people in the election of 1948, receiving fewer votes than the States’ Rights Party, and no electoral votes.
In his analysis of this astonishing election, Zachary Karabell investigates not the overall election but rather, the method and reasons of Truman’s rise to the top. Instead of considering the election as a whole and its candidates individually, Karabell drew a path for his readers, showing that Truman had not won simply from a more successful campaign. In his introduction, Karabell claimed that “what [Truman] had won, he’d won dirty.”8 He continues to elaborate this statement further on in his book when he describes Truman’s tactic of barraging the Republican-dominated Congress with criticism and forcing Republicans into tight positions and claim with insufficient merit. While Truman brutally attacked the Republicans, the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, refrained from taking part in such “dirty politics” and continued to tread lightly for fear of jeopardizing his enormous lead. Unbeknownst to Dewey, Truman’s tactic of tarnishing the Republican’s pride was successful in earning vote. Karabell had argues that Truman’s methods and tactics, dirty or not, were used to boost his popularity and approval.
As an author of numerous books, a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility, and the president of River Two Capital Advisors, Zachary Karabell attempts to maintain an unbiased perspective on the series of events that unfolded during the election of 1948. “Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D,”9 Karabell’s advanced education led him to construct a sound argument in proving his point and trained him to uncover all facts before publishing his work. Due to his proficient education, Karabell’s book contains little if any incorrect evidence and maintains an objective view throughout its arguments. Born in America, Karabell attempted to write about an event in the history of this country that he took immense pride in. When describing each candidate and party, his patriotism is evident in his diction and description of the campaigns. A widely acclaimed historical writer and an educated leader, Karabell demonstrates a mastery for seeking and delivering an honest truth throughout his book and uses his knowledge in order to inform his readers accurately and to the best of his ability.
Writing this book in recent times, Karabell provided his readers with a full, modern, and detailed insight on the election. Resembling the growing rise of political professors in the United States, Zachary Karabell strove to represent the history of political entities and events that had been shaped by man. Karabell demonstrated his school of political history through his report of the event of the election of 1948 in full detail, proving that “political history will continue to be a prominent part of historical writing and will challenge the subtlety, worldly wisdom, and narrative powers of historians,”10 Demonstrating the accuracy of this quote, Zachary Karabell pairs the distant election of 1948 with current knowledge. This combination provides a complete insight on the election including information that had not been known by the public at the time of the historical event. Karabell shows through his examples and counterarguments that the election was peculiar and that Truman’s victory was not anything but ordinary.
Critical reviewers often praise Zachary Karabell for providing a unique narrative of the 1948 presidential election. Karl Helicher, claims that, “[Zachary Karabell] is strongest discussing the impact of the press, polls, and radio and describing the importance of the convention.”11 Acknowledging the historic accuracy of the text, Helicher found that Karabell provided an intriguing perspective of the landmark election. Offering high praise to Karabell, Helicher compliments the author on his analysis on the event and unique overview. Karabell’s understanding of the political tactics used by all parties becomes apparent through his work, providing readers information on the lasting effects of the event and bridging our history to modern time.
Zachary Karabell’s The Last Campaign successfully revitalizes the watershed election that revolutionized the political scene of 1948. With the integration of technology into the very essence of politics, the 1948 election was a landmark event in that it would be the last election in which the candidates were not completely reliant upon the aid of technology. By providing a shifting perspective between parties, Karabell keeps the book entertaining but fails to maintain a fluidity that would have been present with a connected timeline. Karabell provides his readers with various pictures that display the political scene during the 1940s, some of which however, are seemingly incoherent with the election (for example, the picture captioned “Dewey in Oregon, surrounded by Cavemen.”12) Looking at the picture and reading the caption describing the scene, the reader is unable to distinguish the relationship between the picture and the rest of the book. Karabell’s lack of explanation of the pictures creates confusion and can be misinterpreted by the readers. In spite of some shortcomings, Karabell offers an insightful overview of the election of 1948 in an entertaining, yet informative style.
Looking at the 1940s, Zachary Karabell’s book supports the idea that this decade was a watershed in American history. According to Karabell, “for the last time in [the] century, an entire spectrum of ideologies was represented in the presidential election.”13 Following the one of 1948, presidential elections became dominated by the use of multimedia such as the radio and television. Karabell saw the election of 1948 as “a true campaign, and the last campaign”14 that had truly relied on the ability of the candidate himself and not on that of the media that he used. Ushering an age of technology to politics, the election of 1948 was the gateway to which the future of elections would be changed forever. Also, for the election that would come after the election of 1948, candidates and parties would use methods similar to that used by Dewey rather than methods used by Truman. The election of 1948 had marked a shift in politics in which, “elections became more civil than in the days before television, but also more bland and less substantive.”15 Elections no longer had the fiery competition that candidates like Harry Truman brought but offered a composed and systematic element to these influential events. The public had shifted its interest towards candidates who advocated unity rather than emphasized divisions. Karabell felt that the 1940s was indeed a decade of intense change what would act as a watershed in American history.
In the face of changing times, Zachary Karabell’s The Last Campaign describes the final campaign not determined by the use of technology and media. Despite being the underdog, Harry Truman turned the tides and swept the political scene with his influence, capturing the votes of millions. Perhaps the greatest upset in American history, the election of 1948 “helped create our modern campaign system.”16

1: Karabell, Zachary. The Last Campaign. New York: Random House, Inc., 2000. 254
2: Karabell, Zachary. 199
3: Karabell, Zachary. 87
4: Karabell, Zachary. 209
5: McLaurin, Ann Mathison: The Role of the Dixiecrats in the 1948 Election (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1972) p. 66
6: Karabell, Zachary. 116
7: Karabell, Zachary. 178
8: Karabell, Zachary. 9
9: "River Twice Research." RiverTwice Research. N.p., 2008. Web. 05 June 2013.
10: "Historiography : Political History." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 05 June 2013.
11: Helicher, Karl. Library Journal. Pennsylvania: Cahners Business Information, 2000. 320
12: Karabell, Zachary. 218
13: Karabell, Zachary. 8
14: Karabell, Zachary. 8
15: Karabell, Zachary. 265
16: Karabell, Zachary. 264