Truman Defeats Dewey, Again


In the half-century since Harry Truman retired as one of America's most unpopular presidents, he has become a folk hero. His ''give 'em hell, Harry'' come-from-behind 1948 election victory is the centerpiece of the Truman legend. In ''The Last Campaign,'' Zachary Karabell overreaches by listing Truman's whistle-stop crusade alongside ''Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Wilson's Fourteen Points, Roosevelt's New Deal and Nixon's resignation.'' Still, the 1948 race appears today as perhaps the greatest presidential contest in modern American history.

The picture of a plain-speaking Truman flummoxing the robotic Republican, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, is a familiar one. More frequently overlooked are the two leading ''third party'' candidates in 1948. The Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond was passionate and prickly, yet somehow charming; his call for states' rights and against civil rights portended the end of the solidly Democratic South. The Progressive candidate, Henry A. Wallace, was aloof, mystical and self-righteous; his campaign against the cold war and for an expanded New Deal unwittingly defined the limits of postwar liberalism.

In this vivid, entertaining book, Karabell, the author of ''Architects of Intervention: The United States, the Third World, and the Cold War, 1946-1962,'' brings all four candidates to life, skillfully recreating a tumultuous time. Alas, his narrative is more effective than his interpretation. He offers a twist to this oft-told tale by branding the 1948 election ''the last campaign,'' a moment when ''something precious, something vital, was about to be lost, perhaps forever.'' That ''something'' is the notion of ''choice,'' of substantive differences between the leading presidential candidates: ''For the last time in this century, an entire spectrum of ideologies was represented in the presidential election.''

To Karabell -- as to so many other observers -- the great villain of the story is television. After 1948, he argues, television condensed, shrank, homogenized and simplified politics, condemning America to tweedledee-versus-tweedledum elections, elections so packaged, so calculating, so pallid, that millions of Americans have simply stopped voting.

But this nostalgic lament overstates the ideological differences in 1948 and understates the substantive gap between, say, Richard Nixon and George McGovern in 1972 or Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale in 1984. Yes, campaigns generally play to the center -- the winner-take-all system in this teeming polyglot nation compels a politics of compromise and consensus. Fortunately, that centripetal pressure has been a unifying force throughout American history.

Karabell himself suggests that the wide choice in 1948 was more rhetorical than real. He shows that Dewey stuck to the center, and he notes that Americans eventually found Thurmond and Wallace so extreme that nearly 95 percent of them voted for Truman or Dewey. Furthermore, while chiding contemporary candidates for being too bland, Karabell blasts Truman for being too intemperate. He argues that by stoking ''class resentment and agrarian fear'' in the campaign, Truman prompted vengeful Republicans to unleash their own demagogues during the second term.

In failing to find a campaign, any campaign, wholly to his liking, Karabell joins a characteristically American tradition. Long before television was invented, genteel Americans mourned that our political system emphasized personalities over policy. ''We designed it to be a campaign of ideas and it became a campaign of personalities,'' the Republican reformer Carl Schurz sighed after the 1872 election.

But, ultimately, all campaigns rely on artifice and personality more than ideas. Candidates cannot communicate with millions of voters without simplifying, condensing and, yes, packaging. Even Harry Truman's regular-guy persona required planning and stagecraft.

In this year's campaign -- as in every campaign since 1948 -- candidates will inevitably try to pass the Truman test of authenticity. And even if they choose to focus on substance, many voters, stifling yawns, will continue focusing on personality. By adding his voice to the tired chorus lamenting how television has ruined politics, Karabell helps to perpetuate a widespread misunderstanding about the realities of our raucous, yet vital, democracy.