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First Family Stories: Truman Defeats Dewey | November 1, 2023

First Family Stories: Truman Defeats Dewey

First Family Stories

By Clifton Truman Daniel

“Truman Defeats Dewey”

THE FIRST STORY my mother told me about the 1948 presidential campaign had nothing to do with tactics, crowds, or the upset victory.

The Ferdinand Magellan presidential railcar was outfitted with a speedometer connected to the engine, so folks in back could see how fast they were going. Mom and Grandpa were in the lounge one afternoon, reading, when Mom noticed Grandpa glancing up repeatedly at the speedometer, which was climbing. 80. 82. 85 . . .  Finally, he said to an aide, “Tell the engineer to slow down.”

In addition to the speedometer, the Magellan boasted armor plate, bullet-resistant windows, and bank vault-style doors. The car weighed 285,000 pounds, making it the heaviest rail car ever used in the US. Kim Jong Un would be jealous. Grandpa’s fear was that if the engineer had to break suddenly while going 85 miles per hour, the Magellan would plow through the rest of the train.

Meanwhile, Grandpa was hoping to plow through Tom Dewey.

Given little chance of success, what with Dewey’s popularity and fractures within his own party, he nevertheless felt that if he could take his case to the people, he had a shot. He traveled some 31,000 miles, giving about 350 speeches, almost all of them from the Magellan’s rear platform. He and his aides developed a strategy of tailoring each address to the needs of the local audience while hammering the “do nothing” 80th Republican Congress and its platform.

“Down by the Station” by Jim Berryman (September 22, 1948)

“They think the American standard of living is a fine thing, so long as it doesn’t spread to all the people,” he’d rail. “And they admire the government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.”

He came across as what he was—straightforward, approachable, and determined. Voters loved it. Grandpa, not so much. He was good, but giving speeches was not his favorite thing. He likened his feelings to those of the man who was on his way to his wife’s funeral. The funeral director asked him if he wouldn’t mind riding in the same car as his mother-in-law.

“I’ll do it,” the man said. “But it’s going to ruin my whole day.”

Grandpa, my grandmother, and my mother were pretty much the only ones who thought he could win. And they could be prickly about it.

During the campaign, New York Times photographer George Tames was snapping photos of my mother as she walked from the Hay Adams Hotel to a waiting limousine. Being a gentleman, he put aside his camera and held the car door for her.

Margaret Truman is surrounded by reporters as she holds a press conference on the train returning President Harry S. Truman and family to Kansas City after a presidential campaign trip to the West Coast. (June 16, 1948)

“It doesn’t look very good for your dad,” he said. Mom, who’d been smiling, scowled, said, “You have no faith,” and slammed the door in his face.

Col. Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a card-carrying Truman hater, had faith . . . that Grandpa was going to lose.

He was so convinced that when the early returns came in favoring Dewey, he printed and distributed 10,000 copies of the paper with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Later, when the scales clearly started tipping the other way, he flipped out and ordered every Tribune employee with a pulse to go out retrieve the embarrassing copies. Reporter Bob Wiedrich remembered walking home in the wee hours of that morning and watching a fierce tug of war between a Tribune driver and a newsstand owner over a stack of those papers. The newsstand owner won.

When I was in eighth grade, I discovered that Mr. Dewey’s grandsons had enrolled in the same school. I considered walking downstairs and marching past their classrooms going, “Woo, woo! All aboard!”


Photos courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Clifton Truman Daniel is the eldest grandson of President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess. He is the son of author Margaret Truman and former New York Times Managing Editor E. Clifton Daniel, Jr. Mr. Daniel is honorary chairman of the board of the Truman Library Institute, board secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, and vice president of the Society of Presidential Descendants. He is the author of Growing Up with My Grandfather: Memories of Harry S. Truman and Dear Harry, Love Bess: Bess Truman’s Letters to Harry Truman, 1919-1943. In addition to portraying his famous grandfather on stage, Mr. Daniel gives a series of lectures on various aspects of the Truman presidency and U.S. and White House history. Learn more.

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