Thursday, 1 June 2017

Harry Truman versus Thomas Dewey 1946, a warning for Theresa May

There is so much that is exhilarating about Harry Truman’s life, the farmer’ son from Missouri: he ended the war with Japan, helped establish the United Nations, organised the Berlin air-lifts, stood up to Communist aggression in Korea, and left Americans with a standard of living their grand-parents could only dream of.*

But perhaps the most exhilarating story is when he stood for re-election in 1946 against the well- educated posh Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey. Nearly all the papers were against Truman, and all the polls said he would lose. Indeed the Chicago Tribune went to the press on election-day with the headline ‘Dewey defeats Truman’ before the polling stations had closed.

But Truman won.

One reason for this unexpected victory was because Truman got on a train and went and spoke directly to the people. To crowds large and small all over the country he would give speeches in his down to earth easy to understand manner. It was clear he enjoyed being with people. And they enjoyed him.

Dewey of course also did some public speaking, but his speeches were full of bland promises and it all came over as being stage managed. And it was. His advisors told him to say as little as possible because the election was his.

It’s not difficult to see the connections with today’s UK contest between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

May started as the firm favourite; Corbyn, like Truman, is the rank outsider, with nearly all the papers against him.

May’s campaign like Dewey’s is full of bland statements and empty assertions about a ‘bright future’. Probably like Dewey she’s been told not to say too much because the election is hers. Corbyn though is going to the people and talking from his heart. And Corbyn, like Truman, clearly enjoys people. That’s not so clear with Theresa May.

As well as campaigning styles there’s another connection. Truman consistently asserted that the Republicans were the party for the rich; the Democrats were for everyone. That’s exactly what Corbyn is saying, and for many it sounds true.

All in all this amounts to a warning to Theresa May. 

* David McCullough's 'Truman' is an outstanding biography which covers all these stories and much more in detail. 

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