The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election

Zachary Karabell, Author Alfred A. Knopf $27.5 (320p) ISBN 978-0-375-40086-5
In 1948, Harry Truman was virtually a lame-duck president. He had no support in the polls, the right wing of his party was lurching toward Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, the left wing toward Progressive candidate Henry Wallace, and his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, seemed destined to trounce them all. Yet Truman miraculously won the election, and his 1948 campaign promptly assumed the proportions of a legend. Now political scientist Karabell (What's College For?) seeks to debunk the legend. Truman's victory, Karabell believes, owed much to superior strategy and underhanded tactics. Truman's strategy--secure the farm and labor block and appeal to black voters--became a mainstay of Democratic candidates for years to come. His tactics, Karabell charges, featured negative campaigning and unrepentant demagoguery before live audiences. Karabell makes much of the fact that 1948 was the last election in which television did not play a significant role. Television, Karabell asserts, homogenizes candidates and pushes them toward the center, robbing the American electorate of political diversity among its leadership. That is why 1948 was, in his words, the ""last campaign"": it was the last time that ""an entire spectrum of ideologies was represented in the presidential election."" This is a difficult hypothesis to accept for anyone who remembers the Humphrey-Nixon-Wallace contest of 1968, or even Clinton-Bush-Perot in 1992. Karabell is on firmer ground when he sticks to reporting on the daily grind of the campaign trail, though he elaborates in more detail than most readers will need or want. Still, as an extended journalistic account of the election, the book is successful; as an analysis of television's impact on politics, it is superficial and unconvincing. 16 pages of photos. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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