In late October 1948, Harry Truman’s whistle-stop campaign headed back to his Independence, Missouri home. One speech remained, a gamble that was the most unprecedented move in an unprecedented campaign. Every time you listen to a contemporary Democrat, call up that speech and ask if any of them measure up to Truman. How many, for example, have ever had an audience applaud for 2½ hours as they did for Truman?
As the train wound its way west, sometimes following in the tracks of the pioneers, Harry Truman and his staff decided to do something quite extraordinary: the President would deliver the most important speech of his life off the cuff.
Today when it has become standard practice for candidates to memorize and rehearse a “generic” speech from which they pick and choose phrases depending on the audience–so even the debates have become scripted– cynicism asks if Truman did the same? An investigation of 1948 speeches shows that Harry Truman’s speech writers cranked out completely NEW speeches as fast as he could deliver them and others were delivered with only a brief outline.
As the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, jr., knew so well, at the heart of any great extemporaneous speech lies a deep, unspoken faith between speaker and audience. Harry Truman had put his faith in the American people since the beginning of the 1948 campaign. At times only he believed in them and only they believed in him. To cement his bond with all the American people he would attempt a high wire act, the likes of which no one has seen for 60 years.
Fortunately that a recording of the is available from the Truman Library. That remarkable recording literally crackles with the electricity between Harry Truman and his audience. Legend has it that before he began Truman dramatically turned his notes over, but his staff testifies he never looked at them.
You can tell the evening is going to be an explosive one before Truman even says one word, for the cheers of the raucous crowd echo in the cavernous Kiel Auditorium. Truman begins:
I can’t tell you how very much I appreciate this reception on my return to my home State. It touches my heart–right where I live.
The crowd goes wild. At that point he had to have known he was going to give what they used to call a real stem winder and pull off the upset, for clearly this audience was his and he was their president in that inexplicable, mystical bond that makes for great rhetoric and great history.
Truman then moves on to recite a short history of the campaign and his history. He does not let his audience or those listening on the radio forget:
We have been through the most momentous period in the history of the world in that time.
Nor does he let them forget the man who made him vice president:
I was nominated in Chicago with Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 on the Democratic platform, and I have tried to carry out that platform since I have been President of the United States.
Instead of the usual incumbents’ recitation of his achievements, he wades right into his opponents, charging that the Republicans went after him from the very beginning. This section is notable because it captures Truman’s refusal to mince words. In his masterful biography of Truman, David McCullough, with his well-honed sense of American history, notes that no one had heard a presidential candidate speak like that since the days of William Jennings Bryan (see p. 658):
The smear campaign on your President started in all its vile and untruthfully slanted headlines, columns, and editorials. Hearst’s character assassins, McCormick-Patterson saboteurs all began firing at me, as did the conservative columnists and radio commentators. Not because they believed anything they said or wrote, but because they were paid to do it.
Then come two brief sections that should be a lesson to anyone running for any office: Truman states the core values of his campaign. I honestly have not heard a Democratic candidate for president do this for a generation:
In January 1946 I repeated what I thought the Government should do, and I have repeated it time and again since that time-and I haven’t changed a bit. I am still the Democrat you nominated in Chicago on the Democratic platform of 1944, and I am still for Roosevelt’s New Deal.
I have told the people that there is just one big issue in this campaign and that’s the people against the special interests.
The Republicans stand for special interests, and they always have.
The Democratic Party, which I now head, stands for the people–and always has stood for the people.
Truman then speaks to the two groups that Clark Clifford had told him he needed in order to hold onto his presidency–farmers and labor. When he invokes the Great Depression you hear a voice shout from the background something like, “We know that.” At the first mention of the “do-nothing” 80th Congress the audience goes wild.
After explaining how the Democrats have improved the life of the farmer he concludes with a widely-quoted Give ‘Em Hell Harry classic:
And I’ll say to you that any farmer in these United States who votes against his own interests, that is, who votes the Republican ticket, ought to have his head examined!
Shortly after this comes another Trumanism to insure the audience gets the point. Speaking of the Republicans he says:
That’s how they love the farmers! They want to bust them just like they did in 1932.
You have to hear his intonation of the word “bust” to really get the impact of this.
He speaks next to labor, focusing especially on the most backward and despicable piece of anti-labor legislation ever passed in the history of this country–the notorious Taft-Hartley Act, which essentially emasculated the Wagner Act, one of the great achievements of the New Deal.
Along with Taft-Hartley, Truman blasts the 80th Congress for failing to increase the minimum wage. Truman’s justification uses a few, well-chosen words–and remember he his speaking from his heart–to outline the core belief of the Democratic Party and Liberal America:
The Democrats have believed always that the welfare of the whole people should come first, and that means that the farmers, labor, small businessmen, and everybody else in the country should have a fair share of the prosperity that goes around.
After attacks on the Republican policies on housing and high prices, Truman comes to the 80th Congress’ tax bill, one remarkably similar to the Bush tax cuts. Current Democrats seem to treat the Bush tax bill as if it were akin to a rattlesnake buzzing away, but Harry Truman pulls no punches about the GOP’s “trickle-down” economics:
I asked that Congress to do something about high prices.. Oh, no, they couldn’t do that. But they could pass a rich man’s tax bill, a tax bill that benefited the fellow at the top income bracket, but didn’t do the poor boys any good.
Now, that rich man’s tax bill, which I vetoed three times-and they had to pass it three times before they could make a law out of it–gave a fellow who was getting $60 a week a saving of about a $1.58 a week. And the price spiral has taken that all away from him, and it has gone on out through the roof, and taken some of his savings away from him, too.
But that same tax bill gave the fellow who was getting a $100,000 a year $16,658.44 in savings. That is four times the net salary of the President of the United States!
You would think this would be enough, but Harry Truman does not stop there. He goes on to plead for further aid for education, stating:
I want to say to you that I think it is just as important to see that these children get the proper sort of place to go to school, and the proper sort of teachers to teach them, as it is to build roads for them to ride in buses over the roads to school.
Near the end comes Truman’s famous proposal for national health insurance. When contemporary candidates debate their plans, compare their rhetoric to what Harry Truman said in 1948:
I wanted an insurance program that would work, so that a fellow would have a little money saved up, when it came time to pay medical and hospital bills, and the doctor and the hospital would get paid promptly. But the Republicans are against that. They say that’s socialized medicine. Well, it isn’t. That’s just good commonsense, and some of these days we are going to get it, because the Democrats are going back in power, and we are going to see that we get it.
Truman closes his speech with an urgent plea to get out the vote. He knew that in St. Louis he was preaching to his own congregation, but the speech was also carried on the radio and the last thing Truman and his staff wanted was for people not to vote because they thought Truman did not have a chance.
People are waking up that the tide is beginning to roll, and I am here to tell you that if you do your duty as citizens of the greatest Republic the sun has ever shone on, we will have a Government that will be for your interests, that will be for peace in the world, and for the welfare of all the people, and not just a few.
Posted by: publius