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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2008: 1948 REDUX

I don’t want to go "Bjork" on anybody but I am really bored with political pundits, and not just because Chris Mathews is an idiot, Bill “the Big Giant Head” O’Reilly is an immoral waste of calcium, George Will is an agent prevaricator, George Snot-nose-lopside-ious is an amoral pipsqueak and Joe “Scarface” Scarborough is yet another idiot. No, all these “el pollo loco” political prognosticators don’t get paid to be right but to fill time so the toilet paper and mouth wash ads that pay their salaries don’t collide in the airspace inside their heads. I contend that the only life form lower than a politician must be a political pundit. Thomas Dewey died for their sins way back in 1948, and yet they are still sinning.
Thomas Dewey, described by H.L. Menkin as “The only man I know who could strut standing down”, and by a political opponent as "...a guy who works hard, so he can quit early and go home to reorganize his files". was reelected Governor of New York in 1946 by an historic margin despite having his head handed to him two years earlier in the 1944 Presidential election. Ane Dewey still represented the liberal eastern wing of the GOP, while the conservative Midwest wing was embodied by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who now ran congress after the Republicans carried both houses in the 1946 midterm elections. When Dewey beat Taft in the Oregon primary the victory ensured him the inside track for the Republican nomination, and the eternal emnity of Senator Taft.
On the plus side for Dewey, Harry Truman was one of the most unpopular presidents in modern American history, primarily because he just wasn’t Roosevelt. The best joke of 1948 was, “To err is Truman.” The Democrats desperately wanted to nominate anybody else. It took them until 2:30 AM on nomination night to admit that nobody else even wanted the job. But Harry then surprised the convention by making his acceptance speech at once despite the late hour. Taking the microphone at close to 3:00AM a fiesty Harry promised he would win this election and “…make these Republicans like it.” Then he announced, “On the twenty-sixth day of July, which out in Missouri we call “Turnip Day,” I am going to call Congress back and ask them to pass laws …which they are saying they are for in their platform.…”
Nobody in Missouri had ever heard of Turnip Day but seed companies found their orders for Turnip seeds suddenly quadrupled. It was the first sign that strange things were about to happen. The second sign was that when Harry called the congress back, Senator Taft saw no reason to betray his ultraconservative causes just to negate Truman’s attack on a “do nothing” congress. So Taft blocked any votes on enlarging Social Security, civil rights legislation, and the minimum wage, programs that the liberal Republican Dewey (and most voters) supported.
As Hillary's advisors would do again in Iowa, Dewey’s advisors decided that he should remain above the fray and refuse to even mention Truman by name. But that tended to reduce his speeches to such banality that, as the Louisville Courier-Journal pointed out, they consisted of little more than four sentences;“Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.” The advisor's controls were so tight that Dewey’s running mate, Earl Warren, moaned, “I wish that just once I could call somebody an S.O.B.!” At this same time Truman was describing Dewey by name as “…a kind of doctor…” who answered all questions by saying, “I never discuss issues with a patient”
Every poll predicted that Dewey would win by a landslide. The New York Times declared, “Thomas E. Dewey’s Election as President is a Foregone Conclusion.” Bookies were taking 20 to 1 odds against Truman. Elmo Roper, who started the Roper Poll, decided to stop polling after late September, asking, "What's the point?" One columnist asked, “How long is Dewey going to tolerate Truman’s interference in government?” Even Democrats were certain they were beaten. Gallup stayed on the job but their last poll before Election Day showed Dewey with 49.5% lead, while Truman showed at only 44%, a tightening but still not really close. Eager to beat the competition The Chicago Tribune headline for the day after Election Day read, “Dewey Defeats Truman”. And yet …the actual vote totals were almost exactly the reverse of that last poll; 49% for Truman and 45% for Dewey. (Which mirrored the 8:07PM FauxNews report on election night in New Hampshire of 2008 that showed Obama would win with 39% to Hillary’s 34%.)
Dewey later admitted that waking up the morning after election day he felt like the guy who woke up in a coffin with a Lilly in his hands, and wondered, “If I am alive, what am I doing here? And if I’m dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?” It makes you wonder where that Thomas Dewey had been hiding during the campaign. The answer was that his consultants had controlled him just as they controlled Hillary 60 years later in Iowa. And it worked about as well.
And today’s jerks and egomaniacal pundits have only to refer to the Social Science Research Council’s 400 page study of the 1948 election to find their own fault. The council warned that pollsters in 1948 “…attempted the spectacular feat of predicting the winner without qualifications”. In retrospect Mr. Roper called his own and his colleges’ performance “honest but dumb”. And 60 years of experience has only allowed us to drop the limiting definition for a pundit of “honest”. Yes, Bill, that means you.

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