Monday, April 19, 2010

Book Review: THE LAST CAMPAIGN: HOW HARRY TRUMAN WON THE 1948 ELECTION by Zachary Karabell (Knopf, 2000)

No, I haven't gone crazy; the above comic-book cover [from Disney Comics MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES #3, August 1990] really does have a connection to the subject of this book. Remember the famous photo below? (And both times, the headline got it wrong.)

Karabell's argument in this survey of the 1948 Presidential election is that the famous Truman-Dewey conflict (with supporting parts being played by left- and right-wing breakaway factions led by Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond, respectively) was the last election in which all points of the ideological compass were given fair representation. This is a classic case of a reasonable hypothesis making sense at the time but being somewhat superseded by ensuing historical events. Before 9/11, at the supposed "end of history", it was only natural to posit that the differences between the political parties were relatively trivial and most of the major questions about the relationship between the individual and the state had been, if not solved, then at least been reduced to being discussed in quiet voices. (Anyone recall what the "major issue" of the Bush-Gore 2000 campaign was? Neither can I -- a state of affairs which seems ludicrous now.) Now, with the two major parties as far apart ideologically as they have ever been, it seems less necessary to have a Progressive and a Dixiecrat alternative. Karabell tells his story well, treating each candidate reasonably fairly (yes, even Thurmond) and arguing (in my view, correctly) that Truman's nasty "give 'em hell" campaign, while paying off in the short run with a dramatic comeback victory, was a long-term disaster, setting up the Republicans' revenge in the form of Communist-hunting. This is a good, solid survey of an election that, while not considered momentous at the time, was certainly dramatic, and Karabell can be forgiven for not glimpsing what was just under the horizon at the time he penned it.

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