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Parallels of 1948 and today

By Mike Genet

Before he was finished a few years ago with “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World,” historian and author A.J. Baime knew Truman’s 1948 re-election could be the subject of another full book.

Author A.J. Baime visited the Truman Library in Independence before Thursday evening's 'Wild About Harry' event. His new book, his second about Harry Truman, is about the 1948 presidential campaign, and he is seen here at a new exhibit that evokes Truman's whistlestop campaign. The library's extensive renovation, underway for more than a year, is nearly complete, though officials in Washington will have to decide when – because of the pandemic – it's safe to open.

“I always look for book topics in which there will be these amazing climactic moments, and a main character where you feel as a reader like you can get in his shoes,” Baime said. “And I knew I could write a book about ’48 that would come out during an election cycle, so it would be inherently relevant.”

“Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul” was released this summer. The author was the keynote speaker for Thursday’s virtual Wild About Harry gala for the Truman Library Institute. 

As his book release and the country’s upcoming election drew closer, the parallels only grew.

“I didn’t realize how relevant the story would be today, because a lot of things we were arguing about as a nation in 1948 seem to be the same things we’re arguing about now,” Baime said Thursday during a quick tour of the nearly finished Truman Library renovation project. “It was sort of a pleasant and unpleasant surprise.”

For one, he was struck by the degree in which both parties at the time feared interference from the Soviet Union in the election.

“Certain things, I did know about,” he said. “It amazes me that in 1948 there was a lot of argument over health care, and we’re still arguing over health care. At the time, there was a new form of media in television, and now we have social media, and there was a lot of paranoia and rumors of a Russian conspiracy infiltrating our government, and those rumors still exist today.”

“It was a remarkable journey for me, because I learned far more than I thought I would.”

Whereas today social media offers candidates a quick way to reach masses of people, Truman believed his best chance to turn public opinion back toward a previously unelected president and away from favored challenger, Thomas Dewey, was to speak directly to them around the country. Hence, the grinding train trips in the summer and fall of 1948 that became his famous “Whistle Stop Tour.”

“I think it’s a fascinating comparison,” Baime said, at one point tapping the railing of the train car display at the library. “Truman realized there was no way he could win unless he came up with this novel, unprecedented strategy, and what he did was go on a train kind of like this into as many communities as he could.”

“He felt he could expose the magic of the American presidency, and he wanted people to see not just the president of the United States; he wanted them to get to know Harry. He thought if people got to know Harry, they’d vote for him, so he had to be basically everywhere across the country.”

Many times, Truman delivered a half-dozen speeches a day during brief stops in communities. Sometimes, nine times a day, Baime said, and “Often times off the cuff.”

“Today, people can just type a tweet, and off it goes.”

Baime’s previous book on Truman deals with the challenging and action-packed months after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, which included the end of World War II in Europe, learning of the atomic bomb and deciding to use it, the Potsdam Conference, the end of the war with Japan, and the subsequent onset of the Cold War. 

“It’s an inspirational book about a regular guy, a person like you or me, who becomes the most powerful man in the history of the world by accident, and those are his words,” Baime said.

At the gala, Baime said, "There’s no question that our democracy functions better when our leaders have the courage to make bold decisions and to take responsibility for them.”

In his six years researching Truman for the books, Baime noted that he found many funny moments.

“I can’t tell you how many times I laughed out loud in the Research Room,” he said. “I found him to be remarkably entertaining.

"Truman became a role model to me – how to teach children about the realities of the world, good and bad. How to lead by example. How to share with them happy moments and the not-so-happy moments."

"You know politicians today like to talk about family values, but this was a man who lived them. Of all the things I’ve come to learn about the man, this one strikes me the most."