• U.S.

THE NATION: View from a Polling Booth

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It was a curious anticlimax. Republicans had waited for years for the great day when the country would come to its senses and turn the Democrats out. The authors of the New Deal, in turn, had shuddered in anticipation of the awful moment when the G.O.P. would come to power, reduce their works to ashes, and set the laboring man to building country clubs on non-union wages.

But by this week, when the day seemed surely at hand, the G.O.P. had embraced most of Franklin Roosevelt’s innovations. And the New Dealers had either grown bald and tired or had disappeared completely, leaving their party to less feverish —and less consecrated—men.

The Protocol. As the 1948 campaign drew to its close, it was evident that it had induced a curious reaction. The most energetic efforts of two major and three minor candidates had apparently either soothed, dulled or completely anesthetized the electorate.

This did not mean that the U.S. citizen had lost his inborn distrust of authority or his dark certainty that politicians would take his gold fillings unless he guarded them with his life. In general, he had been determined to vote against somebody or something ever since the two big party conventions last summer. Having made his decision, he had then subsided into comparative, not to say lethargic, calm.

He had his reasons for refusing to get excited. Few voters believed that there would be any contest on Election Day. Two out of three, according to a Gallup poll last week, thought New York’s Governor Thomas E. Dewey could not possibly be beaten. Moreover, the electioneering had not developed into the kind of nerve-jangling jihad to which the country had grown accustomed since 1932.

The candidates had faithfully observed campaign protocol. The men who sought the most important position in the world had—just like their predecessors—embraced babies, shaken hands with costumed Indians, and posed unflinchingly with fish and stuffed donkeys.

But few campaign buttons had blossomed on the nation’s lapels. There had been no attempts to distribute scurrilous handbills, or launch whispering campaigns. The once brassy voice of the C.I.O. Political Action Committee had fallen off to a scarcely heard murmur. Democrats (who except for Harry Truman, were sure they would lose) and Republicans (who were sure they would win) displayed the utmost reluctance to contribute funds. The campaigns cost more than ever (price of a two-week transcontinental tour: $50,000), but the war chests of both parties had been all but empty for weeks.

There would be last-minute appeals and a low blow or two, just before the bell. (This week Truman hinted that Dewey is a “front man” for fascism, and likened him to Hitler.) In an effort to inject some commotion, both parties revived the old-time torchlight procession. Harry Truman began the week with a monster rally in Chicago, where Boss Jake Arvey’s minions kindled enough flame and fireworks to burn down the whole town. Tom Dewey, after another dash through the Midwest, would conclude his campaign at a Madison Square Garden rally which would be heralded by the red flares of a Manhattan parade.

The Key Figure. But as Election Day grew near it was almost impossible to get into an argument over political issues. Henry Wallace was the only candidate who had managed to stir up any uproar at all. By standing up as a target for eggs,* he had gained some sympathy for himself, but almost none for his cause. His wild parroting of the Communist line had given most voters a feeling of faint disgust. By last week he was almost forgotten again, and thousands of his supporters were deserting him.

The key figure in the campaign was President Harry Truman—though his role was essentially a negative one. The man who was not wanted by his party before convention-time had provided most of the campaign’s real color and life. Few Presidents had traveled so far, spoken so rashly or attracted such big, good-humored crowds. But, if the polls were right, a majority of the voters continued, gently though firmly, to oppose him,

The President’s efforts had not been altogether wasted. He had given the creaking Democratic Party doughtier and more spirited leadership than it deserved. He had aided materially in a Democratic drive which threatened to capture or loggerhead the Senate. His “give ’em hell” attacks had entertained millions and, in a way, won the admiration of the common man. But when he damned the 80th Congress and the Taft-Hartley law, nobody seemed really to care or to listen.

The Real Issue. From the start, Tom Dewey had acted like the winner—unruffled, confident, and a trifle self-consciously benign. He refused to step down into the arena and fight with Harry Truman on Truman’s terms—the traditional, knockabout charge and countercharge of a U.S. political campaign. On the sound political theory that the less he promised the freer he would be as President, he made few specific statements of policy. In part this meant that he largely discarded the old GOPlatitudes against government spending and bureaucracy for more soothing platitudes in favor of more expert piloting (“We need a rudder to our ship of state and . . . a firm hand at the tiller”). But it also meant that at times he talked like a statesman who could afford to forget politics—which he indeed could because of his decisive lead.

With the hardheaded determination of a man who knows precisely what he is doing, he stuck resolutely to the only real issue of the campaign—which was not the bipartisan foreign policy, not the Taft-Hartley law, not the 80th Congress, but that it was time for the Republicans to take their turn at the tiller. Dewey bore the air, and the reputation, of a proved executive and a good administrator, a man who would clean out the dead wood in Washington but would not rock the boat. And that, in 1948, was enough. Harry Truman’s sarcastic reply that the Republicans just kept saying “I can do it better” had boomeranged. The people thought the Republicans probably could do it better—if they would; and that perhaps they had earned their chance to show their stuff. By the end of the campaign the U.S. voters had bestowed upon Tom Dewey a gradual and grudging measure of respect.

The Rich Land. The people’s calm acceptance of this kind of campaign, and their obvious weariness of the sound of political firebells in the night, were due in part to the country’s prosperity. Despite inflation and record retail buying ($10 billion a month), U.S. citizens would put $12 billion in the bank in 1948 as compared with $8.8 billion last year, and $2.7 billion in 1939. Employment still stood at the 60 million mark. Materially, the U.S. was rich—richer than any nation had ever been in the history of the world.

But wealth was not the whole explanation. There were all sorts of signs that the country had been moving, amid the smoke and sound of great events, into a new kind of era. Many a citizen had assumed that the U.S., having experienced the century’s second world war and its second era of Democratic Administration, would automatically run through a kind of repeat performance of the 1920s. Actually, the dissimilarities between the two periods were striking.

Ferment. The nation had half forgotten the kind of convulsions with which it had been seized in the years after World War I. The U.S. had not only been hellbent to shake off the past, but full of a kind of callow hunger for sensation. The flapper who bobbed her hair, bound her breasts and wore knee-length skirts was almost duty-bound to get “blotto” by drinking gin from hip flasks. “I want to live my own life,” cried the ’20’s movie heroine, and millions tried to imitate her. Literature was full of ferment, religion was passé, and the nation’s chief barometer of values was the skyrocketing stockmarket.

The U.S. of 1948 was a different country.

It was not the most moral or circumspect area of the world: the divorce rate was still staggeringly high, marijuana-smoking was enjoying a minor and furtive popularity, and shiny new automobiles crashed at high speeds with noisy regularity. But nobody seized upon this as evidence that man was finding new freedoms. The trend in manners & morals was in the other direction. The U.S. people seemed to be looking for values they had dropped in their long and precipitous scramble toward larger horizons.

The Infinite Variety. The country exhibited no discernible unrest, no passion for plunging toward new ideas or new philosophies. Literature leaned heavily on the historical novel which, by a curious transformation, seemed to provide the only public expression of the libido. Historical novels were most noteworthy for their dust jackets, all of which seemed to boast a red-lipped siren with a low-cut dress and an incredibly pneumatic bust. U.S. intellectuals, who had once ranged from the Paris Left Bank to Communism’s left wing, had come home to roost. It was a little saddening to the more daring spirits, but in 1948 it was difficult to want to be anything but an American.

And what kind of an American? Said Tom Dewey (whose campaign, while dull by previous standards, perhaps caught the spirit of the times better than most people yet realized): “I assert that human beings are not identical—that no human being is common—that we are all—every single one of us—uncommon people. We are separate individuals whose human differences in talent, in religious faith, in purpose and achievement, enrich our communities and are to be gloried in.

“We are equal in the status conferred upon us by birth, in our rights before the law, in economic opportunity, and in our right to bow down only to our God. We are all equal but, by God’s grace, we are not all the same . . . The highest purpose to which we could dedicate ourselves is to rediscover the everlasting variety among us.”

The Catalogue. If the U.S. citizen had any paramount desire in the week before Election Day, it was that the future should be quiet and peaceful. He realized that this was neither simple nor easy.

He did not expect, as he had in the days of Coolidge, that prosperity would go on forever. He hoped, however, that a nation as productive as the U.S. would not have to suffer the kind of humiliating poverty it knew during the last depression. He realized that the country might be at war with Soviet Russia within a decade, a year, or—if an “incident” occurred—within a month. But experience had toughened him; he catalogued the Russians with death and taxes, put his faith in the Marshall Plan, crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

In 40 years of war and social revolution the U.S. had changed enormously. It had not only reached a new maturity but a position of preeminence in the world. It now seemed impelled to consolidate its social gains and to learn more about the art of exerting leadership among nations.

Part of that leadership was the act of voting in a democratic election and of proving to the world that democracy works—in all kinds of wind and weather. For it was important for the world to know that the nation which had conceived the Marshall Plan and created the Berlin airlift could change its own leadership at home without altering its concept of freedom or changing its will for peace.

*A reported total of 139 eggs, tomatoes and other missiles were thrown during the presidential campaign (not including the final week). Of these, 84 eggs, 40 tomatoes, 4 peaches, 2 lemons, 1 orange, and 1 bun were aimed at Henry Wallace. He was hit by 5 eggs and 4 tomatoes. Two eggs splashed on his plane, 2 on his auto, 2 on his train and 1 struck the manuscript he was reading. One egg and 5 tomatoes were thrown at Governor Thomas E. Dewey. No hits. One pop bottle was thrown at President Harry Truman during his parade in Indianapolis. It landed in the street, 35 feet away.

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