INTRODUCING Harry Truman biographer David McCullough at the White House Lectures last Tuesday, President Bush said this:
"And as I make my way through this portrait, I confess, I started, I got into it early, and then I skipped, guess what, to the campaign of '48 [laughter]. I can't tell you exactly what page it was on but it's about 650 or somewhere in there for those who have yet to enjoy this wonderful work, and there was this battle against the 'do-nothing Congress,' now wait, that's Truman speaking [laughter] and the wonderful come-from-behind victory. Nothing like a story with a happy ending."
I knew President Truman. President Truman was a friend of mine. And, George, you're no Harry Truman. Just kidding. About knowing Truman. The part about Bush not being a Truman is for real.
But 1992 still may be a repeat of 1948 in the sense that an incumbent president well behind in the polls wins an upset election by running against a Congress dominated by the opposition party.
I haven't read McCullough's new biography, so I don't know how he interprets the 1948 election. But by coincidence on Tuesday I read the chapter on the 1948 election in the monumental "History of of American Presidential Elections," edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel.
The chapter was written by Richard Kirkendall. "How had Truman accomplished his surprising victory?" he asked rhetorically. "Basically the answer is that he had taken advantage of the strength of his party, much of which had been developed by Franklin Roosevelt." Kirkendall labelled 1948 "a maintaining election," using Angus Campbell's term. That's one where "the pattern of partisan attachments prevailing in the preceding period persists and the majority party wins the presidency." (Try that out loud fast, Peter Piper!)
So just as Roosevelt's four straight victories created the precondition for Truman's, Ronald Reagan's victories in 1980 and 1984 and Bush's own victory in 1988 may have created the preconditions for victory in 1992.
But don't bet the family jewels on it. There was a second factor involved in 1948. In Kirkendall's words: "Rather effective campaigning" by Truman. Truman went to the country not only to blast his opponent Thomas Dewey and Republicans in Congress, but to win back the demoralized liberals in the party (who had urged him to quit). He did this by convincing them that he was indeed a good Roosevelt New Deal liberal after all.
So given the pattern of partisan attachments prevailing in the preceding period, if George Bush can convince conservative Republican voters during the campaign that he is indeed a good Reagan conservative after all, he could win his own come-from-behind victory. That's a big if. Bush has never shown that fabled Trumanesque ability to relate to average people, which was also a key to his effective campaigning.
Thursday: Truman, the people and the historians.