Weeks before the election the very popular 46 year old candidate, is already seen as the next President of the United States. A reputation for slick dress and exceptional oratory skills (plus support from a biased media) make him a shoe-in winner over his Older and less verbally skilled opponent.
Dewey Like Obama Is it 1948 all over again? by Philip Terzian Last week, after Barack Obama had consented to allow the people of Western Europe and the Middle East to gaze upon him, Republicans in America seemed especially disheartened. Their presumptive candidate, John McCain, trailed Obama in the polls. The press, when it wasn’t breathlessly chronicling Barack or Michelle Obama, was reporting on bank failures and mortgage foreclosures. Senate Democrats were talking about picking up as many as eight seats in November. Neither candidate had yet been formally nominated by his party, but the campaign already seemed like 1996-and with McCain playing the role of 73-year-old Bob Dole. And yet, as any student of politics will admit, the conventional wisdom is often mistaken, and perceptions in the media can be deceiving. To be sure, there is something of Bob Dole in John McCain: He is a decorated war veteran, 72 years old, has been a fixture in the Senate for years, and his self-deprecating wit endears him to reporters. But just as there are limits to Dole-McCain parallels, Barack Obama bears little resemblance to Bill Clinton, or some other favorite Democrats. For that matter, take away the Harvard diploma and the well-dressed wife in the pillbox hat, and Obama has little in common with John F. Kennedy. Indeed, as Obama returns from Berlin to prepare for his nomination in Denver, the modern candidate he seems most to resemble is one who was neither president nor a Democrat: Thomas E. Dewey of New York (1902-1971). This is not meant to pile on Dewey, whose reputation has suffered enough in the 60-plus years since he lost campaigns for the presidency, in 1944 and 1948. Most New Yorkers probably only know him as the name attached to the thruway system that connects the Tappan Zee Bridge to Greater Buffalo. Likewise, most Americans will just recognize the unfortunate name that appears on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune held by a gleeful Harry Truman: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Thomas Dewey was, in fact, an intrepid racket-busting prosecutor in New York City in the 1930s, who took on organized crime and political corruption; an impressive three-term governor of New York in the 1940s and 1950s; a distinguished lawyer, prominent citizen, and architect of the postwar Republican party that elected Dwight D. Eisenhower to the White House in 1952. Unfortunately, the 1948 election was not so much a credentials contest as a clash of personalities, and Dewey was not, by that measure, an appealing candidate. Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously compared him to the figurine of a man on top of a wedding cake, and Richard Rovere once wrote that “he comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind.” Like a certain junior senator from Illinois, Dewey was famous for his well-groomed appearance, something of a stuffed shirt in manner, largely devoid of a sense of humor, indignant about criticism of himself, and a smooth orator who specialized in self-aggrandizing bromides (“We enter upon a campaign to unite America. On January 20 we will enter upon a new era. We propose to install . . . an administration which has faith in the American people, a warm understanding of their needs, and the competence to meet them”). He was also, like Barack Obama, just 46 years old, and widely regarded as an overnight sensation. Above all, it was an overweening self-confidence that undermined the Republican candidate. The Democrats had controlled the White House for 16 years, and public opinion polls indicated that voters were ready for change. But the governor and his advisers were so beguiled by their early poll readings and press coverage, and persuaded that the campaign was over before it had begun, that a self-protective Dewey did not so much run for the presidency as pose and occasionally speak in anticipation of election. “Ours is a magnificent land,” he declared in Phoenix. “Every part of it. Don’t let anybody frighten you or try to stampede you into believing that America is finished. America’s future-like yours in Arizona-is still ahead of us.” Like Obama, Dewey sought to preserve his advantage by avoiding specific proposals, and spoke not about if but when he would be elected president-or, as Obama likes to put it, commander in chief. To all concerned except Truman, the 1948 campaign was the formality before a preordained result. Which leads to an obvious question: If Barack Obama shares certain weaknesses with Dewey, does John McCain possess any of Truman’s strengths? In fact, despite some obvious dissimilarities, he does. Truman was 64 in 1948-comparatively old by the standards of the day, and after two terms in the Senate and three years in the White House, widely perceived as a creature of the nation’s capital. Truman was also slightly irascible in manner, plainspoken-sometimes vulgar-and a self-described purveyor of straight talk and common sense. He was also an awkward public speaker, prone to the occasional public gaffe (“to err is Truman”), and while liked well enough by the Washington press corps, the butt of condescension. The chattering classes of 1948-senior journalists, academic analysts, Wall Streeters-were beguiled by Dewey and considered Truman a mild embarrassment. Still, Truman was not without resources. Dewey’s soaring speeches and airy generalities enabled Truman to frame his own issues, and his principal rhetorical opponent was not Dewey but the “no-good, do-nothing 80th Congress,” which had wrested control of Capitol Hill from the Democrats. Paradoxically, this gave Truman a certain advantage: He was free to complain about what Congress had done during the previous two years, as well as what it had not done; and public regard for the House and Senate, then as now, was not high. Of course, the world has changed in the intervening decades, and both Obama and McCain are skilled politicians. But it is useful to recall that what are now considered to be -Dewey’s miscalculations seemed shrewd at the time, and that no one-especially not the vast majority of Democrats-took Truman’s chances seriously. The road to the White House, for observers and candidates alike, is strewn with banana peels.