It’s a basic fact: you can’t take gimmicks out of presidential politics. Because, like it or not, gadgets work.
One of the greatest of all time was in 1840. A slyly editorialized newspaper about William Henry Harrison, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and…a pension of two thousand [dollars] one year… and he will spend the rest of his days in his log cabin.
Democrats jumped at a golden opportunity to rebrand the mildly aristocratic Harrison as a kind of frontier Everyman. They featured log cabins at their rallies and handed out hard apple cider drinks by the barrel, though later generations eventually took a dim view of using alcohol to gain votes. It was enough to propel Harrison to a narrow victory.
Some 100 years later, another president was in deep political trouble. Perhaps Democratic strategists remembered the log cabin campaign as they desperately searched for ideas to salvage Harry Truman’s tottering presidency. Because his re-election prospects were between slim and nil.
He had inherited the post when Franklin Roosevelt died. With the Cold War raging in Europe and countless headaches at home as the United States made the painful transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, it seemed like everyone was crazy about something. And they all poured out their anger at Truman’s feet.
When the 1948 elections were held, Truman’s Democratic Party fractured. The left didn’t think he was liberal and deserted enough to support former Vice President Henry Wallace’s progressives. The right thought he was too liberal and sided with South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats. On top of all that, the popular Republican Governor of New York, Tom Dewey, circled the White House like sharks circle a sinking ship.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, they say. With almost no money and little to lose, Truman campaigned across the country. Too broke to rent big-city auditoriums, he spoke from the back of a railroad car to dozens upon dozens of small towns across the country in his famous “Whistlestop campaign.” “.
But the Democrats also did something else that, while equally groundbreaking, is rarely remembered today.
They published a campaign comic.
No, seriously, they did.
America was living through what collectors now call the golden age of comics. Comic book heroes had joined the war effort during World War II, supporting the Allied cause with such exuberance that Captain America was even shown punching Adolf Hitler in the face. So the Democratic National Committee tried to exploit that appeal in its quest for votes. And he bet big on the idea.
Three million copies of “The Harry S. Truman Story” were published in October 1948, just as national attention was focused on the upcoming election. Its 16 brightly colored pages chronicle Harry’s unlikely rise from the small whitewashed house in Lamar, Missouri, where he was born in 1884 until his arrival at the White House in 1945.
Although the work is attributed to MW Ater, we do not know who wrote it. It is possible that the author wanted to hide his name. Because those 16 pages are filled with dialogue gems such as “You know, that boy Harry is plowing a straight furrow.” “Yeah. Straightest in the county! Here’s another one: ‘Bess, the boys at the Legion meeting tonight were talking about me running for county judge…as a Democrat!’ You got the idea.
Great literature, it was not. But if you think this comic was meant for kids, think again. Remember, the minimum voting age in 1948 was 21. (It wouldn’t be lowered to 18 until 1971.) Nowhere does the comic say, “Hey kids! Be sure to show it to your mum and dad and tell them to vote for Uncle Harry on November 2!”
It was a direct appeal to ordinary Americans who didn’t read The New York Times. Simplistic, yes; but he also spoke to them in words they understood with a message that was impossible to miss. Harry Truman, the former farmer turned war veteran turned bankrupt small business owner turned local politician, had risen to the top. He knew what their life was like because he was one of them. And they could always count on him to watch over them.
When the votes were counted that first Tuesday evening in November 1948, Harry Truman had pulled off the greatest political comeback of the 20th century. It was close, but a win is a win.
And a now-forgotten fun book, printed on cheap pulp paper, had quietly helped make it happen.