An Election Day Tale: Dewey Defeats Truman


Election Day, 1948, Chicago.

This was a few years before my dad met my mom–by his account, she asked him out to dinner at Schrafft’s when they were both working at a Chicago urban renewal agency. He was at home on Nashville Avenue, a business student at Northwestern, a year and a half or so after his short hitch with the Army was over. By his account, he was lying on the living-room couch in the dark, listening to election returns on the radio. It seemed the vote might be going for Truman over his Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey of New York. But an announcer mentioned the Chicago Tribune was already calling the race and that an early edition declaring Dewey the winner was on the street. Dad said he went out to a newsstand and bought a copy just as as a Tribune delivery driver was trying to retrieve the early edition. (That’s the copy pictured above.)

One of the things I noticed when I was a kid looking at that front page was how little evidence the Tribune had to declare a winner. Much of the South looked like a lock for States’ Rights candidate Strom Thurmond. The Trib’s front-page copy mentioned polls were still open in most of the country, and where voting was over, the count was so preliminary–well, you just have to admire the power of wishful thinking. Of course the Tribune had to be first with the news: its owner, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, was an arch-anti-Democrat and sworn foe of FDR and everything he stood for. A 1936 story on the Democratic National Convention was headlined, “The Soviets Gather at Philadelphia.” A subhead in this 1948 edition’s lead election story reads, “New Deal Repudiated.”


What also got my attention, and still does, are signs the front page had been prepared in great haste. Several lines of type in the lead story’s second paragraph were inserted upside down. Also, the first three pages seem to be cast in a “typewriter” Courier typeface that appears slapdash and irregular, with some lines askew and poorly spaced; the type is different from the interior pages, which are set in what I assume was the paper’s regular type. (After some accidental research, the explanation for the appearance of those pages appears to be that the paper’s typesetters were on strike and that the copy in question was indeed typed, then cut and pasted somehow, then photographed for reproduction on the press. (See “Dewey Defeats Truman: The Rarely Told Story of Chicago Tribune’s Most Famous Issue” and “The Eleven Editions of the November 3, 1948, Chicago Tribune” — the latter a fascinating breakdown of what the paper published and when that day.)

Perhaps what I admire most about this journalistic exercise is the reporting on display in the lead story. In perhaps the only story he’s remembered for, the Trib’s Washington bureau chief, Arthur Sears Henning, declared the outcome of the vote:

“Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the Presidential election yesterday.

“The early returns showed the Republican ticket leading Truman and Barkley pretty consistently in northern and western states. The indications were that the complete returns would disclose that Dewey won the Presidency by an overwhelming majority of electoral votes.”

Since the numbers didn’t bear out the tale, what was the source of that intelligence? Herbert Brownell, Dewey’s campaign manager.

Brownell, wrote Henning, “claimed that on the basis of the complete returns ‘we will wind up sweeping two-thirds of the states for the Republican ticket.’ ”

“As states definitely in the Republican column in the light of the fragmentary returns Brownell named Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, and South Dakota. Four years ago the Republicans carried only five of these states.

” ‘At this moment,’ said Brownell, ‘the polls have closed in 12 of the 48 states outside the solid south. These states have a total of 120 votes in the electoral college.

” ‘On the basis of reports which I have been receiving from organization leaders thruout the country, I am confident that the Dewey-Warren ticket has already carried 10 of these 12 states with a total of 101 of the 120 electoral votes.

” ‘In the other two states–Kentucky and West Virginia–returns are not yet conclusive but the trend to the Dewey-Warren ticket is heartening.’ “

Brownell wasn’t completely off-base, though Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky all went for Truman. Still, the paper went out on that limb on the basis of 12 states and hearsay about “reports from organizers.”

Henning’s eventual successor as head of the Tribune Washington bureau, Walter Trohan, was in Chicago that night covering congressional elections for the paper. He recorded an account of parts of his bureau tenure for the Harry S Truman Library in 1970. He said an election evening phone call with Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who had lost the Republican nomination to Dewey, led him to believe the Trib’s story and banner headline were wrong. About the 72-year-old Henning’s insistence that Dewey was winning, Trohan said, “Why he became so stubborn I don’t know; I guess age.” Trohan was eventually called on to write a new version of the story for later editions, with Truman the victor. But before that happened, he was asked to appear on a local TV show to discuss the returns:

“… And that night it was terrible, about 10 o’clock, before — we were still carrying the headline, I was called to go on TV to discuss the congressional election. And I went up and there was Henning, and there was the wife of the publisher, and some very important people, a dozen people or so. The announcer was a fellow with a charming voice, but no sense, in a very nice pearl-shaped tone, said, ‘Well, Walter,’ and I had never met him before in my life, ‘how is Mr. Dewey going to get along with majority Congress?’

“I said, ‘He isn’t going to have a majority Congress, the Democrats have won the Congress.’

“He said, ‘You mean that Dewey will have to work with a hostile Congress?’

“And I said, ‘No, I don’t mean anything of the kind. Mr. Dewey ain’t going to be there either.’ “

But Henning and the Trib were already committed to a different version not only of the story, but of history. Henning’s rather brief piece ended with this bit of context under the previously mentioned subhead, “New Deal Repudiated”:

“The Republican victory brought to a close the 16 year reign of the New Deal which began in the country’s most devastating depression, introduced a collectivist economy, produced a four-term President, embraced a disastrous war and left the nation a 250 billion dollar debt and heritage of foreign policy containing the seeds of another war.”

Saturday Night’s Alright for Dribbling

Why Do You Call It MAY-Hee-Koh? Lydell points out a query posed to the Chicago Tribune’s lingo expert:

Q. Why do Americans pronounce Chicago with a “sh” sound at the beginning (as in “she”), instead of a “ch” (as in “chick”)? You might have noticed that Spanish speakers, even bilingual speakers (such as myself) make a very clear distinction between the CH sound and the SH sound. My lips refuse to conform to anything but a “Chick-ah-go” pronunciation.

— Stephanie Pringhipakis Guijarro, Chicago

To his possible credit, the Tribune guy ignores the multicultural preciousness behind the question and answers it seriously. I would have been tempted to respond. “Dear Stephanie: Where the heck did those people down in México come up with that voiceless velar fricative pronunciation for the X: MAY-hee-koh? What’s with that strange-o accent and wild vowels? You may have noticed Americans (such as myself) say “MeKSiko.” My Midwestern lips (actually, the back of my tongue and my soft palate) absolutely refuse to pronounce X as anything but the most excellent consonant cluster “ks” (except in all the many exceptional cases, such as the “gz” in “exit”). P.S. What’s a ‘Pringhipakis’?”

Doubts Answered:
By way of Steve Downey, fellow cyclist and connoisseur of notable sports names, we encounter Lucious Pusey, a linebacker with Eastern Illinois University. Maybe I should say former linebacker, because Pusey reportedly changed his name and the EIU roster now shows him as Lucious Seymour. Mr. Seymour-Pusey’s name has been the subject of frequent blog-based chortling; I join in the chorus only for the most noble of reasons: because I told someone this story and they dared to doubt me.

Blogger Embed: There’s lots of talk about bloggers being the future of journalism, but it’s rare at this point to find bloggers trying to tackle real reporting. An exception: Bill Roggio, a blogger who has embedded with U.S. military units in the past and has just gone back to Iraq to do it again. He’s unattached to any news organization, and his trip is funded by readers. I kicked in 25 bucks despite the fact I’m not in love with his hawkish take on the war. But I think it’s worth supporting anyone willing to put themselves on the line to report independently (or as independently as possible in a situation where staying alive means staying with the troops).

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Me & the Weather Guy

TomskillingAs avid readers of this space are aware, I’m an admirer of Chicago weatherperson Tom Skilling. His work on WGN has always seemed to be well ahead of the curve in terms of graphic presentation. His presentation is fact-rich and thorough (a new wrinkle in coverage of the winter storm hitting Illinois tonight: a discussion of pavement temperatures), yet understated. And his on-air material is supplemented by the best full page of weather I’ve seen in any newspaper, much of which is reproduced in the WGN Weather Center Blog. Typically, the blog includes an evening post written after WGN’s night news show; the posts usually carry Skilling’s name. The other night I was reading one, and was struck that the head of the station’s weather operation was actually taking the time to put out a last thoughtful and well-crafted message before shutting down for the night. I’ve been in other TV newsrooms, and I can tell you that that’s pretty unusual (and I admit I half-suspect someone else on the team drew the short straw for this duty).

(For comparison’s sake, this is what the San Francisco Chronicle passed off as weather knowledge on Thursday: a 50-word blurb from one of the KPIX weatherpersons on why you can see your breath when it’s cold out: “…When your breath leaves your warm body and comes in contact with cold air, it cools rapidly. As it cools, the invisible water vapor condenses into tiny water droplets, similar to to droplets in a cloud or fog.” That’s actually one of the more provocative treatises the page has delivered recently.)

I wrote Skilling a note telling him how much I like the stuff he and his group put out–yeah, drooling fan mail to a meteorologist. Surprise of surprises–though not as amazing as the time Kate wrote to Mr. Rogers and got back a beautiful two-page letter that bore all the signs of having actually come from Fred himself–Skilling wrote back to thank me. Must not get a lot of email from Berkeley. Made my day; or at least part of it.

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Random Reading

A product of random reading:

On September 4, 1886, the Chicago Tribune critiqued a pamphlet on a now-forgotten political scandal by a now-forgotten writer: ""The pamphlet on the Paine Bribery Case and the United States Senate, by Albert H. Walker, is plainly the effusion of a crank."

Mr. Walker was an attorney, author of a textbook on patents, who apparently took himself very seriously. The Tribune’s choice of words prompted him to sue for libel. Walker filed a declaration in federal court in Chicago that said the Tribune had published the remark "to cause it to be suspected and believed that plaintiff was a man of crude, ill digested, ill considered, and wild ideas and aims, and to be supposed to be without skill, tact, adequate information, or common sense." Furthermore:

"… to publicly characterize the plaintiff as a "crank," and thus to publicly impute to him sundry qualities, aims, and methods highly inconsistent with usefulness and success as a lawyer and author, … plaintiff has been greatly prejudiced in his credit and reputation, and caused to be considered an unreliable and injudicious person, and destitute of those qualities on which the earnings of a lawyer or a serious author depend; and has been greatly vexed and mortified, and has been deprived of divers great earnings which would otherwise have accrued to him in his professional duties, and divers great royalties which otherwise would have been paid to him on sales of his books."

Walker also noted that since President James Garfield’s assassination in 1881 at the hands of Charles J. Guiteau — widely described as a crank — "the word … has obtained a definite meaning in this country, and is understood to mean a crack-brained and murderously inclined person, and is so used by the public press."

The court wasn’t moved by Walker’s entreaty to help him recover his reputation. It granted the Trib’s motion to dismiss Walker’s claims, resorting to Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary to support its finding that "the word would seem to have no necessarily defamatory sense." In fact, the court’s opinion (Walker v. Tribune, 1887) suggested Walker get a thicker skin: " It is no libel upon a man who has entered the field of authorship to underrate his talents."

Despite the trauma of being called a crank by no less an august organ than the Trib, Walker managed to make a living afterward. His patent textbook went through at least four editions. He lectured on patents at Cornell. And he wrote one of the first books on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, still circulating today.