Political Hay

Dewey, McCain, and the Politics of Personal Honor

A virtue is not a political philosophy, and it doesn't elect presidents either.

By 7.8.08

It's all about personal honor.

Which is, under most circumstances in life, not just a good thing but a very good thing. The very phrase "On my honor" is, of course, the very first few words in the oath of that most American of institutions, the Boy Scouts. It implies that one is, as the Scouts would say, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and, last but not least, reverent.

But honor is a virtue, a way to live one's life. It is not a political philosophy, much less a method of illuminating philosophical and practical differences in a political campaign. Yet honor and the virtue it represents is playing a central role in the 2008 presidential campaign with the candidacy of Republican Senator John McCain. Disturbingly, history records that honor also played a central role in one of the legendary campaigns of American history, the epic 1948 battle between Thomas E. Dewey and Harry S. Truman.

It is often said, correctly, that Senator McCain is not a conservative, or at least a philosophical conservative in the same sense as, say, Ronald Reagan. Does he support conservative ideas like the free market or freedom in some sort of general sense? Sure. But when it comes to issues like First Amendment freedoms, he quickly and famously abandons free speech for the government restrictions of his own McCain-Feingold legislation. For whatever reason, he abandoned the principles of tax cutting in opposing the Bush tax cuts when first introduced, although he now supports them. Famously he supports the government ban on drilling for oil in the relative postage-stamp size geography of ANWR, in spite of the clearly desperate need for the application of free market principles to help resolve America's energy problems. Other positions -- his fierce support for the McCain-Kennedy immigration "amnesty" bill, his McCain-Lieberman cap and trade legislation -- have drawn relentless conservative criticism as being decidedly un-conservative.

When one reads McCain's own book, Faith of My Fathers, the story of his Navy admiral grandfather and father plus McCain's own Navy career, specifically focusing on his time at the Naval Academy and as a prisoner of war, it is easy to understand how McCain gets to these liberal moments in his political reasoning. Conservatism is clearly incidental in his political thinking. First and foremost, as he makes quite clear, is not his political philosophy but his view of honor. "The sanctity of personal honor was the only lesson my father felt necessary to impart to me..." McCain writes in a theme he returns to again and again in his book. Honor -- conduct -- is all.

SO TOO WAS HONOR important to the Republican nominee for president sixty years ago. Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the most prominent liberal Republican of his day, was a stickler on the subject of honor. Like McCain, Dewey was "conservative" only in the sense that he was a Republican, and therefore not a liberal Democrat. Personally, Dewey's honor was above reproach. His claim to fame was as the crime busting District Attorney of Manhattan, the Rudy Giuliani of his day, relentlessly zeroing in on corruption and the mob. He was so successful at it that even as a mere district attorney he was a serious presidential possibility in 1940, losing out to Wendell Willkie at the GOP Convention. Two years later he was overwhelmingly elected Governor of New York and by 1944 was in fact the Republican nominee against incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. Losing to FDR was never thought of as a particular liability for young Dewey, the popular if sickly FDR every inch the embodiment of wartime commander-in-chief. But things were very different in 1948. President Harry Truman, FDR's vice-presidential successor, was no FDR. World War II was over, the GOP had won a smashing victory in taking control of Congress in 1946, and Dewey was thought to be unstoppable. The New Deal was still going strong in 1948, its long-term ill effects of relentlessly high taxes and government control not yet as visible to average Americans. Dewey's policies, mocked years later by Barry Goldwater as a "dime store New Deal," were viewed at the time as deeply mainstream and reasonable.

The famous photo still tells the story of 1948: a grinning Harry Truman, re-elected in the greatest upset in American history, flashing a copy of the Chicago Tribune that blares "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."

Alas, for the twice-nominated and very popular Governor of New York, a presumed sure-thing who would have made Big Brown look like a long shot, the presidency had gotten away from him. (Ah yes...you remember Big Brown, don't you? The sure-fire winner of the Triple Crown?) Yet while the story of the Truman-Dewey upset is told with dependability every four years, the reason Dewey went from sure-thing to also-ran is rarely explored. It should be, because as with John McCain Dewey's sense of personal honor dictated much of the way the Dewey campaign was run.

No one would mistake Republican Senator John McCain as a Dewey-style front-runner against Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama. No one in the 2008 race is viewed as a "sure thing." Ironically, of the two, when it comes to sheer personality it is McCain (although this seems mysteriously well hidden these days) who is Trumanesque, the salty, blunt-talking ex-military guy like Captain Harry from World War I. It's Obama who has the Dewey personality traits -- aloof, intellectual, and charged with arrogance.

Yet McCain has already shown signs of what might be called Dewey-syndrome. An insistence on an above-it-all approach to the hard-hitting necessities of a presidential campaign. Seeking to convince voters that he is, really, an honorable guy whose sense of honor they should be pleased with as worthy of a president.

IT'S INSTRUCTIVE THEN to go back and take a serious look at what exactly happened to Tom Dewey in 1948. How, in fact, did he manage to kick away the presidency? Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith's superb 1982 biography Thomas E. Dewey and His Times provides the answers in detail.

While Harry Truman today is revered as a great president, in 1948 he was seen as a classless incompetent who was way over his head in the White House. In the first election in sixteen years that did not feature the patrician Franklin Roosevelt on the ballot, Truman, decidedly un-Rooseveltian, suffered miserably by comparison. "To err is Truman" went the saying of the day. Dewey, to the contrary, was viewed as coldly efficient, his deep voice perfect for radio, his record as a Giuliani-style New York prosecutor and successful governor making him a central casting choice.

But Dewey had this honor thing buzzing around in his brain. He simply could not bring himself to take hard political punches at Truman, even in spite of the fact that he detested the guy. When Truman rushed to the defense of Alger Hiss, calling the sensational accusations that Hiss was a Soviet spy a "red herring," Dewey refused to go after Truman for his judgment. An aide said Dewey felt that to do so was "degrading." When a West Virginia Republican Senator in a heated race for re-election refused to use his Senate Committee chairmanship to assist Truman on an issue involving war refugees, Dewey, McCain-like, took Truman's side, refusing to help the GOP Senator's race for re-election and making this perfectly plain. In November, West Virginia, once thought leaning to Dewey, went for Truman.

Unity, said a Dewey speechwriter, would be the central theme of the Dewey campaign, "the clothesline on which speeches would be hung." The New Yorker, says author Smith, "was as reasonable as Truman was shrill." Where McCain speaks now of "straight talk" Dewey in 1948 spoke of "honest answers." With the realization dawning on the American people that they had won World War II only to quickly find themselves drawn into what was becoming known as the Cold War, Dewey refused to assign blame for the situation to Truman or his predecessor. This was no time, Dewey told audiences, "for threats or recriminations."

The mantra on the Dewey campaign train was, Smith says, "avoid controversy...don't let Truman get under Dewey's skin." A Roper poll in early October showed voters believed Dewey to be "dignified," "efficient," "sincere," and "clean," with Dewey aides unable to realize this was pollster language for politically dull. The Deweyites were soothed at knowing a full 25% blamed Truman for mudslinging, with 16% saying the President was always doubletalking. A mere 4% said they were inspired by what is now viewed as an icon of campaign history -- Truman's famous whistle stop campaigning from the back of a train. When Truman, without consulting Secretary of State George Marshall, abruptly sent a pal, Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson, to Moscow on what Smith terms a "bizarre diplomatic venture," word leaked to the media of the day, which responded with ferocious criticism. While Dewey privately was appalled at Truman's action, calling it a "tragic blunder," he refused to go public with his criticisms. Unity was the Dewey theme, and trying to attack Truman on his Russian policy was not a picture of unity. Over and over this sentiment was reinforced by Dewey's staff. Said one Dewey aide who vehemently disagreed with the strategy, Dewey was being told "don't get nasty, keep cool, don't make any mistakes and you've got it won."

Truman, of course, had another idea of how to run a presidential campaign altogether. Relentlessly boisterous, he used every opportunity to tear into Dewey, ridiculing the idea of "unity." Ironically, says Smith, it was Truman who behaved as the outsider and Dewey who played the role of the above-the-fray incumbent. Truman went after Dewey as the "chief prosecutor" of the sainted FDR's New Deal. Dewey, Truman sneered, was lying in wait to do "a real hatchet job" on popular New Deal programs. He accused Dewey of wanting to take from the poor to give to the rich, of being the kind of guy who was so sneaky about his intentions he was "the candidate in sneakers." Over and over and over again Truman mocked Dewey, made fun of him, scored points off of him by scorning the press that was openly speculating that the only job Truman could get after losing to Dewey would be as the vice president of an insurance company.

IN THE END, OF COURSE, the nation awoke to find that the spirited Truman had won. The dignified, efficient, and sincere Dewey, who insisted on running a "unity" campaign, was stunned to find himself on the losing end of a 303-189 Electoral College vote to the man once disdained as a "failed haberdasher." Truman had a new nickname forever after that campaign: "Give'em hell Harry."

Make no mistake. Senator Barack Obama did not get to this point in his life by acting like the Thomas E. Dewey of 1948. He may make a brief nod to McCain's military heroism, but it is no accident that Obama-surrogate General Wesley Clark disses that record as making McCain unfit to be commander-in-chief. For anyone to believe something like this happens on its own there is a bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you. Obama will go after the 71-year old Senator with all the verbal gusto of Harry Truman, as he has already done with cracks that McCain wants "George Bush's third term," blaming McCain for everything from gas prices to the floods in Iowa and the Midwest. If ever there is a potential irony in the 2008 campaign, it is that John McCain, he of the legendary Trumanesque explosive temper and barracks style stories, a real-deal fighter pilot, could turn himself into the new Dewey. Bland, courteous, sonorous, and dull.

Why would he ever do such a thing? Because John McCain's political career is not about a passionately held political philosophy that makes presenting sharp differences an easy thing for him to do. Even if done with a Reaganesque smile and nod of the head. John McCain's campaign, very much like the life of the candidate himself, is about a deeply passionate sense of personal honor. This is, as any Boy Scout will attest, a good and great thing.

But as Thomas E. Dewey discovered sixty years ago, however well intentioned, it will take more than honor to be elected president. Or to serve as president.

Lots more.

Jeffrey Lord is the creator, co-founder and CEO of QubeTV, a conservative online video site. A Reagan White House political director and author, he writes from Pennsylvania.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.