Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Riding the Rails: Richard Rovere and the 1948 Presidential Campaign

In 1936, during his senior year at Bard College, Richard Halworth Rovere, a supporter then of Earl Browder, leader of the Communist Party of the USA, had the opportunity to witness a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ended his campaign with an appearance at the Nelson House in Poughkeepsie, New York. Twelve years later, now a staff writer with The New Yorker, Rovere traveled across the country with Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, on his whistle stop campaign against Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey.

Prior to joining Truman on what he called a “fast-moving road carnival,” Rovere, who also traveled for a time on Dewey’s campaign train, had taken a break from The New Yorker to write a series of articles for Harper’s magazine on the leading presidential contenders for 1948, including “the beleaguered” Truman, as well as Republican senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose “party affiliation, if any, was unknown, though both Democrats and Republicans were busy courting him,” recalled Rovere.

Rovere’s editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn, had grudgingly agreed that upon his return to the magazine he could spend time on the presidential campaign trains and report on life aboard them. “The magazine had never done anything of the sort before, and, although I had written quite a bit about national politics, neither had I,” Rovere recalled in his autobiography, Final Reports. In September he climbed aboard the Truman train at Washington, DC’s Union Station, staying on it as it made its way to Los Angeles, where he picked up the Dewey train, disembarking in Missoula, Montana, and taking the Olympian Hiawatha Milwaukee line for his home in Dutchess County, New York. “This turned out to be the last cross-country railroad tour of presidential candidates,” he noted. Calling his experience “a supreme adventure,” Rovere produced two articles for The New Yorker about what he observed under the title “Letter From a Campaign Train,” a precursor to the “Letter from Washington” department he would go on to write for the magazine from December 1948 until his death on November 23, 1979.

Today, more than seventy years after the 1948 election, Rovere’s pieces offer a tantalizing snapshot of old-fashioned presidential politics, and insight into how each candidate approached the American voter in a campaign that produced one of the most shocking outcomes in the country’s political history. It was a time when the railroads were still “proud and competitive,” Rovere recalled, showing off the best of their equipment and service personnel on the campaign trains. And while, from a politician’s viewpoint, little was lost when the candidates switched to travel by airplane and getting their message across via television, from “a writer’s point of view,” observed Rovere, “much was lost.”

Rovere remembered there being about fifty reporters during his time on the Truman train, while approximately eighty traveled with Dewey. “Between stops, on the long hauls over the plains, the prairies, and the mountains, we had ample time to converse with the politicians and ample time to write,” he said. Rovere had a compartment to himself  (Car 1, Compartment 1), and kept the upper berth down for sleeping and the occasional nap. “Hotels are more comfortable and offer better facilities for bathing and the like, but this seemed to me a civilized, and certainly a leisurely, way of getting on with the business at hand,” he said.

The two campaigns were polar opposites—with Truman’s effort “an old-fashioned and rather sloppy operation, with schedules often fouled up and plans often mislaid,” Rovere remembered. Life could be rugged traveling with the president. He wrote:

"If you wanted anything laundered, you did it yourself, in a Pullman basin. When you detrained anywhere for an overnight stay, it was every man for himself. You carried your duffel [bag] and scrabbled for your food. If a man was such a slave to duty that he felt obliged to hear what the President said in his back-platform address, he had to climb down off the train, run to the rear end, mingle with the crowd, and listen. Often, this was a hazardous undertaking, for the President was given to speaking late at night to crowds precariously assembled on sections of roadbed built up fifteen or twenty feet above the surrounding land. The natives knew the contours of the ground, but the reporters did not, and more than one of them tumbled down a cindery embankment."

None of those inconveniences troubled the reporters on Dewey's train. On overnight stops the Dewey organization a reporter's luggage would magically vanish from his berth, Rovere noted, and could be found waiting for him in the hotel room he had been assigned. "Good Republican caterers have hot coffee and thick roast-beef sandwiches waiting in the press rooms at every stopover," he remembered. "Laundries are alerted a thousand miles ahead to be ready to turn out heavy loads in a few hours." Also, reporters had no need to attempt the dangerous task of actually leaving the train to hear Dewey's speeches, as most of the train had been wired for sound and the candidate's words were carried for all to hear over the public-address system.

The Republican train (“like those in Mussolini’s Italy,” Rovere slyly said) ran on schedule, but he found its efficiency monotonous. Although he tried to be nonpolitical in his dispatches, Rovere enjoyed life aboard the president’s train “more than life on his rival’s.” (Life in the Truman train was like life in the back rooms at a local Democratic district headquarters, Rovere noted, while life on with Dewey was like life in a Greenwich, Connecticut, country club.) The reporter enjoyed the Truman train’s conviviality—something missing when he traveled with Dewey. Truman’s train had a twenty-four-hour poker game (seven-card stud) going on in the staff car, with the president sitting in from time to time, while the favorite card game on Dewey’s train was bridge. The drink of choice for the Truman train, when Rovere was on it, was the Kentucky bourbon highball, “before, during, and after meals.” Martinis and Manhattans were in vogue on Dewey’s train.

Rovere described Dewey's 
train as “slick and snappy,” compared to the “good-natured slovenliness” of the Truman campaign. The GOP candidate’s speeches were “as smooth and glossy as chromium,” but devoid of many policy commitments. Rovere believed Dewey’s remarks (“Your future lies ahead of you”) had been influenced by what could be found every issue in the Reader’s Digest. “They are full of the good cheer, the defiant optimism, the inspirational tone, and the breathtaking simplification that have made that magazine so popular,” he wrote in The New Yorker. For his speeches, the Republican candidate came onstage seemingly out of nowhere, Rovere said, with his arms outstretched to both "embrace the crowd and gather in the applause" from the crowd. "Dewey doesn't seem to walk; he coasts out like a man who has been mounted on casters and give a tremendous shove from behind," wrote Rovere. "However it is done, he rouses the crowd to a peak of excitement and enthusiasm, and he has to wait an agreeably long while for the racket to die down."

Truman’s train would make sometimes make stops at fourteen to fifteen different places, often staying for no more than ten or twelve minutes and occasionally in and out of a town within five or six minutes. “Anywhere between twenty-five and several hundred people would gather behind the President’s car (the armored Ferdinand Magellan, from which Roosevelt had often campaigned), and the President—a trim, perky figure materializing on the back platform through a parted blue-velvet curtain—would make a short speech, working in some allusions to local industries, problems, and personalities,” noted Rovere. From time to time Truman stumbled giving his prepared remarks, talking about “Republican mothbags” when he supposed to be saying “Republican mossbacks.”

As a rule, Rovere believed that Truman played better in small towns than in large ones, and doing better with off-the-cuff remarks rather than prepared speeches. “When he speaks without a script . . . he inflicts considerable damage on the English language, but anything he does on his own is not one-tenth as deplorable as what his ghostwriters do for him,” said Rovere. The journalist discovered that Truman had a remarkable and detailed knowledge of the small towns he visited. “The impression one gets is that he has acquired, in his sixty-four years, a spoonful or two of information about every community west of the Mississippi [River] and about a good many of those east of it,” Rovere said.

The crowds that gathered to greet the president, both in small and large towns, responded to his speeches with respect, but little enthusiasm, according to Rovere’s reports. Nothing the reporter heard Truman say between Washington, DC, and Los Angeles drew “more than a spot of polite applause. Nobody stomps, shouts, or whistles for Truman.” The decibel count for Truman’s remarks were about the same as it would be, Rovere wrote, for “a missionary who has just delivered a mildly encourage report on the inroads being made against heathenism in Northern Rhodesia.”

The most effective part of Truman’s train campaign came when he introduced his daughter, Margaret, to the crowd. “Margaret’s entrance comes closer than anything else to bringing down the house,” Rovere said. With the festivities ended, a railroad official—usually a vice president of the line, who sat at a telephone in the car ahead of the president’s, called the locomotive engineer, fifteen cars, or a quarter of a mile down the track, and told him to get under way. As the train pulled away, the Truman family would wave goodbye to the crowd. Traveling with the president, Rovere, unaware as yet of what would happen on election day 1948, had the feeling that Americans who saw Truman and heard him “at his best would be willing to give him just about anything he wants except the Presidency.”

Rovere ended his report from the Dewey train with comments from a political adviser who had traveled with one of the trains (he did not say which one) questioning if such efforts changed the minds of any voters. “Hell’s bells!” Rovere quoted the adviser. “Everybody knows that we don’t go through all this business to win friends or influence people. We go through it to keep the friends we’ve already got.” The best way to keep a party organization together, the adviser told the reporter, is “to have the big men in the party get out and say nice things to the little men. I don’t care which party it is. . . . If you think party organizations are not a good and necessary thing in a democracy, then you can write all this off as a lot of nonsense. If you think they’re important, then you can’t deny the usefulness of these trips.” Stated, in those terms, Rovere noted, the "question is a weighty one."