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Jewish World Review July 26, 2000 / 23 Tamuz, 5760

Roger Simon

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If you believe those polls ... -- IF YOU BELIEVE the polls, Al Gore has managed to narrow the gap between himself and George W. Bush, but the Gore campaign is prepared for Bush to post another double-digit lead after the Republican Convention.

They say they don't care, and they like to point to 1948 as an example of why.

In 1948, Harry Truman was behind in every poll in the nation and by double digits. At the end of March, the Gallup Poll showed Truman not only being trounced by Thomas Dewey, but also by Harold Stassen.

The jokes making the rounds in Washington were "I wonder what Truman would do if he were alive?" and "to err is Truman."

One newspaper constantly referred to him as "Thruman."

The Democrats had held the White House for 16 years (the longest previous stretch since the Civil War for any party had been eight years), and the Democrats had also lost both houses of Congress in 1946.

And except for 1876 every time a party had lost control of Congress it lost the presidential election two years later.

Truman's own party was dejected. When Truman gave his State of the Union speech in January, he paused seven times for applause that did not come.

And two of Franklin Roosevelt's sons, joined by big city party bosses and labor leaders, were openly calling on Democrats to dump Truman and draft Dwight D. Eisenhower.

(They didn't know if Eisenhower was a Democrat or not, and they didn't care. Some wanted a "national unity" ticket headed by Eisenhower as the nominee of both the Democrats and Republicans. They were that eager to dump Truman.)

If that were not trouble enough, Truman was vastly unpopular for something almost everybody has forgotten about today: Truman wanted to add a balcony on the second floor of the south face of the White House.

He hated the awnings that had hung there for 40 years or more, and when he was down at the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson, he noticed a lot of buildings had second floor balconies. According to Truman's biographer, David McCullough, the Washington Star sarcastically "expressed gratitude that the president had never seen the Taj Mahal. ..."

Truman announced plans to go ahead and build the balcony even though the federal commission in charge of public facades rejected the plan and the Republican Congress refused to fund it.

Truman had saved enough money out of his household account to pay for the balcony himself (it cost a little more than $16,000), and he went ahead and built it.

It was the first big change in the outside of the building since Andrew Jackson had added the North Portico. Republicans dubbed Truman "Back Porch Harry" and the public was aghast that Truman had made a major change in a house he would not be occupying for much longer.

To add to his troubles, on the right a group of Southern Democrats led by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond broke away from the party over civil rights. Truman wanted major civil rights reform and the Dixiecrats, as they became known, essentially wanted white supremacy, though they claimed they only wanted "states' rights." Meanwhile, a second group on the left headed by FDR's second vice president, Henry Wallace, also broke away to form the Progressive Party and to champion better relations with Russia, which was blockading Berlin at the time.

Both, it was assumed, would drain votes away from Truman.

There was also a scandal involving those close to the president making fortunes in commodities trading and the knotty problem of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

No wonder then when Newsweek took a poll three weeks before Election Day of the 50 top political reporters in America, every one predicted a Dewey victory.

Truman's top political aide, Clark Clifford, hopped off the Truman campaign train to buy a copy of the magazine, read the article and quickly hid it under his coat.

But Truman had been watching Clifford from the train window and demanded to see the issue. Clifford handed it over and Truman read it and put the magazine aside.

"I know every one of these 50 fellows," Truman said. "There isn't one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole."

And you know what? Truman turned out to be right.

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