Shirley Chisolm for President, 1972
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1932: New York's great depression fighter
Al Smith even lost his home state of New York in 1928, but his friend and colleague, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former state senator, assistant secretary of the Navy, vice presidential candidate (in 1920), and distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, was elected governor. FDR proved an exceptionally capable governor, creating the nation's first state office to combat the Depression which settled onto the country after the stock market plunged in October 1929.
Hoover took limited steps at the federal level, including a program to make loans to sagging companies, but his measures were totally inadequate. Joblessness and despair rose. Hoover seemed indifferent. "Nobody is actually starving," the president told journalists. "The hobos, for example, are better fed than they have ever been." Homeless people lived in cardboard and tarpaper shacks dubbed "Hoovervilles." Hoover was re-nominated by his party but had no chance of winning.
Al Smith sought the Democratic nomination, arguing that Hoover's disastrous policies vindicated his progressive vision back in 1928. But Democrats turned to Roosevelt, an optimistic and capable leader who inspired confidence. FDR flew to Chicago to accept the nomination in person, something no other candidate had ever done. "I pledge to you...a New Deal for the American people" he told the convention.
The slogan "New Deal" stuck. FDR called for novel government methods to meet the unprecedented crisis but he was un-specific and some of his pledges, e.g., reducing federal spending, seemed outright conservative (and proved impossible to carry out). But his call for government action struck a chord among Americans weary of the Depression and Washington's seeming indifference. "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation," FDR said. "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Voters liked that can-do spirit. FDR carried all but six states.
1936: The New Deal endorsed
Roosevelt pushed through a dramatic array of "New Deal" reform measures in his first four years as president, including the National Recovery Act to help revive business; the Agricultural Adjustment Act to stimulate agricultural production; the Public Works Act to provide federal support for public highway and other public works projects; the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide jobs in reforesting; and other initiatives. As the economy slowly began to revive, he enacted still more reforms, including the Social Security Act in 1935. He proved to be a masterful leader who built confidence and support, even among potential opponents. When he needed a break from Washington, he travelled to his country home in Hyde Park, New York, which became almost an adjunct White House.
Easily re-nominated in 1936, FDR, a master campaigner, promised to extend and consolidate the New Deal. He denounced the Republicans as front men for "economic royalists," entrenched banking and business interests that had brought on the Depression and, given the chance, would root out the gains the New Deal had made for the American people. His administration had been struggling with "business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism [and] war profiteering," he told an enthusiastic crowd at New York's Madison Square Garden near the end of the campaign. "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome that hatred."
Republicans had been challenged to find anyone willing to take Roosevelt on. They nominated Kansas Governor Alfred Landon, a lackluster, somewhat reluctant candidate. Landon actually agreed with much of the New Deal but dutifully attacked it for threatening American institutions, concentrating too much power in Washington, profligate spending, and excessive regulation. Sensing a need for a dramatic issue to energize his campaign, he called the Social Security law "unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted, and wastefully financed," and a "glaring example of [New Deal] bungling and waste." He added that "It assumes that Americans are irresponsible [and] that old-age pensions are necessary because Americans lack the foresight to provide for their old age." Landon's appeal fell flat. FDR carried every state except Maine and Vermont.
1940: Sticking with proven leadership
By 1940, the depression was lifting and public attention turned toward the situation in Europe where war was raging and America's traditional allies, the British and French, were struggling against the onslaught of Nazi Germany. Aggression by Japanese imperial forces in the Far East was another rising concern. President Roosevelt searched for ways to assist the British in particular, but without violating U.S. laws which pledged the nation to neutrality. The Democrats, breaking with a tradition stretching back to George Washington of two-term limits for a president, nominated FDR for a third term. Roosevelt, like Wilson in 1916, stressed both preparedness and a commitment to peace. In one campaign speech, he assured parents that "your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."
Republicans were discouraged -- people liked FDR's domestic policies, which seemed at last to be vanquishing the remnants of the Depression, and saw him as a strong leader needed at a time of international crisis. Party leaders, turning away from experienced politicians who could be tarred as obstructionists for their steadfast opposition to FDR's popular policies, sought a new, fresh candidate without Washington connections. They found him in Wendell Willkie, a public-utilities executive who had come to prominence as a leader in the fight against the Tennessee Valley Authority, a New Deal initiative for flood control and electricity generation in that region.
Willkie had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1939. He proved to be a magnetic, eloquent campaigner, critical of some New Deal measures but promising to keep most of it in tact if he were elected. He was mostly supportive of FDR's measured approach to international issues, breaking with Republican isolationists and conceding that the U.S. might have to intervene to stop aggression. But Democrats hammered at his lack of government experience, countering the Republican criticism of FDR seeking a third term with the chant "Better a Third Termer Than a Third Rater!" On Election Day, Willkie cut into FDR's 1932 and 1936 landslide majorities but lost by a sizeable margin. The next year, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. Willkie supported the president's wartime strategies and occasionally served as an informal international envoy for the administration.
1944: New York's capable new governor vs. the champ
Republican Thomas E. Dewey, who had made his reputation as a district attorney prosecuting organized crime figures in the 1930s and early '40s, was elected Governor of New York in 1942. Two years later, he sought the presidency. Dewey campaigned on his executive record -- New York had a budget surplus and the governor was developing plans for postwar business and veterans' benefits.
President Roosevelt seemed tired. He had lost weight and looked haggard. There were rumors that his health was failing. The war effort had gone well -- the allies invaded France on June 6, 1944, just as Dewey's campaign was ramping up -- but the war had spawned over 150 bureaus, many duplicative, adding to the image of too much government in Washington. The Republican platform advocated streamlined, cheaper, and more efficient government after the war. Four more years of FDR's policies, the platform warned, "would centralize all power in the President, and would daily subject every citizen to regulation by his henchman; and this country would remain a Republic only in name."
Dewey, the capable, conservative executive, seemed tailor-made for the job. After twelve years in power, the New Deal had grown "old and tired and quarrelsome," the administration racked by "wrangling, bungling, and confusion." Dewey was vague on his plans for a post-war world but promised to shrink the federal government. Otherwise, "we may slip by gradual stages into complete government regulation of every aspect of our lives," he warned.
Dewey was careful and systematic but also stiff, unexciting, and not very personable. FDR rekindled the likeability and trust that Americans had valued for so long. In a September speech, he went after a Republican accusation that the Navy had been ordered to rescue the president's dog, Fala, from the Aleutian Islands after a presidential trip there. "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons," the president said at a campaign rally. "No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them."
Democrats piled on: Dewey lacked international experience and knew how to attack and tear down but had little constructive vision for the future. Dewey's final speech -- "let us resolve to put aside these years of cynicism and conflict...to throw off the nightmare of past years and breathe once more the atmosphere of peace and good will" -- did little to inspire confidence. FDR was the only president many Americans had ever known. He had led the nation through the Depression and now seemed close to leading it to victory in war. FDR won overwhelmingly, with 391 to 140 electoral votes.
1948: New York's accomplished but overconfident governor
Apprehension about FDR's health in 1944 were providential. In April 1945, the president died and was succeeded by Vice President Harry Truman, who had been a Senator from Missouri. Truman was ill prepared for the presidency. FDR had not told him about the secret project to develop an atomic bomb, which Truman, once he understood its awesome destructive power, decided to use against the Japanese to end the war in August 1945.
The Truman administration was beset by allegations of mismanagement. It was struggling to deal with the onset of the Cold War and the menace of communism, particularly in eastern Europe. Truman was nominated for a full term as president but his Democratic party was less than optimistic. Liberals thought him too conservative and established their own Progressive Party (the same name but no relation to TR's 1912 group) and nominated Henry A. Wallace, FDR's vice president from 1940 to 1944, to run for president. Many southern Democrats disliked Truman's civil rights positions and formed the States' Rights Democratic Party, dubbed the "Dixiecrats," and nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president. Truman's prospects looked dim.
Dewey, re-elected governor in 1946, by contrast, looked stronger than ever. He had maintained New York's budget surplus, signed the nation's first state civil rights bill, initiated the New York State Thruway, established the State Commerce Department to stimulate the post-war economy, and launched the State University of New York. The Republicans decided he deserved another shot at the presidency. As a campaigner, though, he proved to be overconfident (he called his campaign train the Victory Special) and vague, admitting he had "no easy answers" and warning that "the road to a happy future is likely to be pretty rocky."
But Truman, defiant and feisty, launched a vigorous campaign. He went constantly on the attack, warned that the country must not go backwards and that Dewey's election would usher in a return to the vicious cycle of boom and bust. Republicans would undermine labor unions and strengthen entrenched monopolies that threatened free government. The president assailed the "silent and cunning" Republicans who controlled Congress and had "a dangerous lust for power and privilege," and tied Dewey to "this Republican gang" who would "give tax relief to the rich at the expense of the poor" and do "a real hatchet job" on the advances brought under the New Deal.
On the other hand, for their inaction on initiatives he favored, the president was able to denounce the "do-nothing Congress" controlled by Dewey's party. Truman characterized Wallace and Thurmond as extremists on the left and right, respectively, warning that voting for them would just help the Republicans. Dewey continued his dignified campaign, confident of success. Truman won increasing support by being transparent, warmhearted, and genuine. The polls were close. In fact, the Chicago Tribune, buying into Governor Dewey's confident stance, carried a headline of "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" in its early editions the day after the election. But on Election Day, Truman had surged, winning by more than two million votes and an Electoral College margin of 303 to 189. Another New Yorker had gone down to defeat.
Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.