Review: Whistle stop : how … saved the presidency of Harry Truman

Whistle Stop book cover

Whistle stop : how 31,000 miles of train travel, 352 speeches, and a little Midwest gumption saved the presidency of Harry Truman

Harry Truman’s Whistle Stop Tour is part of American lore that I have heard about all my life but never, even while earning a degree in history, learned much about. Philip White’s book, “Whistle stop : how 31,000 miles of train travel, 352 speeches, and a little Midwest gumption saved the presidency of Harry Truman” remedied that. Philip White, who writes for the Huffington Post and several magazines, print and online, does a good job of telling the story. Truman was so far back in the polls that New York’s Governor Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate, ran a low key and low energy campaign. The Democrats were split, Truman gained the nomination at a stormy convention only after several votes. Liberal and conservatives split away from the main party to run their own candidates. Truman’s name was not even on the ballot is one southern state.
We know how the story ends, with Harry Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the totally incorrect headline, “Dewey defeats Truman!”. How he turned it around is an important lesson in politics, he made it personal. Armed with a secret weapon, a six man research team that fed him data about every little town he would speak in and let every voter that came to hear him see that he shared their concerns. There were lucky breaks along the way, an encounter with an unruly horse that documented his farmer background as surely as his natty suits proved his history as a small businessman. There were a few gifts from the GOP that helped him win the election and prove that he belonged in the White House.
Although the book is not a scholarly work, many of the sources cited are secondary works, the book gives a good picture of the politics of the time. In fact you get the idea that, except for the technology, not much has changed. White even spends the last chapter pointing out the lessons todays parties could learn from the Truman / Dewey election. It was an interesting addition but the parallels are clear without having them pointed out to anyone that pays attention to the news. Truman and Dewey were names from history but Hubert Humphrey and Clark Clifford were names I remember, hearing about their early careers helped connect the Truman – Dewey election to my time. Over all it is a fun and informative book that offers a look at a unique and important event in the history of the United States.

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Filed under Book review, History, Politics

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