I happened to read an article in USA Today yesterday comparing Thomas Dewey, the Republican Party’s 1948 presidential nominee, to Mitt Romney. The gist of the article seemed to be that Romney ran the risk of losing the election just like Dewey did. For those who have not read about the 1948 presidential election, I will provide a brief recap. At the fairly young age of forty-six, Dewey became the Republican Party nominee for the second time. Having lost four years prior in an aggressive campaign against highly popular incumbent, Franklin Roosevelt, Dewey became convinced that he was guaranteed to beat the less popular Truman as long as he avoided making any big mistakes. Thus, he tried to avoid taking many firm positions on issues during the election. A newspaper editor in Louisville remarked that, “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.” Dewey played a role in putting forth the Republican Party platform, which included a number of leftist political stances. The platform supported government health programs, continuation and expansion of Social Security, and the right of workers to collective bargaining. Statements on racial issues included, “Constant and effective insistence on the personal dignity of the individual, and his right to complete justice without regard to race, creed or color, is a fundamental American principle,” as well as opposition to the poll tax and support for federal workplace protection and anti-lynching laws. Since the Republicans who controlled Congress tended to be more conservative than Dewey and other GOP members who would later be termed “Rockefeller Republicans,” Truman took the opportunity to castigate said Congressional Republicans for failing to pass their own party’s legislation. In the end, Truman shocked the nation by managing to win the election and ended up being photographed while happily holding a newspaper with the incorrect and infamous headline, Dewey Defeats Truman. I can understand why people see similarities between Dewey and Romney. Both men were Michigan natives who became governors in the Northeast and beat more conservative opponents in the primaries. Both men were also perceived as cold and stuck up. However, I think that it is hugely insulting to Thomas Dewey to compare him to Mitt Romney. Romney’s civil rights policies are terrible. He favors a constitutional amendment to deny gay people the right to marry and opposes a federal law to prohibit discrimination in the workplace. I have already discussed Dewey’s support for a liberal Republican Party platform on civil rights. When running in the 1939 New York gubernatorial election, Dewey stated that he would rather lose the election than pander to racist voters. As governor, he signed the first state law in the history of the United States to ban workplace discrimination on account of race. In the 1944 presidential election, when he was much more willing to publicly give his views on controversial subjects, Dewey called for extending New York’s anti-discrimination law to the whole country and ending segregation in the military. He also supported addressing the exclusion of African Americans from Social Security rolls by extending benefits to cover domestic servants and farmers, who made up half the country’s black work force in 1944. I find it quite likely that, had Dewey been elected president, his record on equal rights could have surpassed any president who came before him. Of course, Harry Truman was stronger on civil rights than any president since at least Benjamin Harrison. However, his civil rights record was not without serious warts. His executive order to desegregate the military was admirable, and I wish that President Obama had, in addition to working to pass legislation ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” issued an executive order preventing gay soldiers from being discharged. However, it must be noted that Harry Truman waited 1201 days into his presidency before issuing said executive order. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ended 973 days into Barack Obama’s presidency. So it took Barack Obama significantly less time to pass a bill allowing gay people to serve openly in the military than it took for Harry Truman to issue an executive order ending racial segregation in the military! Throughout his adult life, Truman privately used the n word to refer to African Americans. In his later years, the former president criticized the civil disobedience of civil rights activists, saying that they had not been spanked enough as children and saying that Southern police officers should be given paddles to hit them with. Equally disturbing, he stated that interracial marriage was a sin and criticized both the white Northern abolitionists of the past and the white Northerners participating in the Civil Rights Movement as outside agitators who caused trouble. Thus, I would argue that if one compares their civil rights records, Dewey indeed defeats Truman. Dewey can also be admired for his stance in favor of civil liberties. By the time he ran for president in 1948, the Cold War had begun and with it an anti-Communist craze. Dewey courageously opposed outlawing the Communist Party. We will never know for sure what a Dewey presidency would have been like. But I can all but guarantee it would have been far superior to a Romney administration.
Postscript: Has anyone besides me noticed that people with the last name “Dewey” tend to be champions of racial equality and free speech? John Dewey, better known for his contributions to education, helped found the NAACP and the American Federation of Negro College Students and was also a member of the ACLU.