The strange case of Mitt Romney’s multiple 1948 personalities

David Pietrusza Author, "Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography"
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It is a rare Midwestern morning when a major candidate can conjure up to comparisons to three candidates from a single past presidential election.

But Mitt Romney’s bizarre recent Ford Field appearance somehow managed to remind historians of not one, not two, but three major contenders in 1948’s historic presidential contest: the over-confident Thomas E. Dewey, the scrappy Harry S. Truman and the dour conservative Robert A. Taft.

Now, general Mitt Romney-Tom Dewey comparisons are nothing new. Both Romney and Dewey served as moderate-to-liberal Eastern Republican governors. Both featured bland, poll-driven messages. Both had repeatedly sought the presidency (Dewey in 1940, 1944 and 1948). Both were born in Michigan but headed east for greener pastures.

But Romney’s ill-considered address to the 98 percent-empty Ford Field also recalls the early, gaffe-prone days of Harry Truman’s re-election efforts. Before “Give ’em Hell” Harry hit his stride in autumn 1948, he had embarked on a spring 1948 test-drive of his “whistlestop” technique. Early results proved mixed at best, and Truman hit his low point in early June at Omaha’s Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards) Coliseum. Truman’s old army crony Ed McKim, who had arranged the session, forgot to actually turn out a crowd, and the embarrassed Truman delivered a major farm policy address to an eerily vacant auditorium. Truman alibied that his address was aimed not at the folks in Omaha but at a larger national radio audience. That may (or may not) have been true. But the event made Truman’s already foundering campaign look even more hapless, as Life magazine gleefully featured a half-page shot of the “acres of empty seats” greeting the embattled chief executive.

And then again, there were Romney’s message problems at Ford Field. There to unveil a major economic address, the former Massachusetts governor merely reinforced his propensity to highlight his personal wealth — and his insensitivity to those in need — as he gratuitously informed listeners that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” Back in early 1948, Republican hopeful Senator Robert Taft had travelled to San Francisco, where he was greeted by questions as to what folks should do about high food prices. “Eat less meat and eat less extravagantly,” the tart Taft responded.

It was one thing, however, for Romney to talk about cars in Michigan. That comes naturally to Michiganders, though only a small minority in Gross Pointe or Bloomfield Hills actually own two Cadillacs — plus the Mustang and the pick-up truck that Mitt himself drives.

It was quite another matter, however, for Romney to continue his obsession with the Wolverine State’s trees. “This feels good, being back in Michigan,” Romney said at Ford Field. “The trees are the right height. The streets are just right.”

It was not the first — or even the second time — he had waxed poetic about the marvelous altitude of Michigan’s arboreal resources. “I was born and raised here. I love being in Michigan,” Romney exclaimed at a Troy, Michigan Polish-American cultural center back in November. “Everything seems right here. You know, I come back to Michigan; the trees are the right height. The grass is the right color for this time of year, kind of a brownish-greenish sort of thing. It just feels right.”

And on he rambled at Troy: “I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. There’s something very special here. The Great Lakes, but also all the little inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan. You know, we’ve been to Massachusetts. I love the ocean, too, I do love the ocean, but there’s something special about lakes, where you don’t get salt on you after you’ve been swimming, where there’s no seaweed, where you don’t have to worry about things eating you in the water.”

Which brings us full circle back to Mitt’s fellow Michigander, Thomas Edmund Dewey.

In 1948, the highly “electable” Dewey eschewed hard issues and tough talk to pin his hopes on such mushy themes as “unity” and “efficiency.”

When it was all over — and scrappy Harry Truman had dispatched Dewey to the dustbin of GOP history — the Louisville Courier-Journal had this to say about that year’s disastrous Republican campaign: “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.”

It looks like the Courier-Journal got it wrong.

There is simply no limit to how inept a major presidential candidate can be.

Not even the height of a Michigan tree.

David Pietrusza (davidpietrusza.com) is the author of Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America and Silent Cal’s Almanack: The Homespun Wit & Wisdom of Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge.