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Thursday, February 29, 2024

February 29, 2024: Leap Years: 1948

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]

On a couple significant election contexts beyond “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Don’t get me wrong—“Dewey Defeats Truman” was a unique historical moment, and the shot of a jubilant Truman holding a copy of that November 3rd Chicago Tribune is one of the more rightfully iconic 20th century photographs. The moment also reminds us of just how much American newspapers have always been affiliated with partisan politics: the Tribune was a solidily Republican-leaning paper with no love lost for the incumbent Democrat, and its choice to allow veteran political analyst Arthur Sears Henning’s electoral prediction to determine their next day’s front page (the paper went to press prior to the close of polls on the West coast) was no doubt due at least in part to editorial wishful thinking. It’s easy to decry the partisanship of contemporary newspapers and news media (for more on which see this post), but in truth that’s been part of their identity throughout American history.

But even if the Tribune had gotten its prediction right, the 1948 presidential election would still be a hugely significant one. For one thing, there was South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and his third-party run as a Dixiecrat (or, officially, States’ Rights Democrat). Few American histories have been more influential than the long, gradual realignment of politics, race, and region, a story that starts as far back as Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and extends right up to our present moment. Yet despite that century and a half long arc, the splintering of the Democratic Party at the 1948 national convention represents a striking and singular moment, a fulcrum on which those political and social realities permanently shifted. There were all sorts of complicating factors, not least Thurmond’s own secrets and hypocrises when it came to race—but at the broadest level, few election-year moments have echoed more dramatically than did the Dixiecrat revolt.

For another thing, both Truman and Dewey used the mass media in an unprecedented way in the campaign’s closing weeks. The two campaigns created short newsreel films that were played in movie theaters across the country, reach an estimated 65 million filmgoers each week. The first televised 1960 debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is often described as the first national political moment of the media age—or even as a moment that “changed the world”—and certainly its live broadcast to a national audience represented something new in American electoral politics. But since so much of politics in the media age has not been live, has instead comprised constructed and produced media images and narratives, it’s fair to say that Truman’s and Dewey’s competing movies likewise foreshadowed a great deal of what was to come in the subsequent half-century and more of elections.

Last leap year studying tomorrow,


PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?

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