Although the presidential election of 1944 placed FDR in the White House for an unprecedented fourth term, historical memory of the election itself has changed. Today most people assume that FDR’s reelection was assured. Yet, as the new book FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 reveals, neither the outcome of the campaign nor even the choice of candidates was assured. On this 67th anniversary of the election, I talked with author David M. Jordan to learn more about the fascinating campaign between FDR and Dewey.
I believe that the historical memory of FDR as a candidate who never lost is part of it—“how could FDR even have a close election?”—and the fact that it was very much a part of the war and the war effort. Also perhaps the fact that Dewey lost again four years later tends to lower him in the historical memory.
What were the reasons that the election was so close?
The country seemed to be trending toward more conservatism and the liberalism of the New Deal was fading as the economy improved. A lot of folks were also unhappy with the government-imposed restrictions of the war effort, and the rumors about Roosevelt’s health had some effect, as did all the Communism talk by the Republicans. And, while it didn’t affect the electoral college vote, FDR’s popular vote in the South went down, as the Democratic strength in the South started on its way down.
What is one of the most interesting aspects of the election?
The most interesting aspect of the election in my eyes was the struggle for the selection of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee: the down-grading of Wallace, the push for Byrnes and others, the reluctance of Truman, and, most of all, the “hands-off” and sometimes duplicitous attitude of Roosevelt.
In the preface, you write about some of your childhood recollections of this presidential election. What is your most vivid memory from that time?
What I remember most is my mother’s constant talk about how bad FDR was. I also have a vivid memory of going to my local barber shop and, while waiting, picking up and reading LIFE magazine and a feature on Senate races across the country; I particularly recall reading about Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts and Wayne Morse of Oregon.
FDR’s personal physician made misleading statements about the president’s health to keep the public in the dark about the seriousness of his condition. Do you think it’s possible to keep this kind of information a secret today?
No, I think today’s media would never stand for something like what Dr. McIntire did. Even then, the reporters could see that Roosevelt looked a lot different from before and they felt that there was something they weren’t being told, but they had nowhere else to turn. Today, even if the mainstream media were to go along with some kind of a cover-up, all those magazines that turn up next to the supermarket check-out lines would have a field day with the president’s health secrets.
How did Dewey, who has been described as “cold,” “humorless,” and having “little natural political endowment,” end up securing the 1944 Republican nomination?
The main reason he got it was the fact that Republican politicians across the country felt that Dewey was the only one who could carry New York State against Roosevelt. They looked at what he had done in the 1938 and 1942 statewide elections and they figured he had a good chance of carrying NY (as well as the other eastern states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, etc.). Most of them liked Bricker much better than Dewey, but they didn’t think Bricker had any real chance to crack the eastern-states bloc. And, of course, Dewey had very persuasive agents like Brownell and Jaeckle going around the country pushing his (invisible) candidacy and getting delegates lined up.
What were some new or surprising facts you learned while doing research for your book?
I never knew about Willkie and the Wisconsin primary until I started on the book or the Warren VP-boom that he scuttled or the struggle to permit some sort of military voting.
How long did it take you to complete the research for the book?
Looking back, I would say it was some six or seven years, with my first research trip to Notre Dame to go through the Frank Walker papers.
In addition to this book, you’ve also written several others on a range of topics, including politics, history, and sports. Are you working on any other books? What will the next one be about?
The publisher of my 2001 history of the Philadelphia Phillies, Occasional Glory, has me doing a second edition, bringing it up to date through 2011. I have also started a history of the Athletics franchise from coast to coast, from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Oakland. And I’ve been giving thought to my next non-baseball work.