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The Funeral Is Called Off

With the undertaker breathing down their necks, the Democrats come to life and promise to make it a fight.

The reports of the Democratic Party’s death, prevalent before the Philadelphia convention, appear now to have been somewhat exaggerated. A party in which the rank-and-file majority get their way on such a risky issue as civil rights against the opposition of their masters, is obviously not yet ready for embalming.

The Democrats came to Philadelphia as low in their minds as the Republicans were when they assembled for the Landon convention in 1936. There was not a hopeful delegate in a carload. They were licked, most of them thought, probably for eight years. The realistic ones have not changed their minds about the chances of immediate victory. But after last week, they do see a future—for the party and for the liberal elements in it especially.

For the first time in Democratic history, the South has been scorned. She has been given to understand that the party is willing to get along without her favors if necessary, that tantrums and sulking will no longer assure her of having her own way. And all decent Democrats feel the better for finally having taken a stand. The unsuccessful campaign to abandon Truman for either an Eisenhower or a Douglas provided a good practice session for 1952 and acquainted progressive Democrats in distant parts of the country with one another’s strengths and weaknesses as allies. The Democrats are stuck with an unpromising national ticket. But they can console themselves that they have a better than average platform, largely built by the liberals, and that their presidential candidate is showing a will-to-win that may, with luck, stave off a congressional Republican landslide, even if it fails to save the White House.

It is no thanks to labor, the New Dealers or the South that Harry Truman is the nominee for President. Until General Eisenhower definitely and finally closed the door on a Democratic draft just two days before the convention opened, these three groups continued to stand together, fairly firmly, against Truman. After that, further opposition was futile, but there were those in all three groups who refused to admit it. The Americans for Democratic Action, which had always preferred Justice Douglas to Eisenhower anyway, threw its whole energy into trying to hold the draft- Eisenhower coalition together around Douglas. The attempt was doomed. The South wouldn’t take Douglas, who had gone much further than Truman in trying to extend civil rights to all. The regular politicians who had been burned on Eisenhower would not make the same mistake twice. They refused to get behind Douglas unless he gave his word that he would run. And, worst of all, the Justice himself went back on his pre-convention pledge to the ADA to do nothing to hinder its efforts.

When it was clear that Douglas would not lead the opposition, Senator Claude Pepper of Florida made a brief appearance in the role of chief of the anti-Truman forces. But the elements of the old Roosevelt coalition that had gathered around Eisenhower earlier would not take Pepper either. Northern labor was suspicious of his position on race matters. The Southerners considered him much too progressive. The ADA liberals said he was too close to Henry Wallace on foreign policy. Pepper had to withdraw to avoid appearing ridiculous. To many, he seemed praiseworthy as the only progressive courageous enough to run even though he jeopardized his own personal position by doing so.

The Douglas incident proved, as the Vandenberg parallel had done three weeks before, that a reluctant candidate is worse than useless in modern politics. The whole anti-Truman campaign again proved the truth of the ancient aphorism that “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Truman had counted on just that, and he was right.

Bloody and beaten in the presidential fray, the ADA group turned en masse to the fight on the platform, where it had a base from which to work. Its vice chairman, Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis, was a member of the drafting subcommittee of the Committee on Platform, as was one of its California leaders, Mrs. Esther Murray. In turning to the platform, the ADA was joining the CIOPAC, which had voted, before the convention began, to concentrate as an organization on the labor and civil-rights section of that document and leave the presidential contest to the individual consciences of the CIO delegates themselves.

Senator Francis J. Myers (Pa.), chairman of the Full Resolutions Committee, and Senator Scott Lucas (Ill.), of thesubcommittee, both hoped to bring in a platform that would be acceptable to all factions of the convention. They had decided to bull through a demand for outright repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act as the party’s bid for labor support. But on civil rights, the Administration’s hope was for a statement as “inoffensive” as the 1944 plank on the subject, which made only general pledges.


After seven days and nights of bearings and heated meetings, the platform committee was ready to report. Humphrey and Mrs. Murray, together with former Representative Andrew Biemiller (Wis.), had tried but failed to get the full 108-man committee to accept their clearly spelled-out program on civil rights in place of the vaguer one offered by the majority of the drafting committee. So they prepared to take the fight to the convention floor.

The 100-odd ADA delegates and alternates and the CIO's 33 delegates and 20 alternates caucused and lobbied in their delegations. When Biemiller and Humphrey rose to present their case for a plank in complete accord with Truman’s civil-rights program, the way had been paved. The big-city leaders, informed that a showdown was coming, quickly decided that the liberal side of the argument was the only one that made political sense for them. By the time the clerk reached Illinois in the roll call, it was clear that the Democratic Party had entered a new era. By a vote of 651 1/2 to 582 1/2 the party declared its emancipation from the South.

The liberals had no cooperation from the Truman leadership in the civil-rights victory. Democratic National Chairman J. Howard McGrath held his home state of Rhode Island in line for the “compromise” proposal, against a strong plank. Senator Myers did his best to hold Pennsylvania too, and Frank Hague did the same for New Jersey. But CIO and Negro leaders were also working on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey delegations. In the showdown, these key states lined up with the liberals. The little politicians down in the delegations could feel which way the political wind was blowing even if the big shots couldn’t. New York bosses Ed Flynn and Paul Fitzpatrick threw their support behind the fight for a strong civil-rights plank from the beginning, and were of considerable help in leading the Pennsylvania votes away from Myers. Chicago boss Jake Arvey fought hard for the strong plank; Illinois voted “aye” 60 times. California, led by Jimmy Roosevelt and AFL chief Jack Shelley, was prepared to march onto the platform if the chair tried any funny business in connection with the vote on the Humphrey amendment.

Once it was accepted as polite to show scorn for the Southerners, the rank and file of delegates let themselves go. When Louisiana rose later that evening to nominate Earl K. Long, the volume of the boo’s startled even the boo-ers. Most of the delegates wanted to show just how fed up they were with all that the nomination represented.

The substitution of the strong civil-rights plank was the most sweeping change made in a Democratic platform since Repeal was written in on the floor at the 1932 convention. The rest of the lengthy program recommended by the Resolutions Committee was adopted without question. The committee had refused to include a states’-rights plank, but it had also destroyed a plank for federal control of the tidelands, in accordance with the wishes of the big oil companies whose voice was heard even inside the drafting committee through former Governor Dan Moody of Texas.

The State Department had done its best to get a Palestine plank that would return the party to the anti-Palestine position favored by Loy Henderson and Israel’s enemies among the career diplomats. Charles E. (“Chip”) Bohlen made a special trip to Philadelphia to bring the Department’s suggested draft on this question. When it readied the hands of the subcommittee, however, Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, former Senator Hugh Mitchell, of Washington, and Mayor Humphrey all quickly saw that the proposed policy would actually postpone recognition of Israel and hamstring revision of the arms embargo. They promptly opposed it. Truman, it turned out, had never seen the State Department draft, and rejected it when he did. Bohlen returned to Washington in defeat. An uncompromising, pro-Israel plank was adopted.

On other issues the 1948 platform was a general rewrite of the 1944 program and the Truman messages to Congress of the last two years. It contains an abundance of excellent legislative material and, if enacted in toto, would carry the country a long step forward. The platform victories the liberals won at this convention, however, must be considered victories in spirit rather than substance. The triumph showed that there is still a basis for appeal to the rank and file of the Democratic Party over the heads of its worn-out leaders, even within the narrow confines of a national convention. But performance still depends on personalities. The men the liberals failed to defeat will have the job of carrying out the program the liberals won. There should be no illusions about this. The progressives’ victory was a poor second-best.

Harry Truman and his personal organization tried their hardest to appear suave and self-confident through it all. Except for the President’s own stunning performance on the closing night, however, they succeeded only in looking like a lucky bunch of amateurs.

Chairman McGrath was in constant touch with the President. Presidential Counsel Clark Clifford slipped in and out of Philadelphia all week bringing messages, approving platform planks, and the like. Truman knew what was going on in Philadelphia, but his loyal lieutenants there were mystified by what was going on in his mind as to the vice-presidency. For days poor McGrath had to butter up the senatorial group which wanted the honor for one of its own, while he kept the door open for Douglas' possible acceptance.

Truman so infuriated Dear Alben Barkley by his cavalier attitude toward the Kentuckian’s availability for the job that the Senator came close to forgetting his years of party discipline and agreeing to let his name be presented in competition for the presidency itself.

But poor as the organization work was up to nomination night, it was more than adequate for that big moment. Somebody, probably Clark Clifford, had given the President an accurate pulse count on the audience he was to address. Truman’s remarks were as cannily suited to the time, the place, and the crowd as any speech Franklin Roosevelt might have made. The idea of calling a special session of Congress asa platform from which to campaign effectively and inexpensively was a pet project that Lowell Mellett, former Roosevelt adviser, had sold to Clifford a few weeks before. It, and the confident, determined mien Truman presented to the bedraggled convention, made a hit. For that night at least, Harry Truman was a real leader.

The morning after, the delegates left in Philadelphia were not so sure. He had been a new man last night, but would it, could it, last? They devoutly hoped so. If he could keep it up, “pour it on” all through a special session, things might look up for the Democratic congressional candidates. If a landslide for the Republicans could be prevented, a good many of the Democrats running for reelection could squeak through on their personal strength, even if the top of the ticket didn’t make it. Democratic planners took their old hopes of capturing the Senate this year out of mothballs and looked more closely at their charts and graphs on the crucial states. With a moderately warm presidential race, they could still take those four seats necessary tor return the Senate to the Democrats.

Truman is still talking confidently to his inner circle of how he will slay them at the crossroads when he really starts campaigning. The kitchen cabinet is still smiling sweetly and refraining from asking where he thinks his railroad-ticket money is coming from, not to mention the vast sums needed for national publicity if he is to let everybody know what a crossroads Bryan he really is. The Palestine plank in the platform may draw back some of the big-money Jewish support if peace in Israel comes along with it. As of now, the Democrats are dolefully counting on Assistant Secretary for Air Cornelius Vanderbilt (“Sonny”) Whitney to serve as campaign treasurer and write a check for the deficit.

Now that the ball is over, the practical prospects for this year still are pretty dark for the Truman Administration. Tom Dewey will have to think hard and fast to turn to the advantage of the Republican ticket the special session of Congress that candidate Truman has called. Henry Wallace will probably have a harder time getting new recruits from among the so-called “independent voters” than before the Democrats showed their latent vitality. But Wallace is still running and is still favored to poll enough votes in Illinois, New York and California to take those states out of the Democratic column.

Those who had opposed Truman most fiercely applauded along with the others when he made his fighting acceptance speech. They were resigned to carrying him through this campaign, and they weren't going to make any more open trouble about it, but neither were they repentant for what they had tried to do. Jim Farley said they had been disloyal and had done incalculable damage to the party’s chances this November. They didn’t believe it, and if they had another chance to nominate a stronger candidate in place of Harry Truman tomorrow, they would jump at it. Most of them will support Truman, some tacitly, some in a big way.

But they all know that Farley is wrong and that the spirit of insurgency they expressed in taking the warpath against Truman is really the hidden strength of the Democratic Party. When the party becomes the orthodox, false-front picture of harmony Farley would have, it will surely die. So long as it can be ruled by its majority, as it was on the civil-rights issue at Philadelphia, there is still hope, that the Democratic Party can become the true second party, the progressive party that our history demands.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.