Whistle Stop

Whistle Stop
Philip White
ForeEdge   320pp   £19.99

Harry Truman’s unexpected victory in the presidential election of 1948 was immortalised by the premature headline printed in the Chicago Tribune, ‘Dewey Defeats Truman,’ which allowed the triumphant, beaming president to gleefully pose for photographs holding a copy aloft. Philip White’s Whistle Stop embraces with gusto the ever-appealing narrative of a dramatic comeback against all odds, engagingly recounting Truman’s tireless speaking tour of the United States that turned the tide of the election. Covering 31,700 miles of train-track and making 352 speeches, White paints a picture of a politician outworking his opponents and appealing to the nation through a straightforward commitment to liberal values.

Truman faced a daunting campaign in 1948, with the Republican challenge of New York Governor Thomas Dewey and revolts from within his own party. From the right came Strom Thurmond and the ‘Dixiecrats’, segregationist Southern Democrats, horrified at the Civil Rights platform advocated by their Northern colleagues and from the left came Henry Wallace, former vice-president and representative of the Progressive Party, advocating an end to the nascent Cold War and extensive domestic reform. With his fractured support base and status as an ‘accidental president’ in power only because of FDR’s untimely death, Truman’s victory is rightly acknowledged as an impressive achievement.

Whistle Stop’s most fascinating contribution to what is a well-tilled field is the focus on the Democrat’s newly created Research Division and their invaluable role in supplying Truman with the information needed for his mammoth tour. Able to crack jokes about or lavish praise upon provincial sports teams, minor celebrities and local history, the president could also speak directly to the political concerns of each audience. The Research Division’s work also provides a fascinating insight into the era of presidential elections when the height of technology was a telephone on a train and campaign funding was so limited that the president could barely afford the cost of his transportation.

Whistle Stop is a lively and detailed telling of a hugely important election, yet it is not without its faults. At times the author appears a little too wedded to the narrative of Truman, the underdog. As president, Truman was able to exercise powers such as embarrassing the notorious ‘do nothing’ Congress by calling them into emergency session, advantages that are rarely noted. There is also little sense of Truman as a complex and flawed human being. Whistle Stop veers at times towards hagiography in its celebration of Truman the man and the politician. Also, despite some efforts to incorporate foreign affairs into the narrative, little is said on how the father of containment policy or his Research Division sought to use foreign affairs to their advantage.

Entertaining and engaging, if not hugely original, Whistle Stop’s narrative of a politician connecting with his electorate through research, hard work and progressive values is an inspiring one. As campaigns in the United States gear up for 2016, it appears increasingly unlikely to be repeated. 

Thomas Tunstall Allcock is a Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester. 

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