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Guest Commentary

65 years ago, Iowa made a president


Jimmy Carter came out of Georgia in the political campaign season of 1975 to run for president. This unknown (to Iowans) Georgia governor could relate to Iowa farmers, being one himself. He swept the Democratic caucuses, the first ever held, and was propelled into the White House. Iowa has ever since been a required stop on the presidential campaign circuit.

But Jimmy Carter was not the first presidential candidate to make a good impression on Iowa farmers and win the White House as a result. Sixty-five years ago, Sept. 18, 1948, a candidate everyone thought was certain to lose the election, Harry S. Truman, made a speech to 100,000 farmers in a field owned by the Widow Lois Agg near Dexter. The occasion was the National Plowing Match, presided over by Iowan Herb Plamback. The speech was broadcast nationally. It is credited with turning around Harry Truman’s presidential campaign and causing the greatest election upset in American history. And it happened in Iowa.

Harry Truman in Dexter, Iowa, Sept. 18, 1948. Source: Truman Library.

Harry Truman in Dexter, Iowa, Sept. 18, 1948. Source: Truman Library.

Everybody but Harry Truman himself had written him off as a loser in the presidential election of 1948. Because Truman used an executive order to integrate the armed forces in July of 1948, his party had separated into splinter groups. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina headed up the Dixiecrat party. Former Vice-President and Iowan Henry Wallace campaigned on the Progressive Party ticket. The Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, was so confident of victory that he hardly campaigned at all.

President Truman decided to take his candidacy to the people via the train. About to leave the station in Washington, D.C., he said: “I’m going to fight hard. I’m going to give them hell.” Daughter Margaret Truman said: “You ought not to say hell.”

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa

Truman had no qualms about taking his campaign into enemy territory. On Sept. 18, before arriving in Dexter, he did whistle stops in Davenport, Iowa City, Oxford and Grinnell. Every important elected official in Iowa was a Republican. In the previous election, Iowa had gone for New York governor Thomas Dewey, who lost to Franklin Roosevelt, who won a fourth term. Harry Truman had himself been a farmer. Like Jimmy Carter, he knew how to talk to farmers. That’s what he did on Sept. 18, 1946.

At 12:20 p.m., Truman began his speech. He lambasted the “Do-nothing 80th Congress” and called Republicans the “gluttons of privilege.” He stated boldly: “The Republican Congress has already stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back.” Concerning the Democrats, he made a statement that was echoed by Jimmy Carter almost 30 years later: “The Democratic Party puts human rights and human welfare first.”

The press hardly paid attention. Everyone had written Truman off. Even the pollsters had quit polling. The 50 top political writers in America all supported Thomas Dewey. Truman’s response was: “I know all 50 of those fellows, and there isn’t a single one who has enough sense to pour sand in a rat hole.” Nobody asked why a losing candidate was attracting such large and enthusiastic crowds, especially after his Iowa speech. New York Times writer James Reston explained it this way: “We did a lousy job of reporting. We talked to each other. We talked to the political bosses. We didn’t talk to the people.”

On the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1948, everyone was shocked that Truman had won the presidential election — except Harry Truman himself.

We need more people like Harry Truman today. CV

Gary Thelen is a native Iowan who taught high school French and Spanish in the Des Moines Public Schools, served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era and worked as a clerk in the Iowa House, as a cruise ship speaker and as a political activist.

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