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New Faces of 1946

An unpopular president. A war-weary people. In the midterm elections of 60 years ago, voters took aim at incumbents

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In California, Republicans had viewed as "hopeless" any attempt to unseat the highly respected Democratic congressman, Jerry Voorhis. But a young Navy veteran who had never run for public office figured he might tap into the acute resentment voters felt at the intrusion into local campaigns by the CIO's political action committee (PAC). The PAC was identified with the crippling strikes of the postwar era and accused by some of Communist infiltration—a charge that Nixon eagerly exploited. After passing out 25,000 plastic thimbles labeled "Elect Nixon and Needle the P.A.C.," the newcomer, Richard Milhous Nixon, pulled off a stunning upset.

A continent away, Massachusetts sent to Washington one of the few Democrats who would make his debut in the next Congress—but in a district so overwhelmingly one-party that the election had been decided not in November, but in the Democratic primary months earlier. To ensure that John Fitzgerald Kennedy got the coveted Democratic nomination, his father, Joe, bought off prospective rivals; sabotaged the candidacy of a popular city councilman by adding another individual with the same name, thereby confusing the electorate and splitting the vote; and saw to it that copies of a Reader's Digest article lauding his son's World War II PT-109 heroics were placed on every empty subway or bus seat in the district. In the course of making 450 speeches seeking the votes of 37 nationalities, JFK twirled spaghetti, downed Syrian coffee, sipped Chinese tea—and came out the victor.

As late as October, analysts had been skeptical of Republicans' chances of winning the Senate, where only one-third of the seats were in play. But Republicans picked up 13 seats to take control of the chamber, 51 to 45, the greatest GOP gains since the popular election of senators had begun a generation before.

Why had Democrats fared so poorly? In Chicago, a 32-year-old housewife, asked to explain how she had won a newspaper contest with a nearly perfect score in picking winners in Illinois, replied, "Simple....I just listened to what the ladies said while I was standing in the meat line." Anticipating the outcome, Truman had, on October 14, written an address he was sensible enough not to deliver: "You've deserted your president for a mess of pottage, a piece of beef, a side of bacon. You've gone over to the powers of selfishness and greed." The meat shortage, one commentator concluded, was bad for the Democrats. For as everybody knows, "a housewife who cannot get hamburger is more dangerous than Medea wronged."

There was one other worrisome development for Democrats. During the campaign, Republicans had reminded African-American voters that Democrats were the party not only of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt but also of Southern racists. In Georgia's Taylor County, the only black man who had dared vote in the Democratic primary had been murdered the next day. In Mississippi, Klansman Theodore Bilbo, campaigning for a third term as a Democrat in the Senate, declared that a tiny group seeking to register African-Americans should be "atomically bombed and exterminated from the face of the earth." As the election approached, he said, "I call on every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the niggers away from the polls." Though most African-Americans in the North held fast to the party of FDR, considerable numbers in Harlem and other predominantly black neighborhoods gravitated toward the party of Abraham Lincoln.

On Wednesday, November 6, the day after the election, Truman's daughter, Margaret, wrote in a memoir: "My father awoke aboard his special train, en route to Washington, and discovered that he had a bad cold and a Republican Congress." Moreover, he had become a pariah. It was customary for large delegations to greet a president returning to the capital, but when the train pulled into Union Station, only Dean Acheson, an under secretary of state, showed up to welcome him. There followed some of the bleakest weeks of Truman's career. On New Year's Eve, he went for a cruise on the Potomac. When he got back to the White House, he wrote: "Never was so lonesome in my life."

The election results, political analysts agreed, meant that the sands were running out on Truman's days in the Oval Office. A Fortune survey found that only 8 percent of respondents thought a Democrat would win the next presidential election. "The President," pontificated the United States News, "is a one-termer." Not even Democrats held out much hope. As late as their 1948 national convention, delegates arrived with placards reading, "We're Just Mild About Harry."

Soon after the election, Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas urged Truman to resign from office, even going so far as to suggest that the president appoint a Republican, Arthur Vandenberg, as secretary of state. (Under the law of succession at that time, Vandenberg would be next in line to the White House, since there was no vice president.) A former Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Fulbright analogized Truman's situation to that of a British prime minister who had met defeat in a general election after losing a vote of confidence in Parliament. Similarly, Fulbright reasoned, since the 1946 election had been a referendum on Truman's leadership, he should turn the reins of power over to some prominent Republican, who could work with Congress and so avoid a divided government.

Both Marshall Field's Chicago Sun, one of the country's leading liberal papers, and the Atlanta Constitution, long the foremost Democratic newspaper in the South, counseled Truman to accept Fulbright's recommendation. The doughty president, calling Fulbright an "over-educated Oxford S.O.B.," dismissed the notion, remarking privately that "a little more United States land grant college education on the United States Constitution and what it meant would do Fulbright a lot of good." Ever after, Truman referred to the former president of the University of Arkansas as "Senator Halfbright."

The 1946 elections appeared to mark a turning point, the moment that the Republicans might supplant the Democrats as the country's majority party for the next generation. For the first time since 1930, the Republicans had won control of both houses of Congress. "What the American people are witnessing today," declared England's New Statesman and Nation, "is the Decline and Fall of the Roosevelt Empire." In New York, Thomas Dewey had been reelected governor by a whopping 680,000-vote margin, immediately becoming the heavy favorite to be not just the Republican presidential nominee in 1948 but the next president of the United States.

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