Alonzo Hamby on “Parties to History”

Alonzo Hamby
Alonzo Hamby. Alonzo Hamby

Alonzo Hamby is a Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University, where he has taught since 1965. Most of his writings have focused on mid-20th century politics and diplomacy and include two books on the Truman presidency: Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism and Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. Hamby is currently working on a biography of Franklin Roosevelt.

What drew you to the story? Can you describe its genesis?
I am a Missouri native and old enough to remember Truman's presidency. My parents were strong supporters of his and I can recall the controversies of his second term, if not much about the first. When I was in graduate school, historians were just beginning to investigate his administration and my personal interest became the basis of a professional career.

What was your favorite moment while reporting on the 1948 convention?
It was memorable to interview a few elderly acquaintances and relatives of Truman. These included two surviving members of his World War I artillery regiment, a sister-in-law of his wife Bess and the sister of a friend and business associate. Some stories wound up on the cutting-room floor, but all gave me a sense of the man and his times. I especially value the friends I made on the staff of the Truman Library in Independence, MO, over a good many years of work there.

Was there anything fun or interesting that didn't make the final cut?
The delegates personified the Democratic party in all its shame and glory—Northern liberals, Southern segregationists, hard-eyed political bosses who valued only success and power, and enthusiastic loyalists, wearing huge campaign buttons and ribbons. One of the most conspicuous enthusiasts was Winifred Galbraith Todd, "Miss Equestrienne of 1948." She tried to promote the candidacy of liberal maverick Florida Senator Claude Pepper by riding a horse bearing a Pepper banner onto the convention floor. A guard blocked her at the door, informing her that her mount did not have a delegate badge.

You mention the early use of television in political campaigning. Do you think it had an impact of Truman's campaign?
Television in 1948 was a novelty that had little impact on the campaign. Both Truman and his opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, campaigned from trains and used radio as a primary means of communication. As for the conventions, the critics complained that both candidates displayed little savvy about the potential of the medium. As one put it, there was altogether too much display of the tops of heads as speakers bent over to read their prepared talks. It would be a while before organizers grasped the potential of the medium.