“Dewey Defeats Truman:” The Newspaper Gaffe of the Century

On November 3, 1948, the day after the 1948 presidential election, the sun rose on Chicago. As on every other day, newspapers were delivered and stacked high in newsracks. As the papers were collected and unfurled, their holders would have read on the front page, directly under the Chicago Tribune logo, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” However, Dewey did not defeat Truman. How did the Chicago Tribune, a pillar of upstanding journalism, report the results of the presidential election incorrectly?

FILE – In this Nov. 4, 1948, file photo, President Harry S. Truman at St. Louis’ Union Station holds up an election day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which – based on early results – mistakenly announced “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)

First of all, Truman was never supposed to the win the election. Truman was a massive underdog, despite his being the incumbent candidate. Truman had inherited the presidency from Franklin Roosevelt, who had died only three months into his fourth term. By 1948, inflation was high, labor unrest was building (sound familiar?), and Truman’s stance on civil rights had alienated the conservative faction of his party. Thomas Dewey, however, was his party’s hero. He was the conservative governor of New York who had spent his career as an attorney taking on the gangs in the city. 1948 was his second time to be nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidential election. Polls, media, and public opinion had Dewey as the clear winner of the election long before the polls closed on November 2.

Truman had, in any case, launched an aggressive campaign. He traveled the country by train, stopping in cities all over the United States and speaking out against the ineffectual Congress. Americans responded by saying, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” which became the unofficial slogan of the campaign. On election day, the liberal, laborer, and African American factions that Truman had reached out to showed up to turn the tide of the contest. Despite this, due to a printer’s strike happening in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune had an earlier deadline than normal. So, at 10:30 p.m. on November 2, the paper with the headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN,” followed by “G.O.P. Sweep Indicated in State,” was printed and distributed. In the end, underdog Truman won the election by 114 electoral votes, and the Tribune was forced to reprint and say, “DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES.”

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.chicagotribune.com/175/ct-175-anniversary-chicago-tribune-history-1933-1955-20220605-gwj73yl6bvh2jgxz3ur66waesi-story.html
  2. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/newspaper-mistakenly-declares-dewey-president
  3. https://www.history.com/news/dewey-defeats-truman-election-headline-gaffe
  4. https://millercenter.org/president/truman/campaigns-and-elections
  5. https://www.multco.us/northwest-wing-exhibition/1948-harry-s-truman-presidential-campaign

On This Day: The Presidential Succession Act

On July 18, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the Presidential Succession Act, which determined the line of succession if the president dies in office or is otherwise unable to perform the duties of president. Almost two decades later, this act became the 25th Amendment. Since that time, the 25th Amendment has been invoked six times and is an essential part of the operation of the United States government.  

Prior to the Presidential Succession Act, there were two different plans for succession. Under the Congress of 1792, the President pro tempore of the Senate and then the Speaker of the House would become acting president until a new president was elected. The Presidential Succession Act of 1886 then changed the succession to allow the Secretary of State to become acting president in case the president was removed. In 1947, President Truman needed to appoint a new Secretary of State. Members of Congress became concerned that under the current rules of succession, Truman would be in a position to choose his own successor. They felt that was not true to the democratic process that the framers intended. It was this circumstance that caused Congress to draft a new succession act.  

Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, if the President of the United States dies, resigns, or for whatever reason is unable to perform the offices of president, the duties become those of the Vice President, then the Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and then Secretary of State. It also indicates that if the vice president leaves office, the president can nominate a new vice president who will need to be confirmed by Congress. The act also allows the president, in cases where he is temporarily unable to perform his duties, to submit written notice to Congress, and the vice president can take their place. This portion of the act has been used in cases of medical procedures during which the president was under anesthesia.  

Following the assassination of President Kennedy, there was confusion about what the proper procedure was to swear in Vice President Johnson as president. This encouraged Congress to ratify the Presidential Succession Act as the 25th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  

Learn more here:

  1. https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/amendments/amendment-xxv
  2. https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7952&context=mlr
  3. https://www.senate.gov/about/officers-staff/president-pro-tempore/presidential-succession-act.htm
  4. https://www.usa.gov/presidential-succession
  5. https://reagan.blogs.archives.gov/2021/01/08/whos-in-charge-the-25th-amendment-and-president-reagans-assassination-attempt/
  6. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/how-jfks-assassination-led-to-a-constitutional-amendment-2