For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick recap of that swell old story.
The presidential elections that year featured President Harry Truman against Republican favorite Thomas Dewey. Truman was the incumbent, but only by chance: He had been vice president with Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945. Truman is remembered now as a straight-talking hero, but at the time many thought him an accidental president who was a bit out of his depth.
Dewey was the governor of New York and had also been the Republican nominee for president in 1944, when he was defeated by FDR. With his sturdy credentials and handsome moustache, he was regarded as the clear front-runner in the race.
Pre-election polling wasn’t a major industry then as it is now, but the polls of the day predicted a win for Dewey. It seemed to be a done deal.
In the last months of the campaign Truman took a 22,000-mile “whistle-stop” train tour around the U.S., firing up local crowds and jabbing at the “do-nothing Congress.” Looking back, that was the turning point, though reporters and pollsters missed the change in the public mood.
Now for the wild card: Due to a printers’ strike, The Chicago Tribune had to go to press early on election night, November 3rd. The paper, confident in the polls and the reporting of its staff, took a chance and published a first edition with the banner headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.
The first 150,000 papers were already out the door when results showed that the race was actually close. In the end, Truman carried Illinois and won the election. The Trib naturally changed its headline for later editions, but…
A few days later Truman’s train was stopped in St. Louis in his home state of Missouri, on its way back to Washington, and Truman posed on the back platform of his train with a copy of the paper. All smiles, naturally.
The Tribune, to its credit, has a very nice web page about the incident, complete with the famous photo. Their comment: “Well, everyone makes mistakes.”