Harry Truman is generally considered one of the worst presidential speakers of the twentieth century—until the 1948 presidential election. For most of his political life, Truman read scripts—not altogether scintillating ones—in a voice as flat as a Missouri prairie. He’d elevate his pitch when the crowd got larger and read a little faster when he found a section particularly boring. His one oratorical flourish was to saw his arms stiffly through the air, his fingers pressed tightly together, like chopping wood, only far less exciting.
But when he got on the campaign train in 1948, trailing Thomas Dewey by a large margin, he tried a new approach. One day, he gave a dry prepared speech on the radio, but when he got off the air, he spoke without text, letting his feisty style come through. His press secretary Charlie Ross noted that the audience “went wild.”
For the rest of the campaign, usually from the back of a train while on a thirty-two-thousand-mile tour across the country, Truman spoke spontaneously, giving about 350 speeches, many showcasing his humor, usually at a Republican’s expense. At a plowing contest, he said, “We plowed under a lot of Republicans out there,” and at another stop he said that the GOP stood for Grand Old Platitudes. At another stop he riffed on the topic of Herbert Hoover, the last Republican President: “You remember the Hoover cart . . . the remains of the old tin Lizzie being pulled by a mule, because you couldn’t afford to buy a new car, you couldn’t afford to buy gas for the old one . . . . By the way, I asked the Department of Agriculture at Washington about this Hoover cart. They said it is the only automobile in the world that eats oats.”
The dull campaigner was now dynamic. In Seattle, Washington, a man yelled from a gallery, “Give’em hell, Harry!” and Harry called back that he never gave anybody hell, just “told the truth on the Republicans and they thought it was hell.” It became a call and response at every stop.