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Skewed history: Gingrich's puzzling comparison of Truman 1940 vs. Akin 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the latest Republican to invoke the spirit of Harry S Truman, declared Monday in St. Louis that there are parallels between Truman’s 1940 Senate race and GOP nominee U.S. Rep Todd Akin’s quest this year.

In Gingrich’s oddly revisionist version of Missouri history, the downtrodden Truman was “dumped by the St. Louis and Kansas City machines” because he “was not obedient enough.” Truman “decided that he would take them on” and, with “no money,” the feisty politician “got in a car with one driver and he spent six months going to every small town in Missouri and just beating the machine’s brains out.”

Arguing that Missouri has a history “of grassroots candidates being able to touch some deep belief that folks have that it’s their [Senate] seat,” Gingrich – who has a Ph.D. in European history – told Akin's supporters that he saw parallels between Truman’s ’40 campaign and the ongoing effort of Akin, R-Wildwood, who was shunned by many in the GOP establishment after last month’s “legitimate rape” comments.

But are there really any valid similarities between the Akin ’12 and Truman ’40 campaigns? Or is this another example of Newt being Newt?

The differences are obvious: Truman, a New Dealer and a persistent critic of Republicans, was an incumbent running for re-election. And his big fight was in the Democratic primary rather than against his weak GOP opponent in the general election, which Truman won easily by 44,000 votes.

Akin, on the other hand, won his Republican primary handily and – before the controversy over his rape comments – initially was viewed as a favorite over incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Gingrich’s assertion that Truman had been “dumped by the St. Louis and Kansas City machines” runs counter to the facts, as portrayed by David McCullough in his award-winning biography, “Truman.”

In fact, Truman’s biggest challenge in the primary was to fight allegations that he had been a puppet of “Boss Tom” Pendergast’s Kansas City machine. And – after some initial hesitation – Truman eventually was backed by both U.S. Sen. Bennett Clark and by the St. Louis Democratic machine’s city chairman, Robert E. Hannegan.

It is indeed true that Truman didn’t get much help in 1940 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other key figures in the Democratic establishment. But that was mainly because he was associated in their minds with the Pendergast machine, which had been dealt several severe blows by investigations in the late 1930s that culminated in the conviction of Pendergast in 1939 for failing to pay taxes on bribes. Also, Truman had at first questioned whether FDR should be drafted for a third term as president.

Rather than being, as Gingrich asserted, the anti-machine candidate, Truman was portrayed as the exact opposite by both of his opponents who ended up splitting the “anti-Pendergast” vote in the 1940 Democratic primary: Gov. Lloyd Stark, who had had a highly public falling out with “Boss Tom,” and U.S. Attorney Maurice Milligan, who had prosecuted Pendergast.

Stark, an ambitious governor who also vied unsuccessfully that year to become FDR’s running mate, at one point called Truman “a fraudulent U.S. senator, elected by ghost votes, whose entire record in public office has been devoted to one purpose alone, and that is to the service of the corrupt master who put him into power” – that is, Pendergast.

Gingrich’s comparison of the 1940 and 2012 campaigns did point out two similarities: Truman, like Akin today, was considered to be an underdog and faced a severe shortage of funds, related in part to the reluctance of their respective party establishments to support what some viewed to be doomed campaigns.

Virtually no one, including FDR, thought Truman could pull off a victory in the tough primary. And Truman’s initial fundraising fell so flat that he cut corners and made many small-town campaign appearances in his car, a 1938 Dodge, with one aide along for the ride. On one long day, he started out with an appearance in Sedalia, then hit Salisbury, Keytesville, Brunswick, Carrolton and Hardin. 

On Election Day 1940, a friend heard Truman admit that “this is one time I’m beaten.” And the senator went to bed knowing that Stark had an 11,000-vote lead. But reporters started calling his house in the middle of the night with news of a narrow victory – by 8,000 votes out of 665,000 cast by Missouri Democrats. His victory propelled Truman onto a course that led eventually to the vice presidency and the White House.

Akin – who appealed to potential donors to back him against the wishes of what he called the GOP “party bosses” who urged him last month to withdraw from the Senate race – still portrays himself as an underdog, even though some Republican financial and political support started coming his way after Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline passed. And Akin embarked on a bus tour of Missouri cities and towns this week.

But McCaskill, whose Senate office is decorated with giant photos of Truman, makes fun of any comparison of conservative Republican Akin with New Deal Democrat Truman, a harsh critic of the Grand Old Party who once quipped that “Republicans believe in the minimum wage — the more the minimum, the better.”

“Today in St Louis Newt said Todd reminded him of Harry Truman!?!” McCaskill exclaimed in a Tweet late Tuesday. “I believe Harry would have a few choice words for Newt Gingrich.”