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Republican Philadelphia

GOP Convention of 1948 in Philadelphia

It was the hottest summer — both politically and weather-wise — that Philadelphia had experienced since the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Henry Wallace

In a stunning coup, the city captured both major party conventions and the third-party convention of former vice president Henry A. Wallace's Progressive Party. An aggressive bipartisan committee wooed and won both major parties with donations of $200,000 each plus $50,000 each for entertainment.

However, many delegates returned home vowing never again to meet in the Quaker City. Indeed, both parties shunned the city for the next 52 years. Finally, the GOP is returning for its 2000 convention.

There were problems in 1948. For starters, there were not enough hotel rooms and greedy hotel owner were accused of price gouging. About half of the visitors were forced to take accommodations in college dormitories, rooms in private houses, and entire Main Line mansions were rented by conventionaires. Many commuted from Trenton or Atlantic City hotels aboard special trains.

The housing problem could be overcome, but there was nothing to remedy the stifling heat inside Convention Hall. The Republicans Convention began June 21 and delegates sweated it out in shirt sleeves with the help of 60 large fans.

When the Democrats arrived in mid-July, the city was hit by scorching heat wave that made the Hall an unbearable pressure cooker. The first aid station treated 108 victims of heat prostration. People collapsed in the aisles during those impromptu snake dances.

Air conditioning was an option during construction in the early 1930s, but City Council was put off by the $300,000 cost. A primitive "icing" system involved shelping 50-pound blocks of ice to the roof where fans blew across them. The system utterly failed and was soon abandoned. The ice had to be hauled manually up six flights and melted immediately. The building superintendent said it would take 40 tons of ice an hour make a difference, and hauling up even close to that amount was impossible.

Harry Truman gazes at Benjamin Franklin

These were the first truly televised conventions, and the heat inside Convention Hall was intensified by the use of huge television lights. If the heat wasn't bad enough, dive-bombing pigeons invaded the Hall and some delegates sat with a protective layers of newspapers on their noggins.

The Republicans arrived in Philadelphia up-beat and confident that after 16 years they would retake the White House. The war was over, FDR was dead and his successor, Harry S. Truman, seemed weak and vulnerable. Plus, the Democrats were abandoned by both their left and right wings. Wallace marched off with the ultra-liberals and J. Strom Thurman deserted the party with his Dixiecrats over black civil rights.

Thomas Dewey at the Liberty Bell

The cast of players at the 1948 GOP convention had changed little since 1940. Thomas E. Dewey, now governor of New York, was a favorite in 1940, won the nomination in 1944, lost to Roosevelt and was again the front-runner. Again, Dewey's chief rival was Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft. Young Harold Stassen of Minnesota was running hard. Michigan Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, a major player in foreign affairs, was seen as the choice if Dewey and Taft deadlocked.

There was a grassroots movement for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his name was put into nomination by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, hero of Battan and Corregidor.

Other dark horses included House Speaker John Martin; Ohio Sen. John W. Bricker and Massachusetts Sen. Leveritt Saltonstall. Influential columnist Drew Pearson declared that if the Republicans were wise and wanted to capture labor votes, then the GOP should nominate California Gov. Earl Warren.

The key to gaining the nomination was several "favorite son" candidates. Pennsylvania's "favorite son" Sen. Edward Martin, for example, controlled 73 big votes. If a leading candidate wanted those delegates, he would have to deal.

All the possibilities, the suspense and intrigue, all the "backroom dealing" in "smoke-filled rooms" was delicious fodder for the press. Few conventions generated more "ink." Television came into its own and astute observers quickly realized its power. Four networks carried the proceedings to 13 eastern seaboard states. Only a small percentage owned televisions, but owners invited friends and neighbors into their living rooms, so an estimated 10 million may have watched on TV. Six-thousand people could watch TV at the adjoining Commercial Museum on competing brands of television sets.

Life Magazine and NBC teamed up on TV coverage. Their full-page newspaper advertisement declared a "history-making presentation" and announced convention telecasts from 10:15 a.m. to 2 p.m. again from 4:30 to 7:40 p.m. and once again from 8:45 p.m. to midnight. Communism was already the great national bogeyman, and all the speakers hit the theme hard: Roosevelt and Truman had been duped by Stalin. Communist had infiltrated government and the universities. The party platform promised to "expose the treasonable activities of Communists and defeat their objective of establishing here a godless dictatorship controlled from abroad." There was wonderful, crazy hoopla during the convention. Taft people paraded a baby elephant through hotel lobbies. Stassen wooed the undecided with 1,200 pounds of Wisconsin cheese. Everyone sported political buttons and silly hats and cheered like maniacs when their favorite candidate was mentioned.

Americans watching television saw the demonstrations and silliness for the first time. "Many viewers indicated that they found the recurrent carnival spirit not in keeping with the dignity they felt should prevail in the business of selecting a presidential nominee," wrote a New York Times columnist. He predicted that TV coverage would force politicians to "pare away bombast and high jinks associated up to now with [conventions]."

Major speakers at the convention included Clare Booth Luce and Herbert Hoover, the only living ex-president.

When the first vote was counted, the 46-year-old Dewey was in the lead with 434 votes to Taft's 224 and Stassen's 157. On a second roll call, Dewey got even closer with 515 votes. Dewey's opponents hoping to put together a coalition, requested and got a recess. But the stop-Dewey forces failed to form a common front. On the third ballot, the other hopefuls withdrew, and Dewey received all 1,094 delegate votes.

On the fifth and final day of the convention, Dewey selected Earl Warren as his running mate.

Dewey Defeats Truman!
A happy Harry Truman

The popular Californian was nominated by acclamation. The ticket pleased the more liberal international wing of the party. Writer Carl McCardle of the Bulletin called the "hands across the nation ticket, a triumph for the liberal, progressive element of the GOP in foreign as well as domestic affairs."

Despite such an attractive Republican ticket and polls showing Truman well behind, 1948 went down in history as the year all the pollster and pundits fell on their faces.

GOP Convention of 2000 in Philadelphia >