Dewey, Truman, Dad, and I

I WASN'T old enough to vote the year Harry Truman surprised everyone by defeating Thomas Dewey in the presidential election. But I was old enough to care about the outcome, much to the dismay of my conservative father.

Dad wasn't a "party regular." The "best man" just always happened to be a Republican. And then, of course, for someone who had weathered the Great Depression, pocketbook issues were critical. That was where we had begun to part company, at least when it came to politics.

In my high school history class, taught by a left-leaning Democrat with a PhD in economics, I had acquired a different perspective on Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. FDR was "that man in the White House" to Dad, and he wasn't persuaded to change his opinion by my enthusiastic lectures on the virtues of Democratic programs to help the destitute through job programs and welfare.

I drew a big triangle for him to illustrate the Republican "trickle down" theory of economic recovery. "See," I said, "Helping the big corporations at the top in order to benefit all the workers at the bottom is very inefficient." He wasn't convinced, even after I told him feeding cows was a pretty roundabout way to feed the birds. But he liked the joke.

After my first term of economics in college, he became alarmed by my views. I'd come home all fired up by learning about the evils of monopolies, in particular "Big Steel." For my father, that was a bit close. He worked for a United States Steel subsidiary. Starting as a teenage office boy who left school to go to work, helping to support his parents and sister, he had risen to a position as the New York district cashier. I was talking heresy!

"What's the point of spending all that money on a college education," he said, taking off his steel-rimmed glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose where they pinched, "if you're just going to pick up a lot of radical ideas?" I had the good sense not to remind him that I was on a scholarship, since tuition wasn't the only expense.

Looking back, I understand his perspective better. Unlike many people, he kept his job during the Depression, working five days for four days' pay. He was able to feed, clothe, and house his family in reasonable comfort, and even take us all on vacation trips.

One year we even went on a "grand tour." Dad piled everyone into our 1933 Dodge Sedan and drove us from Long Island to Massachusetts to see the new Cape Cod Canal. We stayed with friends and relatives along the way to save money. But that was more than many could do in tight times. As a result, my father was loyal to his employer and the success of the free-enterprise system he believed he had experienced firsthand.

At the time, however, I thought I was seeing the bigger picture, and I wasn't impressed with my family's relative prosperity. So I had decided the spunky little man from Missouri was my choice for president. Besides, the other candidate looked like a little plaster wedding-cake bridegroom, hardly an image to attract someone with burgeoning nonconformist notions.

On election night in 1948, I went to bed resigned to the inevitability of Truman's defeat, frustrated by being unable to cast a ballot for him. Dad was radiating quiet joy at the prospect of Dewey's triumph.

In the morning, I switched on the radio to hear the results, gasped with astonishment, threw on a bathrobe, and ran down the stairs, shouting, `Mom, Dad. Did you hear?' My mother met me at the landing. "Sshhh," she said. "Your father...."

I skidded to a halt and walked slowly into the kitchen. There in the breakfast nook sat Dad, glumly eating a fried egg. I slid into my seat, watching my father trim off and eat the white part of his egg first.

"Gee Dad," I said, "too bad." He carefully slid his fork under the now-naked yolk, lifted it to his mouth without breaking it, and swallowed. Then he looked up at me, with just a touch of a twinkle in his steel-blue eyes. "Well," he said, "at least you couldn't vote for him and cancel my vote."

* Tomorrow, two Home Forum writers remember the first local and national elections that caught their interest.

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