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DThomas Dewey was never president; but he presumed he would be and that was his Achilles’ Heel.

Dewey was a very popular governor of New York who ran for president twice. In 1944 he ran against Franklin D. Roosevelt as Roosevelt sought his fourth term. Dewey lost, but it was the closest race that FDR had in his four elections.

In 1948 he ran again. There were high hopes for the Republican Party that year. Harry Truman, who became president when FDR died in 1945, was facing a tough re-election battle. His own party wanted him to step aside. Truman was very unpopular. The Grand Old Party was licking its lips. This was their year…or so they thought.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey paraded around the country, as if he was already president. Never in the history of presidential politics was there a man who presumed so much—he thought he had the election in bag. He relaxed. He was all smiles, handshakes and baby-kisses. He spoke in lofty generalities, avoiding specifics or commitments.

Meanwhile, Harry S (S was his middle name—both his grandfathers had names that began with the letter S and Truman’s parents saw it as a way to keep the peace) Truman was in the fight of his life and he knew it. He did not rest on his laurels. Truman was scrappy and he was not about to go down without a fight. He was determined. He took to the streets, literally. He took his message to the people in his now famous whistle-stop tour. Going from town to town, from hamlet to hamlet, speaking from the back of the caboose at each stop. The public loved it and grew to love the plain-talking, “give ‘em hell, Harry” style that became part of his persona.

dewey-defeats-trumanNovember 2, 1948, people went to the polls. Dewey went down in defeat. Truman received three million more votes and the electoral college votes were 303 for Truman, 189 for Dewey. Strom Thurmond, a third party candidate received 39 electoral votes. Truman was elated, holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune, with the headline Dewey Defeats Truman.

A classic case of not counting your chickens before they are hatched.

Leadership Lessons

  1. Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.
  2. Until you have a position, are hired, don’t act as if you already have it.
  3. Don’t count yourself out when faced with long odds.
  4. Take your message to those who really matter and let them decide the outcome.
  5. Don’t be afraid to stand for your principles, giving ‘em hell when necessary.
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