Sunday, March 1, 2015

169. Thomas E. Dewey, Politician

     Hailed as a successful prosecutor of organized crime in New York City, in 1938 District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, then only 36, was selected by the Republican Party to run for governor against the popular Democratic governor, Herbert H. Lehman.  Dewey lost, but by so small a margin that he became a likely candidate for the 1940 Republican presidential nomination.  But in 1940 the nomination went to Wendell Willkie, who was unsuccessful in challenging Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bid for an unprecedented third term.  Dewey was still the fair-haired boy of New York Republicans, and when he ran again for governor in 1942, he won decisively and so began the first of what would be three terms as governor of the Empire State.  


    So what kind of a governor was Dewey?  Judge for yourself from these accomplishments:

·      He doubled state aid to education.
·      He increased the salary of state employees yet reduced state debt by over $100 million.
·      He enacted the first state law to prohibit racial discrimination in employment.
·      He created the State University of New York.
·      He streamlined and consolidated state agencies so as to make them more efficient.
·      During the war he put a $623 million budget surplus in a Postwar Reconstruction Fund that would finance postwar projects like slum clearance, mental health facilities, public housing, reforestation, and a program for veterans. 
·      He created a Department of Commerce to attract new businesses and tourists to the state, and help small businessmen cope with federal regulations and restrictions.

The kind of Republican that Democrats could vote for!  No wonder he got reelected by a large plurality twice.  But Republicans in those days – and especially East Coast Republicans – were a very different breed from those of today.  It’s true that he pressured straying party members ruthlessly, exhibited a cold efficiency, and was as devoid of charm as a turnip.  But he got results.

     Being governor of the state of New York is a natural springboard to higher office, and what can that office be but the White House?  In the 1940s Dewey emerged as leader of the moderate-to-liberal internationalist wing of his party, which was strong in the Northeast and the Pacific coast states, in opposition to the conservative and isolationist wing led by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, which was strong in the Midwest.  Their rivalry was inevitable, for Taft, the son of a president, yearned fervently to become the second of that name in the White House.  Alas, though he was honest and diligent, "Mr. Republican" was as lacking in charisma as Dewey.  What the Republicans in those days needed, in addition to honesty and competence, was a bit of spit and fire, and neither of this duo could provide it.

     In 1944 Dewey was the Republican candidate challenging Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term.  With Governor John W. Bricker of Ohio as his running mate, he campaigned against the alleged inefficiencies, corruption, and Communist influence in Roosevelt’s administration, but this was still wartime and Roosevelt, while emitting an ingratiating patrician charm, basked in the aura of Commander-in-Chief, which he played to the hilt.  I still remember the slogans “It’s time for a change” and “Back to work quicker with Dewey and Bricker, back on relief with the Commander-in-Chief,” but while Dewey campaigned vigorously throughout the country, he was plagued with the tag “the little man on the wedding cake,” which he could never quite shake off.  Meanwhile his shrewd opponent, with his infirmities well hidden, ignored him and made a great show of being busy fighting the war, which, in fact, he was. 

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FDR at the Cairo Conference, 1943, flanked by Chiang Kai-shek and Churchill.
Immersed in such matters, how could he find time to campaign?

     In my Midwestern and very Republican household we were all for Dewey.  My father, even in wartime a diehard isolationist, was convinced that the President was slightly loony as a result of polio; for evidence, he cited the trophies and gifts displayed on his desk, insisting that no sane man would collect such “Tinkertoys.”  Loony or not, the President won, though Dewey polled 46% of the popular vote – the best of all Roosevelt’s challengers.  He would obviously be heard from again.

     And who should reenter the story in wartime but Lucky Luciano, the mobster kingpin whom we last saw being carted off to prison for a term of 30 to 50 years, which you might think would have kept him out of Dewey’s path indefinitely.  Ah, but the ways of the world are complicated, and the patterns of power mysterious.

     Transferred from Sing Sing to the Clinton Correctional Facility in distant Dannemora, New York (distant, that is, from New York City and the mob), Luciano dined on special dishes and used his influence – yes, even in prison he had influence – to obtain the materials to build a church in the prison.  Then, in 1942, with the U.S. now in the war, the Office of Naval Intelligence became concerned about enemy agents possibly entering the country through the New York waterfront.  And who controlled the waterfront?  The Mafia.  And who still had influence with the Mafia?  None other than Lucky (and well he deserved the nickname) Luciano.  So a deal was secretly worked out involving the Navy, Governor Dewey, and Luciano.  If the authorities promised to commute the mobster’s sentence, he would see to it that his organization provided intelligence to the Navy.  As part of the deal Luciano’s ally, Albert Anastasia, who controlled the docks, allegedly promised no dockworker strikes during the war.  The value of Luciano’s contribution to the war effort has been disputed, but he is said to have provided the U.S. military with Mafia contacts in Sicily, which the Allies invaded in 1943.  One who did believe in Luciano’s contribution was the Governor, and since a deal is a deal, in 1946, with the war over and decisively won, he commuted Luciano’s sentence, on condition that he not resist deportation to Italy.  So off the mobster went to Italy, a land that he had left at the age of ten.  Reluctantly, Dewey had set free the biggest fish in his prosecutorial net.

     Dewey was again the Republican candidate in 1948, and this time, with Roosevelt dead, the war over, and Roosevelt’s vice-president Harry Truman in the White House and running against him, all the polls favored Dewey.  For if Roosevelt had been a giant and unbeatable, Harry Truman, with his popularity sinking, looked to Republicans like a pipsqueak.  Furthermore, the Democrats were split three ways, with Southern Democrats angered by Truman’s civil rights stance bolting to run their own candidate, and Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party threatening to draw away voters on the left.  All Dewey had to do, it seemed, was avoid mistakes, so he chose to speak in gilded platitudes and let the tidal wave of public opinion carry him into the White House.  One newspaper declared that his speeches boiled down to these remarks:

·      Agriculture is important.
·      Our rivers are full of fish.
·      You cannot have freedom without liberty.
·      Our future lies ahead of us.

When a worried supporter urged him to talk specifics, Dewey, mindful of  the polls, replied, “When you’re leading, don’t talk.”

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Dewey campaigning in New York in 1948.  No winning smile, no hearty
gesture, just stiffness.  Campaigning wasn't his thing.

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Truman with his wife and daughter, waving to a crowd.  A big smile and lots of feistiness.

     Meanwhile Truman was barnstorming about the country by rail criticizing and ridiculing Dewey, declaring that GOP (Grand Old Party) meant Grand Old Platitudes.  Speaking repeatedly from the rear platform of the observation car, he was as feisty and specific as his opponent was vague and nonpartisan, and the crowds loved it, as their ever increasing numbers bore witness.  This “little guy,” voters were persuaded, is fighting our fight.  Yet the press failed to notice how momentum was turning in favor of the incumbent, and pollsters stopped polling days before the election, permitting Republicans to revel in their mistaken assumption of an easy victory.  So confident was the vehemently anti-Truman Chicago Tribune that it printed an early edition with the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, before the final tally gave Truman 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.  Grinning broadly, Truman posed for photographs displaying the Tribune’s blunder of a headline.


     Dewey did not angle for the nomination in 1952, throwing his support to the candidacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower and thus helping to squelch Senator Taft’s last chance to run.  This hardly endeared him to the party’s conservative wing, rooted in the Midwest, for whom Dewey embodied everything they detested: a “compassionate conservatism” that accepted much of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and above all the power, arrogance, and liberalism of the city of New York.  One Taft supporter referred to Dewey as “that snooty little governor of New York.”  But in Eisenhower, a war hero with a broad fatherly or even grandfatherly smile that made you love him, the Republicans had at last found a candidate with charisma, and he surged to victory. 

     When Dewey’s third term as governor expired in 1954, he retired from public service and returned to practicing law in New York City, but he continued to be a power broker behind the scenes and supported Eisenhower’s successful bid for reelection in 1956.  In the 1960s, however, when Republican conservatives grew more influential in the party, Dewey distanced himself more and more from politics, and when the conservatives made Senator Barry Goldwater the candidate in 1964, Dewey didn’t even attend the GOP convention – the first he had missed since 1936.  President Lyndon Johnson, the victor, offered Dewey a seat on the Supreme Court, but Dewey declined, preferring to continue his lucrative law practice – no ex-president practicing law has ever lacked clients – and as a result he became a multimillionaire.  He died suddenly of a massive heart attack in 1971 at age 69.

     Dewey remains something of an enigma, and those who knew him have expressed opinions that varied widely.  Ex-President Herbert Hoover opined that “a man can’t wear a mustache like that without having it affect his mind.”  (Hoover, needless to say, was cleanshaven.)  A biographer noted that Dewey attracted contempt and adulation in equal measure, and pollster George Gallup said that Dewey was “the ablest public figure of his lifetime … the most misunderstood man in recent American history.”  Warm and gracious with close friends and family in private, when he assumed his public persona he grew stiff and formal, incapable of a winning smile or a heartfelt handshake.

     My own take:  Dewey was as honest and diligent as they come, an effective prosecutor and, as governor, a skillful administrator, and the city and state of New York were the better for it.  Honesty and diligence can make you a senator or governor, but it takes more than that to get you to the White House.  Just look at his photos: an earnest, unsmiling fellow whom I would trust implicitly and respect, but whom I probably wouldn’t like, and whom I wouldn’t want as a boss – too demanding, too aggressive.  What Dewey – and Taft as well – lacked goes by various names: charisma, warmth, charm.  Roosevelt radiated a patrician charm, Truman a gutsy charm, and Eisenhower a grandfatherly charm, and they got elected. 

     What other major public figures in our history have made it on charm?  Above all, one whose career preceded electoral politics: Benjamin Franklin, who as our emissary to France during the Revolution charmed the court and nudged it toward intervention on our behalf, the ultimate result being French participation in the climactic siege of Yorktown and Cornwallis’s surrender. 

     And who else had charm?  Off the top of my head I would cite:

·      Abraham Lincoln (a folksy, backwoodsy kind of charm)
·      Theodore Roosevelt (an exuberant, super masculine, upbeat charm)
·      Franklin Delano Roosevelt (as noted above, a patrician charm)
·      Harry Truman (a feisty, gutsy, you-can’t-lick-me charm)
·      Dwight D. Eisenhower (everybody’s granddad; his smile could captivate)
·      Ronald Reagan (another grandfatherly type with a winning smile and a sense of humor; he told people what they wanted to hear: “It’s morning in America”)
·      Bill Clinton (folksy, working class but bright, a junk-food-loving guy; you sensed he loved to get out there and mix with the voters)
·      Barack Obama (as a candidate in his first election, but much less so thereafter)

     But if circumstances are right, those absolutely devoid of charm can also get elected:

·      Calvin Coolidge (a tight-lipped New Englander whose reticence was legendary)
·      Richard Nixon (a shrewd politician, but cold and calculating; the only president I disliked personally)

     And today?  For all her experience (and she has plenty), Hillary, I’m afraid, lacks it.  As for the Republican hopefuls, I don’t know them well enough yet to judge.  Stay tuned; we’ll hear from them more than we may like, but then, that’s the American system. 

     And Luciano?  That’s right, we’re not quite done with him.  In 1946 he left Italy by freighter for Caracas, Venezuela, flew from there to Rio, and from Rio to Mexico City, and from there back to Caracas, and from there by private plane to Camaguey, Cuba, and from there by car to his real destination, Havana, where he moved into an estate in the Miramar section of the city, an upscale residential neighborhood with many embassies.  Why such a roundabout trip?  Probably to throw anyone off who might be interested in his whereabouts.  And why Havana?  Because, in those pre-Fidel days, with the blessings of Dictator Batista it was a wide-open town where American mobsters felt at home and invested.  And because it was near enough to the U.S. that he might be able to resume control over the U.S. Mafia. 

     In December of 1946 Meyer Lansky called a meeting of the major U.S. crime families in Havana to discuss various enterprises, and Luciano attended.  Learning of Luciano’s presence in Havana, the U.S. government pressured the Cuban government to expel him, and he was put on a freighter bound for Genoa.  He spent the rest of his life in Italy under police surveillance, being arrested several times on suspicion and then released.  But never count him out: he was soon scheming with both U.S. and Sicilian Mafia leaders to smuggle and distribute heroin and cocaine in the U.S.  His career of crime ended only with his death from a heart attack in Naples in 1962.  His body was shipped back to New York, where two thousand people attended his funeral, and he was buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.  There he has plenty of company, including no less than 22 organized crime members and recently, to raise the tone a bit, former Governor Mario Cuomo.

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Luciano at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome in 1948.  Quite a change from prison.

     Luciano had no children and once said why: “I didn’t want no son of mine to go through life as the son of Luciano, the gangster.  That’s one thing I still hate Dewey for, making me a gangster in the eyes of the world.”  Just how he wanted to be described, he didn’t say.

     Note on hedge funds:  Admittedly, I know little about hedge funds.  How could I, when they are open only to the super rich?  But they interest me slightly – call it morbid fascination -- just because they are so big and so secretive.  But if anyone out there wishes they had enough money to invest in them, here is a cautionary report.  In 2014 the Barclay Hedge Fund Index gained all of 2.89%, as compared with Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index, which gained over 13%.  (Who or what “Barclay” is, I don’t know, but no matter.)  In other words, these esoteric and very pricey investment vehicles had a lousy year, and this on top of mediocre results for the last three, five, and ten years.  So of course affluent investors are pulling their money out, are they not?  Nope, they’re pouring money in.  Why?  Because hedge funds promise higher returns with lower risk.  In fact, some even promise higher returns with zero risk – something that has never been achieved in human history.  So good luck to them all!  I just hope any pension fund my friends have money in isn’t among their clients.  So it goes in the world of the rich.

     A sign of the times:  The New York Times of Thursday, February 26, carried a full-page Tiffany ad showing two young, but not real young, men holding hands, and at the bottom of the page, two wedding rings.

     Coming soon:  As promised, the dumpy little lady party-giver who feuded with the Duchess of Windsor, who called her “the old oaken bucket in the well of loneliness.”  But the world couldn’t do without that old oaken bucket, whereas it could have done without the Duchess.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder