The legendary image of a smiling Harry Truman holding up the front page of the Chicago Tribune emblazoned with the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN is among the most famous in American history.
The photo was taken 65 years ago today as Truman, traveling by rail to Washington two days after winning the election, had stopped in St. Louis and stepped to the rear platform of the train.
He was handed a copy of the Tribune with the erroneous headline and eagerly held it up while photographers snapped away.
The Tribune, in a rather gracious mea culpa, explained in 2008 how one of journalism’s greatest gaffes came to be.
The problem began in the weeks leading to the November 1948 presidential election, as polls and pundits all predicted Truman would be trounced by Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York.
“Critically important, though, was a printers’ strike, which forced the paper to go to press hours before it normally would,” according to the 2008 story by the Tribune. “As the first-edition deadline approached, managing editor J. Loy “Pat” Maloney had to make the headline call, although many East Coast tallies were not yet in.
“Maloney banked on the track record of Arthur Sears Henning, the paper’s longtime Washington correspondent,” the Tribune continued. “Henning said Dewey. Henning was rarely wrong. Besides, Life magazine had just carried a big photo of Dewey with the caption ‘The next President of the United States.’”
But “the ink was hardly dry on 150,000 copies of the paper” when radio bulletins began rolling in that the Truman-Dewey race was surprisingly close.
For the second edition of the Tribune, the headline was changed to DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES.
Truman would go on to take Illinois and much of the Midwest in what would prove an election shocker.
Still, the DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN headline might have slipped into oblivion were it not for the chance encounter in St. Louis on Nov. 4, 1948.
It turns out that there was no love lost between either Truman or the Tribune; the paper had characterized Truman on its editorial page as a “nincompoop,” for example.
So when someone handed the president an early edition of the Chicago paper with the mistaken headline, Truman was only too happy to hold it up and smile broadly.
(HT: Real Clear History)