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There are many wonderful books written about the amazing election of 1948 in which Harry Truman was a political Lazarus who came back to win the election after all the political pundits pronounced him politically dead. The Chicago Tribune even printed the erroneous headline "Dewey Defeats Truman" on the morning after the election because they were so sure that there was no way Truman could ever win. It is an amazing story.

The two best books on the subject, in my humble opinion are David Pietrusza's 2011 masterpiece 1948: Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America, and Zachary Karabell's earlier (2000) terrific book called The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election. It is in the latter book that I found this passage that was too good not to share about some of Truman's political bad luck. It seems that in 1948, nothing seemed to be going right for poor Harry Truman. His party had split three-ways, he was running against a popular crime-busting Republican governor (Thomas Dewey), and when the Democrats began their convention in Philadelphia that summer, well let's just say that things got off to a bad start.



Karabell writes (at pages 151-2):

"Even when Truman was actually nominated, the evening was marred by mishaps. It was sweltering and the voting had taken far longer than expected. A national committeewoman from Pennsylvania, Emma Guffey Miller, sister of the former Senator Joseph Guffey, planned a surprise tribute for Truman. She had the Pennsylvania Florists Association create a Liberty Bell made of flowers. They had given one to Dewey and naturally Miller wanted to make Truman's bouquet even more impressive. She had the florists place a cage of several dozen pigeons inside the bell, and at the appointed time, she intended to release the pigeons into the hall as symbolic 'doves of peace.'

"The problem was that the pigeons had been placed inside the bell hours before. By the time Miller brought the bell to the podium, two of the birds had died and the rest were desperate for relief from the heat. The minute she opened the cage, they darted out as fast as they could and flew directly toward the thirty-six inch pedestal fans that surrounded the stage. Sam Rayburn, the former Speaker of the House and chairman of the convention proceedings, started swatting at the low flying pigeons. His craggy voice carried to the radio and television microphones, and he could be heard shouting 'get those goddamned pigeons out of here!'

"But they could not be contained. One of them briefly came to rest on Rayburn's head, while another landed on the fan right next to Bess Truman. Other pigeons were flying toward the ceiling and, in their nervousness, started to splatter the delegates with droppings. Watching the absurd scene, Jack Redding turned to Congressman Mike Kirwan and said 'what damned fool could have thought of a thing like this? In this heat they all could be dead. It's bad enough having the Zionists, the Dixiecrats and the Wallace-ites after us, now we got to have somebody to arrange for the SPCA to have at us." By the time Truman came onstage, the surviving birds had retreated to the balconies and the overhead lights, where they watched as the president addressed the recently strafed delegates."


The story was written in the July 26, 1948 edition of Time Magazine. The full article can be found here, but in the portion of the article sub-titled "Emma and the Birds", the uncredited author wrote:

" The event that might linger longest in the minds of the delegates, spectators, and television watchers of the Democratic Convention was neither Harry Truman's fighting speech nor the Southern schism. It was the pigeons.

"President Truman and Senator Barkley had just come into the hall when Mrs. Emma Guffey Miller bustled up to the podium. the sister of Pennsylvania's ex-Senator Joseph Guffey, and a perennial committeewoman. Mrs. Miller calls herself the Old Grey Mare.

"Plump, powdered and behatted, she briskly interrupted Chairman Sam Rayburn's introduction of Barkley, took over the microphone. One behalf of the Allied Florists of Philadelphia, she announced, she wanted to present President Truman with a large Liberty Bell made of flowers. Then, from beneath the bell came a shower of white pigeons (placed there by the florists' pressagent, who had billed them as "doves of peace").

"With a flutter of wings, the pigeons swept up & out. The dignitaries on the platform cringed and shrank away like troops before a strafing attack. Torpid delegates broke into a roar of delight. One bird landed on the rostrum, where Chairman Sam Rayburn scooped it up and flung it roofward again. Two landed on a platform fan, stayed there with the breeze ruffling their tail feathers.



"If the President had not won his audience right away, the pigeons might have given him real competition. As he spoke, pigeons teetered on the balconies, on folds in the draperies, on overhead lights, occasionally launched on a quick flight to a more pigeonly position. Long after the conventioneers had gone home and workers began to clean up for Henry Wallace's Third Party this week, pigeons still perched in the deserted hall."

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