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Origin of the 1948 Turnip Day Session of Congress.

In August 1996, as President Bill Clinton's train, the Twenty-First Century Express, made campaign stops en route to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I thought back to another Democratic president, Harry S. Truman. In 1948, Truman's whistle-stop campaign, conducted from the back of his train car, the Ferdinand Magellan, carried him to victory. At the time, Truman, like Clinton, was said to be not up to the job, and he was pitted against a strident Republican Congress. Campaign strategists no doubt will continue to review the political fracas of 1948 to glean insights from Truman's come-from-behind victory.

A campaigner's ability to seize political opportunities may decide an election's fate. Truman's decision to convene a postconvention special session of Congress called the Turnip Day session was one such opportunity. I worked on Truman's 1948 campaign as director of the Democratic National Committee's Research Division. Over the years, historians, journalists, and others have recounted aspects of the Turnip Day session. None has fully revealed the Research Division's exact involvement. This article describes my recollection of the Turnip Day session's origin and how the idea got to Truman.

During the campaign, I recruited and led a team of young dedicated Democrats whose job was to prepare background papers on major issues, commentaries, and first drafts of back platform speeches for the president's staff.(1) We reported directly to Clark Clifford, the special counsel, and to Charles Murphy, the assistant White House general counsel, but were attached to the Democratic National Committee "for quarters and rations."

Between the Republican National Convention in late June and the Democratic National Convention in mid-July, an extraordinary idea took shape, resulting in one of American political history's more imaginative campaign tactics. The president decided to call a special session of Congress to complete work on the nation's legislative agenda. The Republican platform triggered the decision, which was to give Truman's campaign a tremendous boost. It was vital to regain the fighting spirit the president had displayed in the first half of June during his preconvention western tour. The foremost contribution the Research Division may have made to Truman's campaign was in pressing for the special session of Congress.

On June 24 at the Republican National Convention, New York Governor Thomas Dewey was nominated for president and California Governor Earl Warren was nominated for vice president, both from the liberal wing of the party. The Research Division, in studying the platform adopted by the convention, found it to be very respectable. It backed "a `bipartisan' foreign policy, foreign aid to anti-Communist countries ..., `full' recognition of Israel, housing, anti-inflation and civil rights legislation,"(2) all of which represented eastern Republican middle class values. Many of the measures advocated had been proposed by the president but blocked by Congress. Republicans failed to pick up on the nuance that the platform was at absolute odds with the performance of the Eightieth Congress.

After the Republican National Convention, the Research Division sought an innovative way in which to dramatize the differences between the platform and the obstructionist performance of the Congress. Calling Congress back into session to pass measures advocated in the platform, we ventured, should dramatize the president's case. I volunteered to raise the idea at the next meeting of an ad hoc group we called the Kitchen Cabinet, which provided political advice to the president, and did so on the evening of June 28 at Jack Ewing's apartment.(3) I spelled out the political advantages of calling Congress back into special session, the idea clearly had not occurred to any member of the group. I presented the best arguments I could, but the group turned down the idea. It might have appeared too audacious.

When I reported my failure to the Research Division the next morning, the team's unanimous reaction was, "It's too good an idea to drop. We cannot give up." The team urged a rehearing, so I requested an appointment with Clifford to revisit the idea. Clifford asked for a memorandum and then gave me an appointment, during which I argued the case as passionately as I could.

Robert J. Donovan, in Conflict and Crisis, and others refer to an "unsigned memorandum of June 29, later found among [Samuel I.] Rosenman's papers, though not written by him,"(4) titled "Should the President Call Congress Back?"(5) On several occasions, I have reviewed it. I believe it is the memorandum that Clifford requested be prepared by the Research Division and to which Donovan and others make reference.(6) Much has been written about the memorandum being unsigned. I believe that we left it unsigned on purpose, not by oversight. We hoped that Clifford, in the interest of time, might be so favorably impressed by the case we made that he would send it along to the president, perhaps with some editing, over his own signature. What was important anyway was not who said it but rather what was said. The arguments set forth in the memorandum are those I made to Clifford; that I know for sure. As President John F. Kennedy said thirteen years later when taking the blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan."

In our meeting, Clifford was more receptive to the special session idea than the Kitchen Cabinet as a whole had been the night before. We heard nothing more about it until Truman announced the special session at the Democratic National Convention. Subsequently, we learned that Clifford had taken the idea to the president.(7) Were it not for Clifford's good judgment, the idea probably would have died on his desk. Truman seized on the idea. In effect, the president said to the Republicans, "Put your money where your mouth is." Because the whole campaign was based on running against Congress, the idea fit into the campaign's strategy like a hand in a glove.

The Democratic National Convention was held in the Philadelphia Convention Hall. Truman delivered his acceptance speech in the morning of July 15 at two o'clock. I was in the balcony fighting the heat and the late hour. The president's speech lasted nearly twenty-five minutes.

Three-quarters of the way through his speech, Truman stated, "My duty as president requires that I use every means within my power to get the laws the people need on matters of such importance and urgency. I am therefore calling this Congress back into session on the 26th of July." The president's announcement electrified delegates and supporters. Approving cheers and shouts of "pour it on" erupted throughout the convention hall. Nearly a minute elapsed before the chair's gavel restored order.

To top off his decision, Truman, who for eleven years "was a farmer in his own right,"(8) continued with a special twist: "On the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call `Turnip Day,' I am going to call Congress back." Nobody but the president could have known about the coincidence of beginning the special session on the day turnips are sown in Missouri. After Truman's announcement, the Republican leadership said that calling Congress back was a political ploy. It was a political ploy--in the best sense. And it worked marvelously.

On July 27, Truman delivered a hard-hitting address before Congress. He called for action on "anti-inflation legislation, housing, aid to education, a national health program, civil rights, an increase in the minimum wage from 40 cents to 75 cents hourly, [an] extension of social security ..., [a] displaced-persons bill," a loan for constructing the United Nations building, and other measures.

On the evening of August 6, the day before the close of the special session, Matthew Connelly, the president's appointments secretary, called to say that he had a rush assignment for us. Connelly said matter-of-factly that "we have to get the president's positions in the Congressional Record before the session ends." And, he declared, "It hasn't been done yet." Connelly stated, "I want to get speeches on all the basic issues. I want them in my office by ten o'clock tomorrow morning." He concluded, "You'll distribute them to various senators for their use tomorrow afternoon." It was the only occasion in which Connelly tapped us for a specific task. We presumed that the assignment had come from Truman.

It was after eight o'clock. Some members of the Research Division had already left for the day, but I called them back. Several of us worked late into the evening. Kenneth Birkhead labored all night long. Despite our exhaustion, we showed up at six o'clock the next morning to grind away. Those were the days before the miracle of automated word processing. Preparing speeches was as big a job as developing them. After each editing, each speech had to be retyped. We drafted complete speeches on agriculture, civil rights, foreign affairs, housing, price controls, and veterans issues.

By ten o'clock, we took our completed speeches to Connelly's White House office. Then, on Connelly's instructions, we went up to the Capitol to deliver them to senators he had designated. That afternoon, we sat in the senate gallery exhausted while listening to the floor statements. Senate Democrats regaled the president's positions and chastised the Republican Congress. At times, we could almost detect the aroma of victory.

The Turnip Day session adjourned after eleven working days and accomplished almost nothing.(9) Years later, reminiscing about the session, Truman summed up the Republican Congress, saying, "If they had been smart and even passed one measure along the lines they'd promised in their platform, I'd have been up a creek, but I knew damn well they wouldn't do it, and of course, they didn't."(10)

The most celebrated feature of the president's acceptance speech was his dramatic call for a special session of Congress. It was an honor for us in the Research Division to work on the Truman campaign and a source of great professional and personal satisfaction. Truman carried twenty-eight states and received 303 electoral votes.(11) Over the years, looking at those election results always has felt good.

I thank James L. Sundquist for his helpful comments in preparation of this article. It is based on my memoir of November 1994 describing the Research Division's work that is on file at the Harry S. Truman Library.


(1.) The team consisted of John Barriere, Kenneth Birkhead, Philip Dreyer, Johannes Hoeber, Frank Kelly, David Lloyd, and me.

(2.) Congress and the Nation, 1945-1964 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1965), p. 7.

(3.) Clifford refers to the Kitchen Cabinet as the Monday Night Group. Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 84. The Research Division always referred to this group as the Kitchen Cabinet. During the campaign, I was invited to its dinner meetings held at the Wardman Park apartment of Oscar (Jack) Ewing, administrator of the Federal Security Agency. The dinners were excellent. The menu typically included steak and all the trimmings.

(4.) Donovan also describes the unsigned memorandum. Robert J. Donovan, Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948 (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 408.

(5.) Unsigned memorandum, "Should the President Call Congress Back?" June 29, 1948, Papers of Samuel I. Rosenman, Harry S. Truman Library.

(6.) For a comparative description of the unsigned memorandum, see Clifford, Counsel to the President, p. 214.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman: His Life on the Family Farms (Worland, WY: High Plains, 1991), p. 3.

(9.) Congress and the Nation, p. 144a.

(10.) Merle Miller, Plain Speaking (New York: Berkley, 1974), p. 257.

(11.) Harry S. Truman, Memories, vol. 2 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), p. 221.

William L. Batt Jr., A.B., Harvard College, is the former secretary of labor, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and area redevelopment administrator, U.S. Department of Commerce. He is the author of Labor-Management Cooperation Today and Canada's Good Example with Displaced Workers.

David E. Balducchi, M.P.A., Drake University, is chief of planning and review at the U.S. Department of Labor's U.S. Employment Service. He is coauthor of Unemployment Insurance in the United States: Analysis of Policy Issues.
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Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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