Turn Him Into Tom Dewey

The Republican effort to depict Obama as a pompous, out-of-touch snob.

Barack Obama and Thomas Dewey

As surely as the swallows come back to Capistrano, the political class has returned to one of its favorite diversions: deciding which past presidential candidates the current presidential candidates most resemble.

Is Obama the bold, successful Ronald Reagan? Or the ineffectual Jimmy Carter?

Is John McCain the straight-talking underdog Harry Truman? Or the feckless, grumpy old man Bob Dole?

But the comparison that Republicans seem most determined to offer is an unlikely one: Barack Obama as Tom Dewey.

At first blush, it may not seem that the African-American nominee with a decidedly unfamiliar name has much in common with the pin-striped Wall Street lawyer-turned-prosecutor-turned-governor and  two-time GOP presidential nominee. But look again, and it’s clear that the McCain campaign and its allies want to depict Obama as the kind of personality that ultimately doomed Dewey: the stuck-up snob.

It was Dewey’s misfortune—or character flaw—to embody one of the most enduringly mocked character types in American politics and culture. The pompous, I’m-better-than-you-are figure has been a foil of American comedy just about forever. (It was a key element in the mid-19th-century play Our American Cousin, which was playing at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot—and the line that John Wilkes Booth was depending on to bring the house down with gales of laughter was a put-down of the protagonist’s snobbish British relatives.) If you ever run across an old TV episode of Our Miss Brooks or The Lucy Show, you can find the mustached, purse-lipped Gale Gordon playing the fool.

Tom Dewey was cursed with just this sort of personality. He was short, immaculately and expensively dressed, and he sported a mustache that led Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously to describe him as “the bridegroom on the wedding cake.” (It is no coincidence that Dewey is the last nominee of either party to sport any facial hair.)

But Dewey’s snobbishness went far beyond looks. Indeed, a single display of it may well have cost him the White House. On Oct. 13, 1948, in Beaucoup, Ill., Dewey was speaking on the rear platform of a train—part of a response to President Truman’s 30,000-mile whistle-stop campaign—when the engineer mistakenly backed the train up a short distance. Dewey snapped that “this is the first lunatic I’ve had as an engineer. He probably ought to be shot at sunrise, but I guess we can let him off because nobody was hurt.” Dewey may not have realized it, but to the hundreds of thousands who worked on railroads, their families, and the millions of others in blue-collar jobs, this smacked of something less than respect for the working folks. And on Election Day, such voters helped deliver Truman razor-thin pluralities in Ohio and Illinois, giving him enough electoral votes to pull off the most remarkable upset in presidential history.

In essence, the McCain camp aims to Deweyize Obama. It was explicit in Karl Rove’s description of Obama as “the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” Rove has a bit of a tin ear: The country club is the wrong image for Obama. But put him, say, at a “wine-tasting benefit for NPR,” and the attack may come into better focus. It’s implicit in the McCain ad charging that Obama could find time to work out at a fancy hotel but not to visit wounded troops. And the idea that Obama is on a premature victory tour fits perfectly with the way Dewey carried himself in 1948—as a candidate who’d already won and did not need to bother asking voters for their support. (The press view of that campaign was embodied by Richard Strout * of the Christian Science Monitor, who wrote on Oct. 14, 1948—the day after the train incident—that “it is now as certain as anything can be in the course of American politics that Governor Dewey is elected and the nation knows it and yawns over the final three weeks of a campaign whose outcome was certain before it began.” Indeed, making fools of the experts may have been another motive for voters to pull the lever for Truman.)

Now, there’s nothing new about Republicans trying to paint the Democratic nominee as hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans and to depict their own candidates as a regular, salt-of-the-earth guy. Indeed, they’ve done it well enough to make George Herbert Walker Bush more of an ordinary Joe than Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants—and to make Yale Skull and Bones member and Harvard MBA George W. Bush seem like more of a working-class hero than decorated Vietnam combat vet John Kerry.

Still, there is something remarkable about the idea that the first African-American nominee of a major political party, raised by a single mother, whose shaping political experience was as a community organizer on the mean streets of Chicago, is facing a campaign based in some measure on the idea that “he acts like he’s too good for us.”

Correction, Aug. 4, 2008: The piece originally misspelled the name of the Christian Science Monitor writer. His name is Richard Strout, not Richard Stout.(Return  to the corrected sentence.)