Harry Truman’s miraculous campaign for president in 1948 has become part of American political lore. Just about every American who can see has seen the famous picture of a beaming Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the headline blaring “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Yet 1948 was not the most hopeless political campaign of Harry Truman’s career. The odds against Truman in his 1940 reelection bid for the United States Senate were even more daunting than his presidential race against an overconfident Thomas E. Dewey.
Some people seem to be blessed with good fortune and life smiles upon them, but Harry Truman was not one of those people. Little in Truman’s life seemed to come easily for him. He had endured spectacular and embarrassing failure repeatedly. His own mother-in-law regularly berated him and reminded him that her daughter, Bess, could have done much better.
Truman’s rise to the United States Senate had been aided immeasurably by the support he had received from the Kansas City political machine headed by Boss Tom Pendergast. In 1939 the Pendergast machine was in utter disarray and coming apart at the seams.
Pendergast had been oddly insistent upon retaining Emmett O’Malley as Insurance Commissioner for the State of Missouri; almost no one understood why the boss would concern himself with a minor state official. O’Malley was something of a hapless fellow, with a penchant for mistakes and never small mistakes. As it happened, O’Malley was also magnificently corrupt.
When Lloyd Stark was elected governor of Missouri with the strong support of Pendergast, the boss was horrified and enraged when Stark promptly fired Emmett O’Malley.
Rumors immediately began circulating that federal officials were investigating both Tom Pendergast and Emmett O’Malley. Despite having likely raked off hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in graft, Tom Pendergast had an addiction that led to his fall: a gambling habit. The boss made lavish bets and was none too good at it, which caused him to have a never-ending need for cash. Pendergast and O’Malley had conspired to accept an enormous bribe from insurance companies at the expense of Missouri consumers. Part of the bribe was paid, but the parsimonious insurance companies further enraged Boss Tom by reneging on paying the full amount.
Ultimately, Pendergast was convicted of income tax evasion, as he did not report receiving the bribes on his taxes, and was sentenced to prison. Emmett O’Malley was not far behind.
Maurice Milligan, brother of Congressman Jacob “Tuck” Milligan, was the U.S. Attorney and he certainly had a grudge to settle with Pendergast and his political machine. Hundreds of indictments came down and a host of machine officials were fined, sentenced to prison or removed from office. Both the city manager and police chief of Kansas City quickly resigned.
Harry Truman himself marveled, noting, “Evidently everybody in Jackson County got rich but me.”
With the Pendergast machine deeply wounded, Senator Harry S. Truman could no longer count on the huge majorities he had received from Jackson County in his 1934 campaign. With the fall of Tom Pendergast, Harry Truman became an especially inviting target for an ambitious politician and there were few more ambitious than Governor Lloyd Stark.
The differences between Lloyd Crow Stark and Harry Truman could hardly have been greater.
Stark was enormously personally wealthy. The governor was the heir to the Stark Nurseries, which had developed and marketed the Golden Delicious apple. The Stark family orchard was the oldest in the country and at one time, the largest in the world.
Imperious and autocratic where Harry Truman was earthy, friendly and entirely approachable, Lloyd Stark had a habit of rubbing people the wrong way.
Harry Truman was loyal to a fault and was always offended to discover someone did not share that particular trait. Lloyd Stark had few loyalties when those loyalties collided with his ambitions. Stark, in an abundance of caution, had not supported Truman or any other candidate in the Democratic primary for the U. S. Senate in 1934, fearing taking a side might derail his gubernatorial ambitions for 1936.
Truman managed to overlook Stark’s failure to support him and was instrumental in promoting Stark’s gubernatorial candidacy. Both Tom Pendergast and Senator Bennett Champ Clark were somewhat dubious about Lloyd Stark. Pendergast was especially wary of Stark, but finally agreed to support him, largely due to Truman’s insistence. Stark finally achieved his ambition to become governor and nobody was more astonished by the governor’s attitude when Pendergast found himself the target of a federal investigation.
Governor Stark encouraged the investigation, less as an advocate of good government and opponent of corruption— he had eagerly sought Pendergast’s support in 1936 and was highly aware of the nature of the Pendergast machine— but largely because he knew it would cripple Harry Truman politically and advance his own fortunes.
Few senators had supported the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal as strongly as had Harry Truman and none had been as ill treated as was Senator Truman. The Roosevelt administration largely ignored Truman’s patronage recommendations, favoring his senatorial colleague, Bennett Champ Clark instead. Senator Clark was frequently a Roosevelt opponent and a fierce isolationist, yet he won nearly every patronage battle he fought with Harry Truman.
Truman grumbled about his treatment by President Roosevelt, but he continued to faithfully support just about every proposal FDR submitted to Congress. Occasionally he would explode in frustration and after hurriedly flying back to Washington, D. C. from Missouri during a dangerous snowstorm because his vote was needed in the Senate, Truman called Stephen Early, a Roosevelt aide and blessed him out. Roosevelt invited Truman to the White House for a meeting and tried to soothe the man from Missouri with a heaping helping of his famous charm.
It was especially frustrating for Harry Truman as he had been shunned by many members of the Senate after his initial election in 1934. He had carried the taint of the Pendergast machine with him to Washington, D. C. and never forgot those few colleagues who welcomed him warmly. Truman’s personality and penchant for working hard had changed much of the perception of his colleagues and his friendly nature soon made him quite popular with other senators. That same affection would figure prominently in his reelection bid.
Even more helpful to Harry Truman was Lloyd Stark himself. The governor had shamelessly promoted himself to President Roosevelt and it would have been easy to think there was no other New Dealer in Missouri save for Lloyd Stark. It was obvious Stark was highly ambitious and once when the governor visited Senator Truman’s office, Truman blurted out to a staff member, “That son-of-a-bitch is running against me!”
Yet Lloyd Stark’s ambitions were not confined to the United States Senate. When Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson died in 1939, Governor Stark, a graduate of the Naval Academy, thought he would be an excellent replacement. In 1940, Stark considered the possibility FDR might not seek a third term and he very well might be nominated for the presidency. When it became clear that Roosevelt would indeed run again, Stark was eager to become the vice presidential nominee. Lloyd Stark’s ambitions conflicted with those of the senior senator from Missouri, Bennett Champ Clark. Senator Clark not only saw himself as the leader of the Democratic Party in Missouri, but as a genuine presidential prospect in the event FDR did not run again. Bennett Clark deeply resented Governor Stark and while he and Harry Truman had their differences, the senior senator would prove to be a valuable ally during the 1940 campaign.
The wily Senator Clark set out to divide the anti machine vote and began encouraging yet another ambitious politician to run for the Senate. U. S. Attorney Maurice Milligan found himself on the receiving end of Senator Clark’s attentions. Milligan had no fondness for Harry Truman, who had opposed his reappointment as United States Attorney. Milligan’s brother had run for the Senate in 1934 against Truman and he entered the 1940 primary. His candidacy had precisely the effect Bennett Clark intended. It deprived Governor Lloyd Stark of votes that he likely would have received otherwise.
Once Milligan entered the senatorial race and was in too deep to back out, Senator Bennett Clark took to the stump. Clark expertly used ridicule to deride Lloyd Stark’s political ambitions. Senator Clark rattled off all the offices Stark aspired to and finally concluded waspishly that he understood the governor was receptive to being elected Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury.
Stark’s campaign was awash with money, while Truman struggled to finance his own campaign. Senator Truman barely scraped by and his campaign was helped immeasurably by the support of labor, which furnished in-kind donations, money, and manpower. Stark was not helped when it was revealed his campaign had received an illegal donation from a utility company in the amount of $4,000, a huge sum for the time. Truman apparently received a $4,000 campaign contribution from Bernard Baruch, a millionaire businessman and stock investor who was a Democratic financial angel.
Governor Stark advertised himself as a friend of President Roosevelt and “A Vote for Stark Is a Vote for Peace, Preparedness and Good Government!”
Yet Harry Truman remained very popular with regular Democrats. At the Democratic State Convention in 1940, Governor Lloyd Stark was shocked to be booed by most of the delegates, while Senator Truman received a warm welcome. The St. Louis Star Times sulked that “It should come as no surprise to Lloyd C. Stark that was the victim of spiteful molestation and vicious resentment from county courthouse politicians and old-line Pendergast henchmen attending the Democratic State Convention.”
The Star Times editorial bemoaned Senator Bennett Clark’s “extreme verbal assaults on the governor” and blamed Clark for encouraging antagonism against Stark. The editor of the Star Times complained had Bennett Clark “stood shoulder to shoulder” with the governor against the remnants of the Pendergast machine, Missouri would be a much better place to live. The editorial outrage of the Star Times was largely ignored and the leader of the St. Louis machine, Robert Hannegan, was slowly changing his own political attitude. Much of the St. Louis machine had been prepared to back Stark, but Hannegan was having second thoughts.
A differing editorial opinion was shared with the readers of the Jefferson City Post Tribune who opined nobody brewed hatred of the governor but Lloyd Stark himself. The Post Tribune flatly stated Stark’s pursuit of the vice presidential nomination, which failed to interest much of anyone, “cost him prestige at home” and noted “it’s going to take those orchards a long time” to make up for “all those apples given away for free” at the Democratic National Convention to promote Governor Stark’s failed candidacy. It was an accurate assessment.
As the primary campaign became more heated, Bennett Clark’s pushing Maurice Milligan into the senatorial contest proved to be quite shrewd. Governor Stark and Milligan each tried to claim credit for the fall of T. J. Pendergast and destroying the Kansas City machine. While Maurice Milligan and Lloyd Stark bickered over who was the true giant killer, Senator Truman ignored the attacks on the Pendergast machine and talked about national issues.
Senator Bennett Clark continued his furious verbal assault on Governor Stark and publicly said he was backing neither Truman nor Milligan; he frankly stated his concern was seeing Lloyd Stark defeated. Privately, Clark was for Truman.
As the senatorial primary campaign came to a close, Governor Stark charged that Senator Truman was the beneficiary of a large “slush fund” raised by what was left of the Pendergast machine. A furious Truman, who struggled to raise money for his campaign, retorted that the governor had pressured state employees for contributions for his own campaign, as well as contractors doing business with the state.
Truman declared, “If they approve my record in the Senate, I will be renominated and I know the voters of Missouri approve my record because I will be renominated.”
In the end, it all came down to St. Louis. Bob Hannegan quietly sent out the word to ward leaders he was for Truman. Lloyd Stark carried outstate Missouri, while Truman carried Kansas City, but as expected, his majority in Jackson County was about a third of what it had been six years earlier. Still, Harry Truman carried St. Louis and eked out a win by less than 8,000 votes.
Lloyd Stark’s political career came to an end, a bitter defeat for a man who had thought the presidency was within his grasp. As it turned out, it would be Harry S. Truman who would become President of the United States.