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A good synopsis, but Karabell's colors are showing
on August 21, 2000
This book provides a lot of information about one of the 20th century's most fascinating elections, and it does so in a concise, accessible style. Trouble is, it never goes into much depth, and the conclusions Karabell draws about the aftermath of the election are essentially an echo of the standard Republican Party lines we've all been hearing about more recent campaigns. Karabell does try to be objective, and in places he does a good job of it. This is the first book I can recall reading that acknowledges Strom Thurmond's efforts to avoid letting his Dixiecrat campaign become too extreme, while never denying the racist he was and is. He also offers a somewhat balanced account of the question of Henry Wallace's degree of sympathy toward communists, although he can't completely resist the temptation to tag Wallace as an apologist for the pawns of Moscow, if not one himself. It would have been nice to see more focus on Wallace's stances on issues other than communism, though; there was much more to him than that. Karabell doesn't appear to have it out for Truman throughout the book; refreshingly, he acknowledges that the "liberal media" was anything but so in 1948 and that its unsparingly negative portrayal of Truman contributed to the element of surprise when he won in November. But Karabell's characterization of Truman's campaign tactics is straight out of the George W. Bush playbook: Truman's attacks on the Republican 80th Congress amounted to "class warfare," we are told, with no analysis at all of whether or not Republican policies of the day were in fact detrimental to the well being of the working class and middle class, and his "unfair" tactics led to the politically unfriendly atmosphere of his second term. Karabell implies repeatedly that such polarization was unprecedented; perhaps he wasn't aware that a decade beforehand, conservatives couldn't even bring themselves to refer to Franklin Roosevelt by his real name; or that the Red Scare of 1919-1920 had wiped out meaningful left-right debate for a decade. Speaking of redbaiting, Karabell even argues at one point that Truman's campaign style was indirectly responsible for the rise of Joe McCarthy, who apparently felt justified in destroying hundreds of lives because Truman had run against the Taft-Hartley Act and the like. (It is true that Truman's own anticommunism helped pave McCarthy's way, but that's something else entirely.) Overall, this book does a decent job as far as the basic facts are concerned, but Karabell's analysis is as wrong for 1948 as it is for 2000. It would probably warrant another star if he'd left off the final chapter.