Famous Michigander Friday: Thomas E. Dewey

This week, after a long and tumultuous campaign, our county re-elected President Barack Obama. We did not elect Mitt Romney, but if we had, he would have been the first President born in Michigan. Gerald Ford, although he grew up in Grand Rapids and always called it home, was actually born in Nebraska (Fun Fact: he was also originally named Leslie Lynch King, Jr. His name was changed when his mother remarried). For this edition of Famous Michigander Friday, I’d like to talk about another Michigan-born man who ran for president and lost: Thomas E. Dewey, Republican candidate for president in 1944 and 1948.

Thomas E. Dewey

Thomas E. Dewey. Photo from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division

Dewey is probably best known for losing that 1948 election against Harry S. Truman, thanks to the famous photo of Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the incorrect headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” He was also a three-term governor of New York, elected in 1942, 1946 and 1950. However, he was born in Owasso, Michigan in 1908, and spent his childhood and young adulthood in the state. He attended Central High School in Owasso and received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Michigan in 1923.

Dewey Defeats Truman

As governor, he was known for great achievements such as passing the first state law prohibiting discrimination in employment, signing legislation to create the State University of New York, and creating the New York State Thruway (now named the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway). As a presidential candidate, he was known for making overly vague statements (example: “You know that your future is ahead of you”) and running a far too cautious campaign.

The more I read about Dewey’s life and career, the more it sounds similar to Mitt Romney’s. They were both born in Michigan but famous for being governors of an East Coast state. They both failed to receive the nomination of their party on their first try (Dewey lost to Wendell Willkie in 1940; Romney to McCain in 2008). They were both accused of not clearly stating what changes they would make as president (Romney example: Romney Strives to Stand Apart in Global Policy).  Neither were able to invigorate the Republican party enough to defeat an incumbent Democratic president, even though both Truman and Obama had sinking popularity coming into the election.

Actually, it appears that I’m not the first person to make this comparison, although neither of these articles note the Michigan connection.

Is Mitt Romney Going the Way of Thomas Dewey in ’48?

Is W. Mitt Romney another Thomas E. Dewey? Is Barack H. Obama the new Harry S Truman?

Moral of the story? Michigan is pretty bad at producing Presidential candidates that the country will elect. And it’s not just Dewey and Romney. Lewis Cass, who was born in New Hampshire but made his name in Michigan, ran on the  Democratic ticket in 1848 but lost to Zachary Taylor. And once again, Gerald Ford lets us down, as he was never really elected by the public. He was appointed Vice-President after Spiro Agnew resigned, and then became president after Richard Nixon resigned. When he actually ran, in 1976, he lost to Jimmy Carter.

Oh well. Maybe one day….


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