The Tribune messes up...or, what ever happened to President Dewey?

November 2, 2011

November 2, 1948. Election night.

Like the rest of the country, Chicagoans awaited news of who was going to be president. At about 10 p.m., the bulldog edition of the next day's Tribune hit the streets. The headline read "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Well, that was to be expected. President Harry Truman was trailing badly in all the polls. The election was a mere formality. Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York, would be moving into the White House.

But don't go looking for President Dewey in your history books. Truman upset all the pollsters and won. And the World's Greatest Newspaper was stuck with its most embarrassing headline.

Many factors led to the Tribune's screw-up. The printers were on strike, so the first edition had an earlier deadline. First returns showed Dewey with his expected lead. The staunchly-Republican Tribune was no friend of Democrat Truman. The paper's political correspondent assured the editor that Dewey was in. So the editor gave the order: "Roll the bulldog!"

Over 150,000 papers were on the street when the Trib started to have second thoughts. Trucks were sent to retrieve the bulldog edition, replacing it with papers headlined "Early Dewey Lead Narrow." But by then, too many early copies had passed into public hands.

The next day Truman was returning to D.C. by train from his home in Missouri. His victory was assured. At the St. Louis railroad station, a reporter handed him a copy of the infamous Tribune. Grinning broadly, the president held up the paper for photographers.

Back in Chicago, the Sun-Times gloated at its rival's mistake. For two days after the election, the paper ran a cut of the Tribune's front page, with the caption "The polls were off--so were some headlines." On the third day, the Sun-Times put the train station picture of Truman on its own front page.

The years passed. By 1972 the new generation at the Tribune had come to terms with the paper's legenday blooper. Plans were made to present Truman with a replica plaque of the front page for its 25th anniversary. But the former president died before this could happen.

Today original copies of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" Tribune are valued collectables. However, if your budget is limited, a small ceramic mock-up of the front page is still sold--at the Harry Truman Presidential Library.