Journey through history with David McCullough

In the hours before Election Day, historian David McCullough reflects on America's past -- including our founding fathers' campaign tactics

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The papers, the pundits all agreed: Truman didn't have a chance against Tom Dewey. Even when Truman started drawing big crowds, campaigning by train.

David McCullough: It was the first time any president had ever done that. He would pull into these little stops where nobody would ever stop and give a talk.

[Harry Truman: I'm coming out here so you can look at me and hear what I have to say and then make up your own mind as to whether you believe some of the things that have been said about your president.]

David McCullough: He wasn't smooth. He wasn't glib. He just talked straight. He said "I'm gonna go out there and give 'em hell. And later on he said, "I didn't give 'em hell, I just told 'em the truth and they thought it was hell." (laugh)

[H. V. Kaltenborn on radio: Well, there seems to be a trend and the trend is for Dewey.]

Election night, it was all over for Truman, until - it wasn't.

[Harry Truman: And the morning after that, in Saint Louis, I was handed this paper which said "Dewey Defeats Truman." Of course he wished he had but he didn't. And that's all there was to it.]

David McCullough: Authenticity. It worked. Authenticity.

As for the current, seemingly endless campaign, McCullough gives both sides low marks.

David McCullough: The shame of it is, the shame of it is they're spending all this unconscionable amount of money. And what is it producing? A not very good show.

Morley Safer: Well, it's schoolyard squabbles.

David McCullough: Imagine the quantity of words that are being produced and you think there's anything that's gonna stand the test of time in there? I haven't heard it yet. We should demand more of them. We should get to be like people who go to the theater all the time or go to the symphony all the time and they know a punk performance when they see one and don't like it. That's the way we should be.

But if you think negative campaigning has hit a new low, McCullough would remind you of the presidential election of 1800. When Thomas Jefferson beat John Adams.

Morley Safer: The mudslinging in that campaign -

David McCullough: Brutal.

Morley Safer: - makes today's look quite tame.