Newspaper accounts of past presidential campaigns nearly always reveal the singular moment when the public finally decided who should prevail on Election Day. A foolish remark, a speech not made, an inability to catch an unexpected swing in the public mood. It's often less that the winner fired the silver bullet than that the loser forgot to duck. Only the hindsight of the historian actually determines the fateful moment.
The greatest surprise in modern times was Harry S. Truman's upset of Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Polling was then an "infant science," but common perceptions got it wrong, too. You couldn't find anybody who thought Truman could win. What is recalled most clearly in retrospect is that Harry Truman's "give 'em hell" speeches were full of fire and passion, and the Dewey speeches were dull, drab and dreary. He was forever caught, in the memorable description of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, as "the little man on the wedding cake."
Truman loved politics. Dewey didn't. "Lay it on," cried the men and women who crowded close to the railroad tracks on the Truman whistle-stop tour. The correspondent for New Yorker magazine described Dewey as arriving at rallies "like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind." You couldn't keep Truman out of the ring; Dewey wanted to hover above the fray. Truman was hot. Dewey was cool. No candidate since has so snatched unlikely defeat from the jaws of certain victory.
I thought of that race when I read Fred Barnes' description in The Weekly Standard of John McCain as the warrior and Barack Obama as the priest (or the professor). These labels were first applied to Teddy Roosevelt (the hero of San Juan Hill) and Woodrow Wilson (who had been president of Princeton). A century before that, Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, was the warrior against John Quincy Adams, the "priest" of 1828 -- and Old Hickory kept his shrewd hand hidden behind the curtain against haughty and mannered Adams. "If my country wants my services," Adams said, as if everybody recognized his eminence, "she must ask for them."
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson revealed sharp contrasts as warrior and professor. Ike was president of Columbia University, but everybody knew him as the general who managed the landings at Normandy and led the allies to Berlin. Adlai was the first "egghead" -- eloquent, witty and cool. Americans wanted the warrior, not the egghead, and Ike won by a landslide.