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Larry Lough

History has a knack for repeating itself

One-party domination of Illinois politics for a decade.

An election with a U.S. Senate seat, the governor, attorney general and secretary of state at the top of the state ballot.

The political underdogs trying to capitalize on a culture of corruption by the party in power.

At the national level, Republicans accuse Democrats of pushing a socialist agenda, while Democrats label Republicans as the tool of big business.

It could be 2014.

But it was 1948.

DURING A RECENT lazy vacation on a white sand beach, this editor read “Battleground 1948: Truman, Stevenson, Douglas, and the Most Surprising Election in Illinois History,” which was published this year.

The author is Robert Hartley, a former journalist who has written a number of books about Illinois history and politics.

The first chapter of “Battleground 1948” is a dense thicket of names, places and a jumbled chronology as the author sets the stage for the ensuing drama. A previous knowledge of early 20th century Illinois politics and politicians would help the reader to navigate the heavy underbrush.

But once you’ve hacked your way through the set-up, you follow a pretty compelling narrative of a political campaign with a shocking end – at least for the people who lived it 65 years ago this month.

Maybe 2014 will produce similar surprises.

BIGGEST DIFFERENCE between the two elections was that a presidential race led the ballot in 1948.

That was an election President Harry Truman couldn’t win. Polls said so. Newspaper columnists said so.

Even Adlai Stevenson II, the reluctant candidate for Illinois governor on the Democratic ticket (he had wanted to run for U.S. Senate), kept his distance from Truman, so certain he was that the incumbent president would drag down the party’s entire state slate.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

Truman beamed in that famous photograph as he held aloft the Chicago Tribune edition whose headline screamed, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Stevenson was an easy winner for the only public office to which he was ever elected. He went on to the national stage as the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and ’56.

And Illinois Democrats reversed – briefly – a decade of political frustration as they swept the state offices, Paul Douglas was elected to the U.S. Senate, and the party won control of the Illinois House, though not the Senate.

Spoiler alert.

ILLINOIS POLITICS today are different only in that the roles of the political parties have been reversed.

Republicans are now the party on the outside looking in, hoping to win the governor’s race in 2014 for the first time in 16 years and to make a major dent in the Democrats’ “super majority” in the Legislature.

They also would like to unseat U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, but that seems to be a bridge too far, as Republicans have no candidate who is up to the task.

Don’t expect that last Republican governor who was elected in 1998 to be active in next year’s campaign. George Ryan was just recently released from a federal prison in Indiana and must have better things to do.

Nor should you expect his successor, twice elected Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, to be on the campaign trail. He’ll still be doing time in a federal prison in Colorado.

Don’t be surprised, however, to hear their names raised in political ads and speeches.

And not in a good way.

THIS EDITOR WAS especially interested in the role of newspapers in that campaign of 1948.

Most newspapers of that era were partisan publications – Democratic or Republican in their news “judgment” as well as their editorial opinions.

Their publishers were actively involved in politics, as were many editors. Some folks on the news staffs were also on the state payroll, if that tells you anything.

Most prominent among the political publishers was would-be king-maker Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune.

McCormick preferred hard-core conservative Robert Taft of Ohio over New York’s Thomas Dewey for the GOP presidential nomination, and he torpedoed Illinois Gov. Dwight Green’s hope of being Dewey’s running mate. Instead, Green ran for a not-to-be third term as governor.

Green was, however, picked as keynote speaker for the national Republican convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1948.

According to the book, Green submitted his speech for editing by McCormick, who rewrote it “to reflect the Tribune’s editorial platform, not the national Republican Party’s agenda. ...”

That’s powerful – but not powerful enough to deny Dewey the nomination.

WILL THE UNDERDOG Republicans in 2014 do what the underdog Democrats did in 1948?

If they do, it won’t be that much of a surprise. State government is a bumbling enterprise under current Democratic control. Despite the party’s overwhelming numbers in Springfield that should facilitate progress, nothing gets done.

But after Democratic dominance in state government for a decade – with all the scandals and convictions that are our tradition – will blue state voters be fed up enough with the status quo to elect Republicans for a change?

The campaign for governor promises to be a bare-knuckles brawl, as so many well-funded, high-profile campaigns are these days.

Republicans certainly will increase their numbers in the General Assembly during the off-year election, but Democratic gerrymandering will likely ensure that any damage is limited.

Should be fun.

Maybe it will be a book someday.