It was certainly not a good year. People died. People got sick. Many who recovered were left with life-altering health issues. Early in the year, a vaccine was coming “real soon.” Or maybe next year or the year after that. Businesses, schools and churches were shut down. All because of the virus.
Also, Congress was bitterly divided. The Russians were up to no good and there was deadly racial strife abroad in the land.
Then there was the income tax. If you earned over $200,000 for the year, your federal income tax on that 200,001st dollar was 92 cents. You got to keep a nickel and three pennies out of that dollar.
Now wait, 92% marginal tax rate?
Yes. That’s what the IRS collected from your 1952 paycheck if you earned $200,000. And there was all this other stuff going on to take your mind off that nickel and three pennies, should you happen to have been a rich person earning the equivalent in 2020 dollars of $1.7 million.
1952 was quite the year. Congress was bitterly divided, thanks to Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt — there’s that word — for communists in every walk of life and all levels of government. There was racial strife as school boards across the country fought to maintain “separate-but-equal” school systems. In 1952, the historic Brown v. Board of Education case went to the Supreme Court, which took two years to rule on the side of Brown.
There was the Cold War with the Russians, but we taught them a thing or two in 1952 when we exploded the world’s first hydrogen bomb 15,000 feet over the Bikini Atoll. The commie rats came back with their own H-bomb in 1953, helping to make the world more balanced and safer through the gift of mutually assured destruction.
Times were tough in 1952. But you know what? The stock market was doing great. At a time when just 4.6% of Americans owned any stock at all, the stock market hit an all-time high. Today, 55% of Americans own some stock. And if today’s stock market is an indicator, Americans apparently aren’t afraid for the stock market or afraid of a pandemic, political shenanigans and all the rest.
So, is 2020 a year like no other? Let’s think about 1952.
Harry Truman was president.
He ascended to the job in 1945, when FDR died. In 1948, he ran for president for the first time and won. In 1952 he declined to run for a second full term because things had gotten messy.
He had fired the extremely popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur. There was a war in Korea which wasn’t going well. The polio epidemic was at its height. There were 57,628 polio cases reported in 1952, the majority of whom were children. There were 3,145 deaths, and 21,269 survivors who were left with mild to disabling paralysis.
Truman chose not to run because he knew he wouldn’t win, since Dwight Eisenhower, the most popular man in America, was rumored to be interested in the top job. Even so, Truman and second lady Bess kind of wanted to stay in Washington, and the president had an idea about that. He broached it to the general. Truman suggested that he and Eisenhower run on the Democratic ticket with Ike at the top and Harry his vice. Ike thought that was a nutty idea, and so did everyone else who heard about it.
Shortly thereafter, the Republicans came calling for Eisenhower, and on Jan. 20, 1953, Ike was inaugurated. Harry and Bess packed their bags and drove themselves home to Independence, Missouri, in their brand-new Chrysler New Yorker, courtesy of the Ford Motor Co. Ford had offered the Trumans a Lincoln Continental, but Harry thought that was too extravagant, so he asked for the New Yorker. Or so the story goes.
Ike’s opponent in the ‘52 race was Adlai Stevenson II, grandson of the first Adlai Stevenson, who was Grover Cleveland’s vice president from 1893 until 1897.
Adlai II, former governor of Illinois, was an urbane, smart, good-looking mostly bald guy with an impressive political lineage.
He was up against a farm boy who graduated from West Point, who was good with people, who pretty much looked like a totally bald farm boy his whole life and was the guy who basically saved the world.
Eisenhower crushed Stevenson in 1952. You know what history said about their first presidential debate? Trick question. There wasn’t one. The first presidential debate wasn’t held until 1956, when Stevenson decided to try again. The Democrats gave him the nod because nobody else wanted to go down in flames.
What happened in that 1956 presidential debate, the first to ever be televised? History doesn’t have much to say about it, because neither candidate showed up. Stevenson sent the iconic Eleanor Roosevelt to argue his Democratic case and the Republicans sent the almost-as-iconic Margaret Chase Smith. Which means that the first presidential debate was fought by two women who — I’m thinking anyway — were nice to each other.
Ike won again in 1956, which he could have done with a showing of hands by the electorate.
Does all of this prove anything? Is 2020 a repeat of 1952? Different times, different people, different issues, no internet ... and some similarities. Thing is, we survived. America lived on as America. For all its faults and frustrations, I’m proud of my country, proud of our ability to survive. Together. I don’t fly a 20-foot flag from the back of my pickup truck, but I’m happy to be an American, and proud that we moved on from 1952, and I know we’re going to move on from 2020.
There is this footnote, though. The 1952 campaign actually did get a little bit nasty, at least on the local level, in the Lancaster County town of Ephrata, where I mostly lived. I was in fourth grade in 1952, and we all had fourth-grade awareness of politics. Somebody told a joke one day at recess on the asphalt-covered playground at Franklin Street Elementary. The joke was this: Why did Adlai Stevenson shoot his dog? The answer was: Because when he stepped on its tail, the dog went “Ike! Ike! Ike!”
So for about a week, all you could hear on the playground was a bunch of 4-foot-tall Republicans going around shouting Ike-Ike-Ike.
Which was about as vicious as it got, and which, to tell the truth, makes me a bit nostalgic for 1952.