By the 1952 election, the public despised the Truman Administration. Korea dragged the president’s approval ratings down. However, other factors contributed to Truman’s unpopularity. In addition to Korea, the administration became embroiled in influence peddling scandals. The most damaging involved the IRS. These scandals sapped Truman’s political capital and compounded other issues resulting in low approval ratings.
President Truman won a tough election fight in 1948. The following year, a minor scandal embarrassed the president. General Harry Vaughan was Truman’s friend and liaison to a well-connected businessman. Vaughan’s contact acquired several high-end perfumes and a deep freezer for Mrs. Truman. The general purchased the perfumes in Europe and flew back to the states with the gifts. However, he removed and replaced a wounded serviceman on the flight back. The president’s friend bumping a wounded soldier to deliver expensive perfumes created a minor firestorm. Truman vigorously defended his friend. Unfortunately for the president, Vaughan enjoyed many connections to shady influence peddling schemes.
While Truman defended his friend, Senator Estes Kefauver investigated the Internal Revenue Service for improprieties. Kefauver discovered rampant corruption including influence peddling and bribery. Some high-ranking IRS officials received fur coats and deep freezers like the one Mrs. Truman received. In return, the bureaucrats fixed tax problems.
The Justice Department hired a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS. The scandal reached into the administration itself. In 1950, 166 IRS officials resigned or relieved of their duties. The government issued a number of indictments, including one for am assistant attorney general in the tax division. Once the scandal reached into the Justice Department, Attorney General Howard McGrath fired the special prosecutor.
Special prosecutor General Newbold Morris demanded all records of anyone that might have received gifts. Since Morris had asked information on individuals not implicated in the scandal, McGrath believed Morris went too far. Publicly, the firing appeared to be an administration attempt at a cover-up. President Truman demanded his attorney general’s resignation and received in on April 3. Truman had little choice in the matter. Perception is reality and magnified in an election year. The scandal provided the Republicans a major campaign issue in 1952 and played a role in Dwight Eisenhower’s election victory.
The fur coats became a potent image for the Republicans. Nixon used it in his famous “Checkers” speech. At the same time, the Korean War ground to a halt. Eisenhower promised to “go to Korea” for himself. On top of this, several Soviet spy scandals rocked the White House. Corruption, communism, and Korea doomed the Democrats. Truman’s approval rating dipped to 22% in February 1952. It rebounded to a shade over 30% when he left office in 1953.
Scandal helped undermine the Truman Administration in 1952. That year, the government indicted or dismissed 166 IRS officials for taking bribes in return for fixing tax issues. Truman himself was innocent in the IRS scandal, but did have ties to influence peddlers. Mrs. Truman received a deep freezer and expensive perfume from a businessman through an intermediary. Although tenuous, it did link the White House to the scandal. Sixty years later, few remember the Truman scandals. However, it helped doom the Democrats in 1952.