“Give ’em hell Harry” is a reference to President Harry Truman’s 1948 re-election campaign. It’s also the name of a very successful play and movie.
In 1948, President Harry Truman was running for re-election. During a campaign stop in Bremerton, Washington, Truman delivered a rousing speech attacking the Republicans. One of Truman’s supporters called out, “give ‘em hell Harry!” Truman replied, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s hell.”
The 1948 campaign was hard-fought – in fact, it was such a close contest that, at the last minute, some newspapers called the outcome the wrong way. A famous photo shows Truman, smiling triumphantly and holding up a two-day old copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune; the headline read, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Truman, of course, had defeated Dewey.
On the campaign trail, Truman faced massive dissent in his own party, with a group of Southern Democrats breaking away to form the Dixiecrat party. On the left, Henry Wallace and his new Progressive Party also threatened to siphon off votes from Truman.
Faced with all this, Truman decided to embark on a cross-country tour, aboard a train which he named the “Truman Special.” The whole tone of the trip was set as the train pulled out of the station in Washington. Senator Alben Barkley, of Kentucky, was on hand to see Truman off; Barkley called out to Truman, “Goodbye, good luck, and mow ‘em down.” Truman replied, “We’ll mow ‘em down Albers, and we’re going to give ‘em hell.”
“Give ‘em hell Harry” is also the title of a play by Samuel Gallu, which tells the story of Truman’s life and presidency. The play, a one-man show originally starring James Whitmore, opened in 1975 at Ford’s Theater, in Washington DC. Truman’s daughter Margaret attended the opening, and so did then-president Gerald Ford. Years later, in 2017, Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, took over the role of the former president. The play has also been
Decades later, Roger Stone used the phrase “give ‘em hell” to shower Donald Trump with praise. According to Stone, there were some very clear parallels between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the campaign that Truman fought in 1948:
Borrowing a chapter from the “Give ’Em Hell Harry” book, Trump took on a work schedule that would kill younger men. He dazzled at five and six stops a day. He slept four hour a night. Truman used a train; Trump used “Hair Force One” — his private plane. I have never seen a better closer.
…Like Hillary Clinton, Dewey was stilted in public — detached, and not natural mingling with people. Truman and Trump thrived on the energy of their crowds as they hit each stop. Truman drove the engineers to break all speed laws to maximize time for speeches at each stop. Trump did the same to his pilots as he hopscotched through Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in a frenzy of action. Both pulled massive crowds.