The Last Real Presidential Debate

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In October 1984 President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Walter F. Mondale came together on the same platform in Louisville, Kentucky, and again in Kansas City, Missouri. Correspondents tossed questions at them; each answered. Then instant analysts got busy determining a winner and speculating about what effect, if any, the confrontations would have on the November election. And everybody referred to the meetings as “debates.” They weren’t debates.

Barbara Walters and three or four carefully screened and selected correspondents lobbing questions around do not constitute a debate. They were more like news conferences, with pool reporters doing the questioning. Those free-for-alls during the Democratic primaries were not debates either. John Chancellor, Ted Koppel, and Phil Donahue, with a bunch of guys sitting around yelling “Baloney!” and “Where’s the beef?” certainly wasn’t a debate.

Nor did these non-debates start in 1984. Reagan and President Carter didn’t debate in 1980. Carter and President Ford didn’t debate in 1976, nor did Kennedy and Nixon in 1960.

A debate consists of a proposition or resolution before the house; two protagonists, one supporting the affirmative, the other the negative; and then rebuttals. The country hasn’t experienced anything like that between two candidates for the Presidency since 1948, during the Republican primary in Oregon. On that occasion the proposition was “Resolved: The Communist Party in the United States shall be outlawed.” The candidates were the Honorable Harold E. Stassen, former governor of Minnesota, who took the affirmative, and the Honorable Thomas E. Dewey, governor of New York, who spoke for the negative. Few of those who were part of that confrontation are apt to forget it. And if they were, they’d be reminded of it every four years as Harold Stassen emerges from obscurity to take another run at the White House.

In the winter of 1984 he was again plodding through the snows of New Hampshire, bobbing up on the morning talk shows, patiently describing his foreign policy and exuding confidence as he explained how he detected growing support for his positions. When the votes were counted in New Hampshire, Ronald Reagan had 97 percent of them; “others” had 3 percent. Stassen’s growing support was buried in that 3 percent. It was the tenth time he had run.

In the spring of 1948 Harold Stassen, who had become governor at the age of only thirty-one, was the youngest person elected to that office in Minnesota. He had at that time recently returned from the Pacific, where he’d served with distinction on the staff of Adm. William F. (“Bull”) Halsey during World War II. He was then forty-one years old, and he looked unstoppable.

Everyone was convinced that 1948 was a year in which the Republican nomination for President would be a sure ticket to the White House. The respected columnists of the day, such as Walter Lippmann, Roscoe Drummond, and Marquis Childs, assured us that Harry Truman, the former Missouri haberdasher who had been thrust into the Presidency with the death of Franklin Roosevelt, was not only a lame duck but a dead one. The polls of the day confirmed this verdict. With the nomination looking like a shooin to the Presidency, Republican candidates were lining up all over the place.

There was Arthur Vandenburg, the Michigan senator; Robert Alphonso Taft, the senator from Ohio—“Mr. Republican”; Joseph Martin, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Alfred E. Driscoll, governor of New Jersey; and Douglas MacArthur, who was discreetly letting people know he could be had. In addition, a lot of Republicans were setting their sights on Dwight Eisenhower. There was also the governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey. And there was Harold Stassen.

In 1948 there were not so many state primaries, and the ones we had were not the nonstop telethons these events have become. Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw were children, and no one had ever heard of a vote profile analysis. No network had dreamed up the notion of exit polling, and it would never have occurred to any broadcaster to work up a sweat trying to be the first to project a winner, “based on our sampling of key precincts.”

Those were the days of smoke-filled rooms, when politicians said, “Primaries indicate; conventions nominate.” And the Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania primaries, in which Stassen had rolled over everybody—even Eisenhower —indicated that Minnesota’s boy governor was headed for the Republican nomination and thereby the Presidency. Stassen did lose in Illinois to the state’s favorite son, Riley A. Bender, and Dewey carried New Jersey, but barely. Though the Garden State is just across the river from Dewey’s home state of New York, he beat Stassen there by only 600 votes. Then, on May 11,1948, Stassen won West Virginia by a landslide, piling up 117,000 votes. There was no second place, really; “others” got a total of only 22,000. Next came Oregon, where the primary was scheduled for May 21. Governor Dewey arrived in the state on the first of the month and immediately announced that he “was tired of losing elections by default,” that he would “stop Stassen.”