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The Last Real Presidential Debate
It took place in 1948, and it was orchestrated—with difficulty—by the program director of a faltering Portland, Oregon, radio station. He persuaded two Republican candidates to argue formally about an actual issue with no intervening moderator.
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
At the time, I was program director of a Portland radio station. The station had fallen on hard times, and I’d been hired only a few months earlier by the owners, the Oregon Journal, and told to fix it. The station, KPOJ (for Portland Oregon Journal; we used to worry a lot about call letters those days), was affiliated with the Mutual Broadcasting System, of which we used to say: “The nation’s fourth network. And if there were five, it’d be fifth!” But KPOJ was also part of a regional network, Mutual Don Lee, a collection of stations throughout the Western states, most with frequencies up there just to the left of the glove compartment. Mutual Don Lee had a dozen or so affiliates just in Oregon, which made the group a very convenient, efficient, and relatively inexpensive way with which to cover the state. We used to make a lot of money during political campaigns.
Between Dewey and Stassen, we had politics around the clock in May 1948. Because I could double as an announcer and could read a stopwatch, I spent much of that month bucketing around Oregon in DC-3s. One night I’d be covering a Stassen speech in Coos Bay; the next night I’d be with Dewey in Pendleton, or Prineville. I can’t say I got to know either of the candidates, but I did spend a lot of time with them both, usually in some place like a locker room at a high school gym, waiting for broadcast time. And I would hear the Speech, from either Dewey or Stassen, night after night.
The big issues were inflation and foreign policy. There wasn’t much difference between the two candidates on either subject. As for inflation, like Calvin Coolidge’s preacher on the subject of sin, they both were against it. Dewey had a three-point program to “break the inflationary spiral“: “Cut government spending, encourage personal saving, and hold down credit.” Stassen said he would “hold down government spending and encourage personal saving.”
In the area of foreign policy they both were concerned about the Russians. Appearing on Meet the Press on May 7, Stassen had said, ”... we don’t know what mad moves the Russian leaders might make next....” One week later, also on Meet the Press, Dewey insisted, “We must show the Russians we mean business in foreign policy.” Then he observed, “The Soviets put forth their semiannual olive branch....”
As the campaign developed, there was one issue, and only one, on which the two men were 180 degrees apart. Before coming out to Oregon, Stassen had said, in a speech in Pennsylvania on April 26, that he supported a bill pending in Congress that would outlaw the Communist party. Legislation had been introduced by the late Rep. Karl Mundt, the South Dakota Republican, and by Rep. Richard M. Nixon of California—the MundtNixon bill. It wasn’t until two weeks later that wey picked up on the matter of Mundt-Nbon. On May 8, in a speech delivered from the bandstand in Lithia Park, down in Ashland, Dewey took issue with Stassen. In denouncing the bill, he said, ”... we can deal with termites if we keep our heads and do not follow hysterical suggestions....”
We were broadcasting the speech, and when I heard that, I recall thinking: “That’s the only thing these two guys have disagreed on. They ought to debate it.” The more I thought about the idea, the more attractive it got. I’ll confess I really wasn’t thinking of enlightening the Oregon electorate; I was thinking that a debate between two presidential candidates under the auspices of KPOJ would be quite a shot in the arm for our faltering radio station. The manager of the station agreed it was a good idea but thought it might be prudent to discuss it with the publisher of the Journal after all, the paper owned the station.
In fact, we didn’t have a debate; we had half a debate. Dewey had declined.
The publisher, Philip L. Jackson, after listening to my pitch, said: “You forget, young man, the Journal is a Democratic paper. We’re not interested in helping Republicans settle family squabbles.” But having said that, Jackson sat there, staring across the room, obviously pondering. Finally he said, “Maybe if we got some neutral outfit to sponsor it...”
A few minutes later Jackson went into action. He called Dr. Peter Odegard, the president of Reed College, and proposed the scheme. Dr. Odegard jumped at it. He sent out telegrams that day, inviting Dewey and Stassen to “debate the issues of the campaign under the auspices of Reed College.” The next day’s Journal announced: STASSEN OKAYS DEBATE HERE WITH DEWEY. The subhead: “Reed Would Have Two Share Platform.” We had a debate!
I got all excited and, thinking we might get a little more mileage out of the affair for our limping station, called the Mutual Broadcasting System in New York, ready to offer to share our exclusive. I’d seen on some Mutual letterheads the name of Abe Schlechter as vice-president for news and special events, so I asked for him.