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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
I got an officious secretary. “What is this in regard to?” she wanted to know. I explained. Big debate. Dewey, Stassen. Big. “Yes, I see. Well, Mr. Schechter’s not in. Perhaps you’d like to talk to Mr. Paige.” Sure, why not? Mr. Paige would be fine. “Mr. Paige is not in either. I’ll give him your message.” She didn’t seem very impressed with our big coup. I figured that’s New York for you—blasé.
About an hour later Jack Paige called, and he was anything but blasé. “What the hell’s this about a debate between Dewey and Stassen?”
I explained. “I wondered if the network might be interested in carrying it?”
“Well, for Christ’s sake, yes, we’re interested. Do you need anything from us?”
It pleased me to assure him that everything was under control and that I’d let him know as soon as a date had been selected for the Great Debate.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Things were not under control at all. In fact, we didn’t have a debate; we had half a debate. Dewey had declined.
This impasse was built into the language of the invitation from Dr. Odegard. He’d referred to debating “the issues of the campaign,” and while Stassen was all for “issues,” plural, Dewey wanted “issue,” singular—the Mundt-Nixon bill and nothing else.
On May 10, Governor Dewey had been on an interview show on our station, and as soon as we were off the air, I managed to entice him and his secretary, a delightful man named Paul Lockwood, into my office. The lure was a bottle of Black Label scotch I’d managed to get hold of. As soon as everybody’d had a snort, I brought up the subject of the debate. Dewey said, “I’m just not interested in debating that guy.” That was not an encouraging beginning.
I looked at Lockwood and asked, “With Stassen having accepted, how does that make Governor Dewey look?”
Lockwood, God bless him, said, “I’m afraid we don’t look too good.”
Dewey sipped, thought, then asked, “You think I ought to do it, Paul?”
“I do, Governor. I think you can take the guy to pieces.”
Dewey was sitting in a chair balanced on its back legs, half rocking back and forth. “Oh, hell, I’m not worried about that,” he said. He sipped, stared into his drink, rocked a few more times, then came forward so that all four chair legs were on the floor. “All right, God damn it, let’s do it!”
The Oregonian’s election story the next morning, May 11, began, “Dewey and Stassen today accepted an invitation to debate....” Not only would there be a debate, but it would be an exclusive on our radio station, and we would feed it to Mutual. We had done it!
I was wrong again. The Oregon primary had rapidly become a national story, with reporters and correspondents from wire services and newspapers all over the country converging on the state. Of course, television was in its infancy, but NBC had a film crew wandering around out there. When it became apparent that the two candidates were going to debate, that the odds-on favorite, the man from Minnesota, was going to take on the governor of New York, who’d sworn that in Oregon he was going to “stop Stassen,” the story exploded.
Paul Lockwood called me. He was somewhat apologetic. “Tom, I know this was really your idea from the beginning, but I have to tell you we’re getting tremendous pressure from the other networks. They’ll want to carry the debate. We’re just going to have to let them in.” There went the exclusive. It had lasted not quite one day. But there were bigger problems than those of our turkey radio station. The debate was unraveling again. A front-page story in the Oregon/an for May 12 read: DEWEY, STASSEN CLASH ON PLAN FOR DEBATE HERE.
Having cleared the hurdle of debating only the Mundt-Nixon bill when Stassen yielded on the point, now Dewey had thrown up more roadblocks. He decided the debate should not be under the auspices of Reed College but instead should be sponsored by the local Republican party. Not only that; Dewey also had changed his mind about where the debate should be held. The original plan had been for it to be broadcast from the Portland Civic Auditorium with an audience of about five thousand people. Now Dewey insisted that there be no audience, that it be done in a radio studio.
The first part was easy; Reed College quickly passed the baton to the Multnomah County Republican Central Committee. The second was tough, as both candidates dug in: Stassen said, in effect, “No audience, no debate,” and Dewey said, “Audience, no debate.”
On May 14 the Oregonian announced: DEWEY-STASSEN DEBATE PROPOSAL STUMBLES ALONG.