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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
Dewey was obviously not a yielder. If there was going to be a debate, it looked as though Stassen would have to yield, again. We met at 7:00 A.M., Friday, the fourteenth, in Stassen’s suite at the Multnomah Hotel. Actually we met in the bathroom. The former governor of Minnesota, the man favored to be the next President of the United States, was in green pajama bottoms, and he was shaving. I occupied the only available seat.
Stassen wouldn’t budge. “No. I’ve given on every point. Let him give on this one.”
I tried my best shot: “Governor, if you can beat Dewey in a debate, does it make any difference whether you do it in front of a live audience? There’ll be millions of people listening. They’ll know you beat him. Isn’t that what will count, the voters?”
Stassen put down the razor and looked in the mirror for a moment. Then, smiling through the lather, he said: “You’re right, of course. All right. Look, I’ll debate that little son of a bitch anywhere, anytime, on any subject!”
The Oregonian, Saturday, May 15, almost with a sigh of relief, announced: GOP LEADERS DEBATE ARRANGED FOR MONDAY.
The afternoon Journal ’s story mentioned that although CBS had elected to stay with its regular programming, Cecil B. De Mille and “Lux Radio Theater,” more than nine hundred stations would carry the debate on Mutual, NBC, and the Blue Network (which is now ABC). The Journal also pointed out that there were “40 newspapermen from Eastern cities” in town, and “more arrived yesterday for the debate.”
And it was going to be a real debate. Two guys, head to head, toe to toe, one taking the affirmative of the proposition, the other the negative. Opening statement, rebuttal. Now that’s a debate. And that’s what we were going to have that night. The question: “Shall the Communist Party in the United States Be Outlawed?” Stassen, affirmative; Dewey, negative.
An hour before air time the studio was wall-to-wall newspeople: reporters, photographers, both still and movie. The place was a zoo. Stassen arrived about five forty-five. Dewey arranged to arrive at the last minute. As soon as all those cameras began whirring and clicking, it was obvious that Dewey wasn’t eager to have their meeting preserved on film; he had to look up to Stassen, who was a good foot taller than Dewey. A few pleasantries—very few—and the candidates took their places.
At Stassen’s table were his secretary, Ed Larsen, a local Republican leader named Ted Gamble, and a man who had flown out “to help my good friend, Governor Stassen,” the Honorable Joseph R. McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin. With Dewey were Elliott V. Bell, superintendent of banks for the state of New York; Robert E Ray, a University of Iowa professor; and Paul Lockwood.
I was in the control room. We didn’t get our Big Exclusive out of this, but I got a consolation prize when all the parties agreed I should produce the broadcast, which was not, in fact, that big a deal. All it meant was that at straight up 6:00 P.M., I pointed my left forefinger at the announcer, who then signed on the program with a brief announcement, and the debate was under way.
Stassen, for the affirmative, led off, and he was confidence personified. And why not? He had the popular side of the issue. In all his speeches he got his biggest applause when he demanded that the Communist party be outlawed. And he was the favorite, the front runner. The polls showed him ahead in Oregon; he’d swept most of the primaries up till then; Stassen had the momentum, “the Big Mo.” Nobody was trying to “stop Dewey.”
Stassen had the assured and authoritative delivery of one comfortable with command. It was all there that night as he read his opening statement. He said things like: ”... these Communist organizations are not really political parties. They actually are fifth columns.... There is now no law in America to prevent these Communist organizations from developing secret organizations of hidden members, from carrying on secret conspiracies to promote strikes, to stir up hatred between races and religions in America.... Governor Dewey’s position in effect means a soft policy towards Communism.... We must not coddle Communism with legality....”
In the control room, with little to do but to watch and listen, I couldn’t take my eyes off Dewey and his people. I was fascinated by Dewey’s attitude. He sat there, hands folded in his lap, staring off across the studio, totally composed, almost detached. If he’d had a cigar, you’d have expected smoke rings.
Occasionally one of Dewey’s people would riffle through boxes of three-by-five cards, but Dewey paid no attention. The mood at his table was one of serenity.