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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
When it was time for him to speak, he did so without a note. As he began, his voice, a deep baritone, was pitched at its lowest register. His pace was deliberate; his tone, thoughtful. He built in tempo and voice level slowly. From time to time, as he’d begin to make a point, he’d reach out with his left hand, looking for all the world like a surgeon in the midst of an operation, reaching for an instrument, knowing that the nurse would slap the correct one into his palm. From time to time Elliott Bell would hand him one of those three-by-five cards, and Dewey would glance at it without interrupting or varying the rhythm or flow of his remarks, see what he wanted, hand it back without looking at Bell, and continue to build his case.
Dewey’s position was expressed in remarks such as: “Here is an issue of the highest moral principle. The people of this country are being asked to outlaw Communism. That means this: Shall we in America, in order to defeat a totalitarian regime which we detest, voluntarily adopt the methods of that system? ... I am unalterably, whole-heartedly, unswervingly against any scheme to write laws outlawing people because of their religious, political, social or economic ideas....”
Dewey sat, totally composed. If he’d had a cigar, you’d have expected smoke rings.
At one point in the control room I asked of no one in particular, “Did Stassen forget what a hell of a prosecutor this guy was?”
The Stassen table was quiet, all eyes on Dewey. There was no shuffling of file cards; no one took notes. There was silence, as Dewey went into his finale: “If you say, ‘Let’s outlaw Communism and preserve our liberties,’ and if you say it fast enough and don’t think, it makes sense. But you cannot do both, and no nation has ever succeeded in doing it.” Dewey sat down, and it was Stassen’s turn.
In rebuttal the Minnesotan was a different man. As he spoke, he was wearing the kind of half smile a boxer puts on after taking a damaging blow when he wants the judges to think it didn’t hurt. The radio audience couldn’t see that, of course, but it could hear the uncertain, diffident delivery that had replaced the earlier booming confidence. The smooth flow was gone. I thought at the moment that we were watching a man who had not done his homework and was now aware of it, a man who had been so certain that he could whip Dewey, whether it was in debating or Indian wrestling, who’d been so eager to get at “that little son of a bitch” that he’d completely underestimated his opponent. Incredibly, as Stassen ended his rebuttal, he suggested, “Now, if Governor Dewey will support unequivocally the Mundt-Nixon bill, we may go forward to the other issues facing this nation....”
Dewey pounced: “I gather from Mr. Stassen’s remarks that he has completely surrendered.” He wrapped up his rebuttal, saying: “This bill will drive Communists underground. I want them aboveground where we can keep an eye on them.” Then, in summation, after questioning both the conception and constitutionality of Mundt-Nixon, Dewey said, “You can’t shoot an idea with a law....” As he turned from the microphones, one almost expected to hear, “The prosecution rests.”
It was all over.
Did it make any difference? Well, two days before the debate, in the May 15 Oregonian, the syndicated columnist Marquis Childs had written: ”... ten days ago, Oregon cigar-store bookies were giving 5 to 3 odds on Stassen. The Minnesota Governor is still the favorite, but today the odds are 5 to 4....” The primary was held four days after the debate, and 107,946 Oregon Republicans voted for Stassen; but almost 10,000 more, 117,554, voted for Dewey. And on May 22 the Oregonian began its election story: “Governor Thomas E. Dewey appears to have stopped Stassen in Oregon.”
But few of us who were there really believed Dewey had stopped Stassen. Stassen had stopped Stassen. His overconfidence had betrayed him; he had tripped over his own ego. He had blown the debate. Ironically Dewey, after going on to Philadelphia and the Republican nomination, then proceeded to manifest the same kind of overconfidence and succeeded in blowing the election to Harry Truman.
Now, thirty-eight years later, almost everyone who was a part of that election is gone: Truman, Dewey, McCarthy, Lockwood; even Vandenburg, Taft, Martin, MacArthur, and Elsenhower. But Stassen, now seventy-eight, keeps plugging away, trying every four years to recapture the magic of the spring of 1948, when he was still the front runner, the favorite, the Boy Wonder.
Those of us who’d been involved in the affair were convinced the debate made a difference, but we couldn’t be certain. All we knew was that something had made a difference; something had turned the election around for Dewey. And we knew one thing for sure. We’d had a debate—a real, toe-to-toe, man-to-man, by-God debate.