- Historic Sites
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.