The Dewey-Stassen debate, 64 years later

The recent news that Portland’s March 19th GOP presidential debate would be scrubbed after Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum declined to participate contained more than a dash of historical irony.

That is because broadcast presidential debates began not, as commonly believed, in Chicago in 1960, when Jack Kennedy famously debated Dick Nixon — but 12 years before in Portland, when two now largely forgotten Republican hopefuls faced off in a do-or-die debate that was broadcast on radio stations across the country.

The year: 1948. The participants: stumbling front-runner New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey and a rising upstart, former Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen. Dewey had begun the year in the lead for the GOP nomination. It was Dewey’s turn, or, rather, his turn again. He had already been the GOP’s standard bearer four years earlier, in 1944, against a dying Franklin Roosevelt. But the underfunded Stassen had surprised everyone by roaring through the Wisconsin and Nebraska primaries. Dewey’s back was now to the wall. He needed to carry Oregon.

Throughout the year, Stassen had challenged his opponents to debates. But debating simply wasn’t the fashion back then. Presidential hopefuls did not stoop to such theatrics. Finally, however, a nervous Dewey rose to Stassen’s bait.

Throughout 2012, Newt Gingrich has advocated a series of one-on-one, single-topic debates, in what he says is in the fashion of 1858’s historic Lincoln-Douglas debates. “Lincoln-Douglas” sounds grand. “Dewey-Stassen” does not. But, in fact, 1948’s experience is a far closer parallel to what Newt has advocated than is that of 1858. “Dewey-Stassen” was a presidential debate. “Lincoln-Douglas” was not. “Dewey-Stassen” was broadcast nationwide. “Lincoln-Douglas” obviously wasn’t.

The issue at hand in 1948 was not the extension of slavery but rather Stassen’s proposal to outlaw the Communist Party USA. Dewey consistently opposed the idea — in Wisconsin, Nebraska and in Oregon. “DEWEY IN OREGON LASHES AT STASSEN,” headlined The New York Times. “He Starts 3-Week Campaign with Thrust at Proposal to Outlaw Communist Party.”

“The proper understanding of that issue … go[es] to the very root of the qualifications of men to hold high public office,” proclaimed Dewey as he landed in Portland. “I shall discuss it entirely without personalities, but I shall discuss it bluntly and with all the force of my command.” Americans, Dewey continued, “know how to deal with termites and, if we keep our heads and do not follow hysterical suggestions, we need have no fear of the outcome.”

In mid-April, Tom Swafford, the recently hired program director of Portland radio station KPOJ, proposed a Dewey-Stassen debate under the auspices of that city’s Reed College, to be broadcast nationwide by radio’s Mutual Broadcasting System. Stassen had already unsuccessfully challenged Dewey to debate in New Hampshire, and both Dewey and General Douglas MacArthur in Wisconsin. Confident of his debating skills, Stassen instantly agreed to face “the little son of a bitch.” Dewey — despite his current underdog position — refused.

“With Stassen having accepted,” Swafford argued to Dewey aide Paul Lockwood, “how does that make Governor Dewey look?”

“I think you can take the guy to pieces,” said Lockwood to Dewey.

“All right,” answered Dewey. “God damn it, let’s do it!”