The Dewey-Stassen debate, 64 years later

David Pietrusza Author, "Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography"
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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!”

Dewey, however, demanded certain conditions. The debate would examine but one issue — outlawing the Communist Party. It would be sponsored not by Reed College but rather by the Multnomah County Republican Central Committee. Stassen, however, balked at one final Dewey demand: shifting the debate venue from the 5,000-seat Portland Civic Auditorium to the audience-free studios of Portland NBC affiliate KEX.

The 5-foot-8-inch Dewey did not want the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound Stassen hulking over him. But, more importantly, he knew that his rival invariably generated his heartiest applause from his anti-Communist appeal. Stassen refused to budge. Finally, Swafford argued, “Governor, if you can beat Dewey in a debate, does it [matter] 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 relented. The debate was on.

On the night of May 17, 1948, somewhere between 40 million and 80 million people heard Dewey and Stassen square off on roughly 900 Mutual, NBC and ABC stations nationwide. Twenty-minute opening statements would be followed by eight-minute rebuttals. Stassen led off, reading his prepared message in uninspiring fashion. He hung his argument upon one key point: that the proposed Mundt-Nixon Bill, which established a Subversive Activities Control Board, also called for outlawing the CPUSA.

Stassen fumbled on virtually every level. Proceeding first, he provided accomplished former Manhattan prosecutor Dewey with the opportunity to flay his case to ribbons. Stassen read his remarks. Dewey spoke extemporaneously, allowing him to project more sincerity — even much more warmth — and to connect much more with his nationwide radio audience. But most importantly, Stassen was dead wrong, spectacularly wrong. The Mundt-Nixon Bill did not outlaw the Communist Party; it merely mandated registration of its organizations and members. Stassen quoted only one source to buttress his argument — the Communist Party itself — in contending that the bill would outlaw the CPUSA. Calmly, almost serenely, Dewey skewered Stassen (“my distinguished confrere”), demolishing his arguments at every turn and deriding the veracity of the Communist Party as a source. Casually he leafed through documents to quote Representative Karl Mundt (R-SD) and the Republican-controlled House Committee on Un-American Activities to the contrary.

Stassen collapsed. “In rebuttal the Minnesotan was a different man,” KPOJ’s Swafford recalled, “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.”

Dewey had been gaining on Stassen even before the debate. On its eve, Dewey’s campaign manager even predicted a 7,500-vote victory in Oregon’s primary. Another Dewey functionary later calculated the margin at 12,000. In any case, the debate seemed to crush Stassen not merely in Oregon but nationwide. On Primary Day, Dewey captured 53 percent of the vote — 111,657 to Stassen’s 101,419 — securing all 12 Oregon delegates. The next stop was Philadelphia and the Republican National Convention — and the nomination of Thomas Edmund Dewey.

Then, as now, debates can make or break a candidate. That is why some candidates covet them and others — perhaps wisely, perhaps not — merely flee.

Presidential election scholar David Pietrusza is the author of 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America,1920: The Year of the Six Presidents and 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon.