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Dewey beats Stassen: Republicans hold a real debate

"The little man on the wedding cake" returns to his home base. Credit: Palumbo/New York World-Telegram (Library of Congress)

Sometimes it seemed they would never end, and at times as if their prime contribution was to provide laugh lines for late-night comedians. But the string of Republican debates leading to January’s caucuses and elections has already set a record for television viewership (7.63 million for the Dec. 10 ABC debate) and helped winnow the huge field of wannabe nominees. The debates have elevated Newt Gingrich from hapless trailer to frontrunner, revealed Rick Perry’s ignorance and Herman Cain’s shallow grasp of issues, and raised the prospect of an independent run for Ron Paul. And despite complaints that low-polling candidates weren’t showcased, a Washington Post study showed they actually got more air time than they deserved. Increasingly, however, pundits have come to consider the debates only a secondary factor after the overwhelming influence of Fox News, which has become an unofficial Republican cable outlet.

One conservative pundit, George Will, had enough of the clown show. “Because the very idea of an eight-sided debate is absurd,” he wrote, “and because such a televised event is survival of the briefest, the format discourages the drawing of sensible distinctions.” Instead, Will called for a “debate of substance” on just two topics, Iraq and the Supreme Court.

Actually, there was once just such a Republican primary debate, and it may have turned the tides of fortune for the participants. New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey and former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen faced off on May 17, 1948 in Portland, Oregon, in the first and only radio debate between primary contenders. Broadcast nationally, it drew somewhere between 40 million and 80 million listeners.

Radio was the hot news medium of the day. During World War II the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and other foreign correspondents drew big audiences across the nation, and for a few years afterward radio remained the most powerful news force in America. And Oregon’s direct presidential primary, a keystone of its progressive tradition, was one of the few such contest in the country; in most states national convention delegates were chosen at  meetings of party activists.

Stassen, the “boy governor of Minnesota,” would become a laughingstock in later years by refusing to give up his presidential ambitions. But in 1948 he was one of the nation’s most popular politicians in the country, a successful governor in the progressive mold and clearly a man with a political future.

Dewey, serving his second term as New York governor, had built a reputation as a crime-busting prosecutor and run in 1944 against President Roosevelt. But he was on the ropes in his second bid for the GOP nomination; Stassen had won primaries in Wisconsin and Nebraska and was looking and feeling confident. Dewey needed to stop a growing Stassen wave.

“Stassen is coolly self-confident, lacking any apparent awareness of an audience and calmly deliberate in decision and action,” columnist Joseph Alsop wrote on the eve of the Oregon vote. “Dewey, on the other hand, is always aware of his audience. He plainly calculates his efforts. He makes a show of his briskness and decisiveness, which, although real, seem also intended to impress. Stassen, one suspects, has always ruled those around him without effort. Dewey has always had to assert himself in order to dominate his environment. It is this visible effort to be master that causes so many people to be put off by Dewey.”

The governor of New York was a small, trim man with a brush mustache; his critics likened him to “the little man on the wedding cake.” The governor of Minnesota was large and gregarious, and held liberal views on foreign policy and most domestic issues. Both were to the left of the Grand Old Party grandees, who favored Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.

Stassen had campaigned in Oregon in March and gained considerable press coverage, most of it favorable. But he was forced to return to Oregon when Dewey announced he would spend an unprecedented three weeks in the state, with only 12 delegates at stake but a national media spotlight aimed squarely at the two governors. Taft and other hopefuls were not competing in Oregon.

Dewey had put a good face on his two primary losses, but knew he could not survive a third. He told reporters he was headed west for three weeks of “good old campaigning, which I love.” 

“No stunt was too corny for the Governor of New York to participate in,” writes Dewey’s biographer Richard Norton Smith. “At Coos Bay, he allowed the local Pirates Club to prick his arm and draw blood with which he might sign their guestbook. At Grants Pass, Dewey gnawed on a bone handed to him by a cavorting group of half-naked ‘cave men.’ . . . He managed a look of delight when someone handed him a bushel of dripping razor clams. At Salem, his bus ran over a dog and the candidate immediately wired ‘my profound regrets’ to its owners, who, within twenty-four hours, were presented a new cocker spaniel, promptly named Dewey.”

“Dewey hated all the hoopla, but he kept at it gamely, knowing that he was closing Stassen’s lead with every day he remained in the state,” Smith noted. In addition to the campaign-trail hoopla, Dewey injected a record amount of money into his blitz; radio stations were saturated with his commercials and the Oregonian ran five Dewey ads a day.

The contenders agreed on many issues but sharply disagreed on a key one: whether to outlaw communism in the United States. The Cold War was already emerging on the international scene, and a war-weary nation saw or imagined growing Red threats, both from Russia and from within.

Stassen, moving to his right, wanted to outlaw the Communist Party of the United State; his traveling party included a very junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, who was on the cusp of his national anticommunist crusade. Dewey, moving left, said that was not in the American tradition of free speech, and wouldn’t work in any event.

Hurrying back to meet Dewey’s challenge, Stassen ran into a trap. Dewey had rejected earlier Stassen challenges to debate, before Stassen began piling up primary victories. But when Tom Swafford, a producer at Portland radio station KEX, suggested a single-topic debate on outlawing the Communist Party in America, Dewey snapped up the offer. Stassen foolishly accepted all Dewey’s terms, including giving Dewey the final statement.

The debate, four days before the voting, was broadcast to to some 900 stations over the ABC and NBC radio networks. Sixty-three years later, it can still be heard via a British Pathe movie newsreel and an audio recording available for download.

It was the first national debate in a presidential primary and the first—and last—broadcast solely on radio. There were no reporter panels, no audience questions, no elaborate rules or sound-bite limits on answers. A large contingent of reporters attended; The New York Times gave the debate and subsequent voting prominent front-page coverage.

Dewey, an experienced courtroom prosecutor with a deep radio voice, took what would seem an unpopular position in a nation already slipping into Cold War anticommunism: “I am unalterably, wholeheartedly, and unswervingly against any scheme to write laws outlawing people because of their religion, political, social or economic ideas,” he growled. Stassen seemed to be caught unprepared, and could not counter the New Yorker’s appeal to Oregonians’ sense of fair play and independent spirit.

Stassen’s advisors, writes scholar Richard M. Fried, saw the momentum shift. “’I think I can show you statistically where the debate cost 8000 votes,” Fried quotes Stassen’s pollster as saying. “‘Before it, Oregonians favored outlawing Communism 2 to 1; afterward they opposed it 2 to 1. Of those who heard the debate, more than 3 out of 4 thought Dewey won it.’” Stassen, Fried concludes, “failed to rebut the premise that outlawry would curb ‘freedom of speech and Democracy’ and that making ‘martyrs’ of Communists only aided them.” Dewey won the May 21 vote, 93,644 votes to Stassen’s 87,249.

Oregon editors, generally moderate Republicans, had earlier liked Stassen, but some shifted to Dewey. “We have been won back to Dewey by his magnificent presentation of our democratic faith, which too few understand fully,” wrote William Tugman of the Eugene Register-Guard. The Oregon Statesman‘s Charles A. Sprague, a former Republican governor, stuck with Stassen but noted presciently after the debate that “in losing Oregon, I think he loses his chance for the Republican presidential nomination.” And he took Dewey’s side against outlawing communism: “He won enough serious-minded, intelligent Republicans to turn the tide in his favor.” At age 41, Sprague added, Stassen still had a great political future ahead of him.

It didn’t turn out that way. Stassen served as president of the University of Pennsylvania and in a variety of governmental positions. But later in life he resumed running for president in an ultimately tragic effort to redress his great defeat. An overconfident Dewey meanwhile lost to President Harry S. Truman in one of the great upsets in American history.

Presidential primaries and media have both become much more complex since 1948. Two-person primary races are hard to imagine today, as are single-topic debates or debates without large audiences. Stassen himself set the pace for future primary campaigns, which until 1948 had not included the sort of intense, early, in-person campaigning he brought to Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Oregon — with an organization created and directed by fellow Minnesotan Warren Burger, a future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  “Stassen’s forthright quest for votes may end much of the traditional coyness of aspirants,” Newsweek predicted in early May 1948. “In the future, it is thought that more candidates will frankly announce their intentions well in advance of election year and work openly for delegates to the conventions.”

Today, radio is a secondary player. In 1948, only a week after the Oregon debate, New York Times reporter James A. Hagerty wrote that CBS was creating a precedent: television broadcasts of both parties’ candidates for president. The first of several interviews would be with Harold E. Stassen. This, Hagerty wrote, “almost certainly will become a new method of political campaigning—by television.”

Click here to see footage of the 1948 Republican convention.

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