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Northwest hosted first-ever nationally broadcast presidential debate

Governor Tom Dewey of New York rubs elbows with members of the Oregon Caveman Club of Grants Pass, Oregon, on May 9, 1948, as he campaigns for the Republican nomination for president. (Oregon Historical Society)

The modern era of the presidential debate on TV dates back to John F. Kennedy versus Richard M. Nixon in the autumn of 1960. But it was actually 12 years before that when candidates seeking the White House first took to the national airwaves on radio, and they did it from right here in the Pacific Northwest.

In May 1948, the Republican Party was choosing a nominee to run against incumbent Democratic President Harry Truman. The Republican front-runner was New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who had lost to FDR, Truman’s predecessor, in 1944 – with a little help from the wartime president’s dog.

Oregon held the final primary in the country in 1948. In the weeks before, Dewey and the upstart candidate Harold E. Stassen, Navy veteran and former youthful governor of Minnesota, crisscrossed the Beaver State by bus, pressing the flesh and looking for votes in dozens of communities large and small.

At some point in late April or early May, Stassen challenged Dewey to a debate. Dewey agreed about a week in advance and with several conditions favorable only to himself. The debate was held at radio station KEX in downtown Portland on May 17, 1948, with an audience of reporters looking on. In case anyone’s interested in dedicating a plaque there, the old KEX building at 1230 Southwest Main Street appears to still be standing.

Radio station KEX was an ABC affiliate, but the broadcast was also carried by the Mutual and NBC networks, and it’s believed that 40 million people tuned in – about 25% of the population in 1948.

There were fewer direct primary elections in those days, with many states choosing their delegates for particular candidates via statewide party conventions. Thus, not all states were contested by all candidates, and while Dewey and Stassen showed up in Oregon, other 1948 candidates did not — including Governor Earl Warren of California and Robert Taft, son of President William Taft. Evergreen State Republicans had held their party’s convention on the previous Saturday in Bellingham, with all delegates being pledged to Dewey.

The KEX debate was an hour long and took place on a Monday evening, forcing radio stations to preempt regular programming, including such favorites as the “Carnation Contented Hour” and “The Fred Waring Program.” The CBS network was the sole national chain to choose not to carry the debate, so KIRO listeners in Seattle didn’t have to miss Lux Radio Theater’s presentation of the radio version of a film called “The Homestretch,” starring Maureen O’Hara and Cornell Wilde.

The moderator of the Portland proceedings was chairman of Multnomah County Republican Central Committee, Donald Van Buskirk, though very little actual moderation was required. The showdown in Portland was more of an academic style debate exploring the merits of a single question: “Shall the Communist Party in the United States be outlawed?”

It’s fair to wonder how much this question meant to Oregonians in 1948, compared with more standard election grist such as jobs and government spending. However, an Associated Press story published in multiple newspapers on the day of the debate said that outlawing the Communist Party was “an issue which overshadowed all others in the campaign for Oregon’s 12 Republican votes.”

In the format that Dewey had insisted on and that Stassen had agreed to, each candidate had 20 minutes to deliver prepared remarks, followed by a short rebuttal period by each. With this structure, the more experienced politician Dewey had the final word.

Stassen spoke first and took the affirmative position in favor of outlawing the Communist Party. Though this single-question format had been one of Dewey’s conditions for taking part in the debate, in his opening pitch, Stassen managed to work in some of his more general views and campaign positions, and he even gave a little shoutout to local issues.

I’ve submitted to the people of Oregon my position on the building of the resources and the rapid development of the Columbia Basin and the Willamette Valley, the need for long-range programs in agriculture and forestry, and the importance of that fair balance between management and labor, and the progress in housing and health. I presented my view of a strong foreign policy for America, with alert and trained military positions, the Marshall Plan, leadership toward amending [and] strengthening the United Nations’ Charter, the stopping of shipments of machine tools and electrical equipment to Russia, the direct outlawing of the Communist organizations in America and in the free countries, and positive action in ideals and moral standards, and justice on a worldwide basis. — Harold E. Stassen

It’s not surprising the Russians came up in a debate about Communism in 1948, as they seem to keep coming up in nearly every debate since. Just three years after World War II had ended, America was already locked into the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and there were real and imagined fears of foreign and foreign-influenced subversives hiding under every rock.

As Stassen continued, he laid out his disagreement with Governor Dewey in what now feels like a quaint and outdated style, replete with dignified tone and tenor.

Governor Dewey has insisted that our present laws are adequate. I submit that a new law is needed. It should directly make it illegal after its passage to carry on any organization either above ground or below ground, which is directed by the rulers of a foreign power for the purpose of overthrowing the government of the United States, destroying the liberties of its people and bringing this country under the domination of the rulers of a foreign power. — Harold E. Stassen

Even with their disagreements, there’s a level of respectfulness in the 1948 broadcast that we haven’t seen much lately in presidential debates. Of course, the Dewey-Stassen debate was a primary matchup, so you’d expect a certain cordiality between candidates of the same party. Stassen, it seems, was saving his tough talk for the Commies.

“I am confident that Governor Dewey’s opposition is completely sincere, but I respectfully ask him to reconsider his opposition, as I believe he is mistaken,” Stassen said. “His position, in effect, means a soft policy toward communism, and all the evidence around the world shows that a soft policy wins neither peace, nor respect, nor improvement from the Communists.“

If any of this language makes you think of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s, the “junior senator from Wisconsin” was a Stassen supporter in 1948. At least one account puts Senator McCarthy in Portland with Stassen on the night of the debate.

With Stassen’s 20 minutes up, the negative position – against outlawing the Communist Party – was the domain of Tom Dewey, and the New York governor made it fairly clear how he felt.

I am unalterably, wholeheartedly, unswervingly against any scheme to write laws outlawing people because of their religious, political, social, or economic ideas. I’m against it because it’s a violation of the Constitution of the United States and of the Bill of Rights, and clearly so. I’m against it because it’s immoral and nothing but totalitarianism itself. I’m against it because I know from a great many years experience in the enforcement of the law that the proposal wouldn’t work, and instead, it would rapidly advance the cause of Communism in the United States and all over the world. — Governor Thomas E. Dewey

Dewey was unstinting in his condemnation of outlawing the Communist Party and his characterization of such an act being downright un-American. The New York governor name-checked Hitler and Stalin and mentioned Japanese war leaders – all of whom were still fresh in the minds of Americans just three years after World War II, and with Stalin still in control of the Soviet Union.

As I’ve watched this proposal, this easy panacea of getting rid of ideas by passing laws, I’ve been increasingly shocked. To outlaw the Communist Party would be recognized every place on earth as a surrender by the great United States to the methods of totalitarianism stripped to its naked essentials. This is nothing but the method of Hitler and Stalin, it is thought control borrowed from the Japanese war leadership. It’s an attempt to beat down ideas with a club. It’s a surrender of everything we believe in. — Governor Thomas E. Dewey

When it was all over, Dewey was believed by most to have won the argument, though newspaper pundits at The Oregon Journal described the somewhat academic battle as “The Debate of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

In the nation’s capital, The Washington Star newspaper saw the future of similar matchups:

If judgment as to the winner of last night’s debate remains a matter of personal and divided opinion, there should be no disagreement on the value of such debates. They are educational in character, they put the speakers on their mettle, they reveal weaknesses which are obscured in ordinary campaign speech-making. If there were more of them, we would have better campaigns, candidates better prepared to discuss the real issues of the day and an electorate composed of the American radio public, better able to judge both issues and candidates. — Quoted in The Great Debates: Background, Perspective, Effects, edited by Sidney Kraus

Debate reviews and punditry notwithstanding, Governor Dewey won the Oregon primary a few days later. A month after that in Philadelphia, Dewey fought off a backroom challenge and won his party’s nomination on the third ballot at the Republican National Convention. That November, Dewey (and running mate Earl Warren) failed to defeat President Truman, who many had expected to lose – and despite what thousands of copies of The Chicago Tribune erroneously reported the next morning in giant letters.

Meanwhile, at least one more national figure had weighed in on the merits of the Dewey-Stassen Portland debate. Gracie Allen, comedic actress and wife of comedian George Burns, reviewed the broadcast in her daily syndicated newspaper feature the next morning.

“I thought it was a much nicer type of campaigning,” Allen wrote, “than going around the country patting defenseless cows on the head.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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