As today’s fiftieth anniversary of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon concludes, it’s worth thinking about the long, long process that led to it.
The series of debates across between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln became part of American political folklore even before the final words of the Illinois Senator and his rail-splitting challenger echoed across Alton, Illinois, on October 15, 1858. Though Douglas, several weeks later, defeated Lincoln in the election, the confrontations between the two men virtually assured Douglas of the Democratic nomination for President in 1860 and catapulted Lincoln, until then little known outside his own state, to national prominence and a fast track to the Republican ticket the same year.
This memory remained strong, especially among Republican politicians. So it was not t00 surprising that, after the advent of radio made it possible for such a debate to reach millions, it was Wendell Willkie, on his way to the 1940 Republican presidential nomination, who first sought a debate against his opponent.
In 1939, on the national radio show Town Hall Of The Air, Willkie had debated President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s solicitor general, Robert Jackson. The Indiana native, who up to then had been mainly known in Manhattan legal and social circles, performed strongly against Jackson, and overnight became a major GOP figure with across-the-board appeal.
After winning the nomination, Willkie called upon FDR to debate him, pointing out that Lincoln and Daniel Webster had not been afraid of such meetings. The President declined, stating that the business of the nation (and, indeed, the pressure of foreign affairs, with World War II raging in Europe) did not permit him time to undertake this. Not to be outdone, Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas, setting a precedent for Ralph Nader decades later, repeatedly showed up at Willkie’s appearances, seeking a debate as well. Willkie said he would agree to face Thomas, but only if FDR participated as well. Even then, the notion of a Presidential debate between candidates of three parties was proving a headache for the would-be promoters of such events; there’s a reason why the only time it ever happened in a half-century was when Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot faced each other in 1992.
Eight years passed before the idea of a debate on the Presidential level got going again, and when it happened, it occurred within the party-primary context. In the early spring of 1948, Harold Stassen, the energetic ex-governor of Minnesota, scored several primary victories against New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, who’d run against FDR in 1944. On May 17, 1948, the night before the Oregon primary, the two contenders for the GOP nod confronted each other before a national radio audience, estimated at 40 million (of a total US population, at the time, of just under 150 million).
The question argued was whether the Communist Party of the United States should be outlawed. Stassen, considered the leader of the GOP’s liberal wing, argued for the ratification of a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Karl Mundt of North Dakota and a first-term Congressman from California, Richard Nixon, which would require members of the CP to register with the Attorney General. (Whittaker Chambers’s dramatic appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee on which Mundt and Nixon sat, with his charges against Alger Hiss, were several months in the future.)
Dewey made the argument in the negative, maintaining that it was preferable that the CP remain legal and unaffected by the Mundt-Nixon bill so that Americans would be see it in the open and be fully informed of its aims and views. The next day, the New Yorker won the primary, and went on to handily win the nomination. That night in Oregon proved to be Stassen’s high-water mark politically; from there, the road led to eight more runs for the White House. By 1992, when he made his last attempt at the age of 84, one of his opponents was Pat Buchanan, who had been nine years old when Stassen debated Dewey.
Eight more years went by before another big debate. This time it was on television, and it happened on the Democratic side – and once more it involved a challenge to the party’s Presidential nominee of four years before. In early 1956, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver tramped through the snows of New Hampshire sporting the same Davy Crockett coonskin cap every seven-year-old boy in the country had worn the year before – and which he’d worn in 1952 when he’d dramatically defeated President Truman in the Granite State primary. And in 1956, Kefauver overwhelmingly beat Adlai Stevenson, his party’s 1952 Presidential nominee, and went on to win several primaries.
Stevenson sought a debate with Kefauver, and his opponent agreed. But the usual negotiations and arguments over setting and date went on, and by the time the meeting actually happened just before the Florida primary, Stevenson had regained traction and won several contests. So when the debate aired, it was a little anticlimactic…and the fact that it involved a slightly balding Southerner (there was a reason Estes favored the coonskin) and a nearly bald Midwesterner made it a contrast, especially to the primary debates of later years, with their long lines of (mostly) meticulously coiffed and poised candidates. Although Kefauver, soon after the debate, nearly defeated Stevenson in Florida, the latter made a comeback in California and, like Dewey in 1948, secured the nomination.
But this time, the Stevenson-Kefauver debate did revive interest in the idea of the Republican and Democratic nominees meeting face-to-face. And the man who got the spark going, surprisingly enough, was a twenty-three-year-old undergraduate at the University of Maryland named Fred Kahn, who at the age of five, with his parents, had fled Hitler’s Germany. Kahn, vice-president of the university’s International Club, decided to promote a debate between Stevenson and President Eisenhower who was seeking re-election, the event to take place on the University of Maryland campus at College Park, within an hour’s drive of the White House. He enlisted the endorsement of Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin, who had nominated Ike at the GOP convention, and of Stevenson’s most important supporter, Eleanor Roosevelt.
But though the idea received the endorsement of many newspapers and prominent Americans, the university’s Board of Regents nixed the idea, partly because it considered the proposed debate a violation of campus rules against political campaigning, partly because it thought there was little point in such an event taking place among students who, in those days, couldn’t vote anyway.
But Kahn’s efforts went a long way toward finalizing the decades-long push for a Presidential debate. Two years later, the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas meetings were the subject of countless articles and editorials, and America warmed increasingly to the idea of debates in 1960. And so it was, by that year, that JFK and RN finally met. The events that had come before played their part. Nixon, when agreeing to meet Kennedy, would have had in mind Dewey’s triumph over Stassen. And Kennedy was well aware that four years before Kefauver had used his debate to nearly derail Stevenson’s path to the nomination. Twenty years after Wendell Willkie issued his challenge, debates between Republican and Democratic nominees were a reality – and, following a 16-year hiatus, they have remained so.