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Watching the Debates on Radio

Thomas Dewey button.

Harold Stassen button.

Credit: Buttons from the collection of Ken Rudin, NPR News

WEB EXTRA Jan. 8, 2004 -- By all accounts, Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, sponsored by NPR, was pretty remarkable. It was also quite historic.

Six candidates, sitting in a room, with a host acting as part moderator, part traffic cop and part play-by-play announcer. How would the moderator, Talk of the Nation's Neal Conan, be able to identify who was talking without stepping over the candidates as they were talking? It's one thing to do it on television. But on radio?

Well, it worked. The questions were solid, the answers thoughtful, and there was no playing to the cameras or the studio audience, precisely because there were no cameras or studio audience. The best part of all is that when it was over, there was a noticeable absence of a need to declare a "winner." Theoretically, debates are supposed to produce serious discourse and elucidation; think Lincoln v. Douglas. But that's not how the media have been portraying it. Lately it's been about winners and losers and gaffes and gotchas. And that's no small part of the reason fewer and fewer viewers tune in.

That's why Tuesday's debate worked. We heard in-depth positions from the six candidates who showed up: Carol Moseley Braun, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich and Joe Lieberman. We heard differences over Iraq, taxes and the war on terrorism. We even learned which candidate had never been on a snowmobile! (That would be Lieberman.) One candidate even brought in a prop! (That was Kucinich.) There were no cameras panning the audience to see who had the best one-liner, who made the bone-headed remark. There was little of the food-fight visible during some of the televised debates.

Before this week, there had been just one radio-only presidential candidate debate in history. It took place on May 17, 1948, at radio station KEX in Portland, Ore. The participants were Republicans Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, and former Gov. Harold Stassen of Minnesota, with no studio audience, and it occurred just four days before the crucial Oregon primary. Stassen was coming off victories over Dewey in Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. If Dewey were to win the GOP nomination -- as he had four years prior -- he would have to win in Oregon. He had entered the race as the prohibitive favorite, but as they pulled into Oregon, a Gallup Poll showed Stassen ahead.

An audience estimated between 40 million and 80 million listeners tuned in as Dewey and Stassen debated just one topic: whether the Communist Party in the United States should be outlawed. Stassen, considered a liberal Republican, nonetheless argued on behalf of banning the Communist Party. Dewey said that if the party were outlawed, then the United States would stoop to the level of Hitler and Stalin. A diffident campaigner and a painfully private person, Dewey gave an unusually forceful performance during the debate, one that most listeners felt he clearly won. It helped him win the primary and, ultimately, the nomination.

There are light years of difference between the fight for the presidential nomination of 1948 and its counterpart today. But they both had radio-only debates that were reasoned, refreshing and meaningful. That's why I suspect there will be more debates of this kind to come.




"Politically Speaking" appears Mondays and Thursdays, examining events on the campaign trail and other political developments. Contributors include NPR national and political correspondents and editors Ron Elving, Mara Liasson, Ken Rudin, Linda Wertheimer and Juan Williams.