Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Great Pennsylvania Debate -- In McKeesport

(This column will appear at - Sunday, April 20, 2008 - it is now posted at -- DRS

The Great Pennsylvania Debate – in McKeesport
By David R. Stokes

Presidential debates, especially the intra-party variety we are witnessing these days, are frequent to the point of becoming common place, if not benign. They seem to prove what Marshall McLuhan said about medium equaling message. The recent gotcha-fest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could make even the wildest political animal long for the days when debates were fewer and farther between.

Or at least interesting.

I’ve found myself longing a bit for those sixteen silent years between 1960 and 1976, when debates weren’t part of presidential campaigns. In fact, they were rarely mentioned at all. Maybe Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were on to something.

In spite of abundant current evidence of forensic mediocrity, there does seem to be renewed interest these days in the gold standard for political debate – those serious and cerebral verbal exchanges between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas one hundred and fifty years ago. And, even though their experience was part of a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, and not the White House itself, comparing that historic dialogue with what political debating has become in our age tempts one to switch the television channel to something with more depth.

Like a rerun of The Price is Right on The Game Show Network.

It actually took ninety years for what Abe and Steve did so well to even begin to impact modern American presidential politics. In 1948, Republican hopeful Harold Stassen debated Thomas Dewey before the Oregon Republican Primary. In 1956, Estes Kefauver debated Adlai Stevenson before the Florida Democratic Primary. And, of course, all modern day discussion of presidential debates inevitably includes a reference to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960.

The first of those now legendary debates took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960. It was moderated by Howard K. Smith and watched on television by more than 70 million Americans. But, in fact, it really wasn’t their first debate.

With this year’s Pennsylvania primary now on center stage, it’s interesting to note that Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy had their very own Keystone state debate moment many years before – back in 1947.

The two young Navy war veterans were elected to Congress in 1946 – Kennedy from Massachusetts and Nixon from California. During their first days in congress, they were appointed to the House Education and Labor Committee and were, as Nixon later recalled, “like a pair of unmatched bookends.”

In April of 1947, they traveled to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a coal mining and steel industry town of around 50,000 citizens at the time, located about fifteen miles from Pittsburgh, at the confluence of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers. They had been asked to debate before a Junto Forum (this kind of discussion-based group dated back to the days of Benjamin Franklin) and to argue the merits, or lack thereof, of a piece of legislation informally known as the Taft-Hartley bill (officially, it was “The Labor-Management Relations Act”).

This legislation had already passed the House and was at that time before the Senate. It was designed to rein in what was referred to at the time as Big Labor, and was the most successful of more than 200 similar bills proposed in the immediate aftermath of the war, as the country faced significant labor unrest. It would eventually clear the Senate and be vetoed by President Truman, who referred to it as a “slave labor” bill. His veto was then overridden and he actually found himself using the act a dozen or so times during his presidency.

The debate took place at the Penn McKee Hotel, with about one hundred and fifty people in the audience. Nixon spoke in strong support of the bill. Kennedy was opposed - but not without commending certain aspects of the legislation. Chris Matthews in his 1996 book – “Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America”- suggested that the crowd clearly favored Kennedy (being a largely blue-collar and pro-labor district) and that the catcalls from some had been so fierce that “a local business leader felt called upon to apologize to the Republican congressman in writing.”

But Kennedy saw it differently. In October of 1962, just three days before he would see the first photographic evidence of the Soviet missile build up in Cuba, President Kennedy returned to McKeesport. In his speech that day at their City Hall, he recalled: “The first time I came to this city was in 1947, when Mr. Richard Nixon and I engaged in our first debate. He won that one, and we went on to other things.”


It’s a fascinating little bit of history in preview – a joint appearance of these two young men with such compelling and interrelated futures ahead of them.

Following their debate that evening long ago, the two future fierce opponents made their way to the town’s Star Diner to eat hamburgers and talk about baseball. They were killing time before heading to the train station to catch the midnight Capital Unlimited back to Washington.

Sharing a compartment on the train, they drew straws to see who got the lower berth. Nixon won that one too.

By all accounts, Mr. 35 and Mr. 37 talked long into the wee hours of the morning about the issue that most resonated with them – foreign policy. The Cold War was underway, and these two men who would play such vital roles during its most critical moments, contemplated their world.

If only we had a transcript of THAT debate. -- DRS

The Preacher King - His Last Year

(this column appeared at - Sunday, April 13, 2008 - to see an archive of my townhall columns go to: )

The Preacher King - His Last Year
By David R. Stokes

Attending a national conference on preaching here in the Washington, D.C. area this past week, I noted many references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the recently past 40th anniversary of his tragic assassination was referred to by speaker after speaker. King was certainly a giant in our history, a man of thought and action remembered as someone who had the courage of his convictions.

Dr. King was a great man on so many levels. But he was first a Pastor-Preacher, erudite and eloquent – persuasive and passionate. And with preaching in the news recently, I revisited some of his last sermons and speeches, wondering how they’d play in today’s cultural and political climate.

Of course, such a translation of any discourse from one era to another is potentially perilous, running the risk of ignoring the context of the remarks and the idiosyncrasy of the current moment. But I think it’s fascinating to consider the words themselves, especially in light of the firestorm recently created by the pulpit pronouncements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

While there are occasional similarities in language between Wright and King, there is most certainly a difference in tenor and tone. Yet, Dr. King could be a controversialist himself when it came to saying provocative things from the podium or pulpit.

A year to the day before his death in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. occupied the pulpit of Riverside Church in Manhattan. This church, built against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920’s, was founded by Harry Emerson Fosdick and John D. Rockefeller Jr. - a liberal preacher with a generous benefactor. Mr. Rockefeller initially donated more than $10.5 million and his contribution grew to more than $32 million by 1959 – a case of petrodollars funding Protestant liberalism.

As Dr. King spoke to a crowd of nearly 4,000 on April 4, 1967, he said that as a religious leader he wanted to “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high ground of a firm dissent.” His subject was not Civil Rights – it was the Vietnam War.

Though careful to talk about America as his “beloved nation,” and not at all hesitant to address the crowd as “my fellow Americans,” he said that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” was “my own government.”

At that time, polls indicated that nearly 75% of Americans supported the war.

Dr. King faced his own media firestorm in the immediate aftermath of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post described it as “unsupported fantasy,” and the New York Times called it “Dr. King’s Error.” U.S. News and World Report went even further suggesting that King was “lining up with Hanoi” and President Johnson angrily speculated that King had “thrown in with the Commies.”

Even legendary baseball player/hero Jackie Robinson came out against the speech and the NAACP adopted a resolution warning that King’s effort to connect the anti-war movement with civil rights was a “serious tactical mistake.”

Later that year, the annual Gallup Poll of the Ten Most Popular Americans would not include the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - for the first time in more than a decade.

One long and very difficult year after his Riverside remarks, Dr. King was in Memphis. And the night before his death he was scheduled to speak at Mason Temple. There were storm and tornado warnings and he was weary from travel, so he asked Rev. Ralph Abernathy to go in his place. When Abernathy got to the church, he saw thousands who had braved violent weather to hear King, so he called back to the Lorraine Motel and encouraged his friend to come over. King did and he gave what was to be his last sermon.

During his 20-minute extemporaneous address that evening he asked: “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” - adding as a word of encouragement to the great number of preachers in the crowd: “I want to commend the preachers…and I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.” As he warmed to the crowd and his message he said: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words.”

He called for the development of what he referred to as “a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” and segued to a rhetorical comfort zone, the Biblical story of The Good Samaritan. He used the famous story as the basis for his admonition: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with greater determination…We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Then he waxed personal and described a previous assassination attempt by “a demented black woman” ten years before and how the blade came so close to his aorta that one sneeze would have ended his life. This was a familiar King story, one that he told many times with the refrain “If I had sneezed…” being repeated again and again for effect. At this point, other preachers on the platform that night became unsettled because this story was usually one placed earlier in a speech. The concern was that Dr. King might “miss his landing” and not end on a high note.

There is an old formula in the African-American tradition of preaching: “Start low, go slow. Rise higher, catch fire. Retire.” The concern was that King was not quite catching fire. Then, however, came those final moments as he talked about being to the mountain top and seeing the “promised land” and the now famous and passionate ending: “So, I’m happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

As a preacher King was Sunday-centric, always with an eye on the next sermon. So the next afternoon, Thursday, April 4, 1968, he placed a call from room 306 of the Lorraine Motel back to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and gave his secretary the title for his upcoming Palm Sunday sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.”

He never had the chance to preach that one. A few hours later his voice was silenced in a brief and deadly explosion of violence.

Dr. King is remembered 40 years later for his words and deeds. He is honored - appropriately so - as a hero. It is, though, an interesting question: “What would Dr. King say today – and how would he be received?” - DRS