The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Harold Stassen
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. The snows have left the woods of New Hampshire and the summer visitors haven`t arrived. But the small towns are already thick with politicians and advancemen preparing for the first presidential primary next winter. The 1980 race for the presidency promises, like the Boston marathon, to be more crowded than ever. So far there are fifty-eight recognized candidates. One of them is Harold Stassen, the most persistent seeker of the presidency since the office was invented. He has run in every race since 1948, and now, at seventy-two, is trying again. Tonight, with Mr. Stassen in Washington with Jim Lehrer, we explore why Harold Stassen won`t give up.
Harold Stassen, the grand old man, in fact first surfaced in public life as the boy wonder. Born on a truck farm outside Minneapolis, he finished elementary school in four years, was out of high school by fifteen, law school shortly thereafter, and became the attorney general for Dakota County, Minneapolis, by the age of twenty-three. He then went on to become the youngest governor in history when he took office in 1938 at the age of thirty-one. He won again in 1940, the same year in which he was the keynoter at the Republican Convention, and floor manager for Wendell Wilkie, and was reelected again in 1942.
At the height of a winning streak that seemed to have no end, Stassen resigned to go on active duty in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and was heavily decorated. He returned determined to be the President of the United States. It was 1948, and postwar America looked to a new era -- and a new President.
FIRST VOICE:... my senior colleague in the Senate, the Honorable Robert A. Taft...
SECOND VOICE: ...America`s next President, Thomas E. Dewey.
THIRD VOICE: I nominate Douglas MacArthur.
FOURTH VOICE: ...a recognized statesman, the Honorable Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg.
FIFTH VOICE: ...the man America needs and wants, Harold E. Stassen!
MacNEIL: Stassen campaigned calling for a progressive brand of Republicanism. He scored impressive victories in the Nebraska and Wisconsin primaries, only to be overwhelmed in Oregon by Thomas Dewey, who won the nomination. Undaunted, Stassen tried again in 1952. He was encouraged by General Eisenhower, who saw him as a stockinghorse to draw delegates away from Senator Robert Taft. Eisenhower assumed Stassen would turn his delegates over to him. Stassen assumed differently. As the Republican Convention proceeded, he resisted all pressures to declare for Eisenhower. Not until he received a meager nineteen votes from the Minnesota delegation did Stassen withdraw his name and release his delegates, a shift that gave Eisenhower a narrow victory. Then Stassen took the convention floor to oppose a vice presidential candidate named Richard Nixon, an attitude that grew into a cause for Stassen. Despite his opposition, Eisenhower chose Nixon, and rewarded Stassen with the chairmanship of the Foreign Operations Administration, which made him the head of the U.S. foreign aid program and kept him visible in Republican circles.
By 1955 Eisenhower had become disturbed by the prospect of an arms race with the Soviet Union. He decided to create a special assistant for disarmament with cabinet rank, and he named Harold Stassen. Stassen opened a new era in relations with the Soviets: disarmament talks. His basic plan, called "Open Skies," was a precursor to the current SALT talks. It included plans to swap military blueprints with the Soviets, and called for complete aerial surveillance and photography to prevent surprise attacks.
The debate continued with Stassen in the forefront until 1957 and the London disarmament meeting, when he fell from grace. During this meeting Stassen unilaterally revealed parts of the U.S. negotiating plans to the Russians without first consulting U.S. allies. There was a strenuous complaint to President Eisenhower by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and calls for a thorough investigation of U.S. disarmament policies, especially Stassen`s role, by then-Senator Hubert Humphrey. Stassen, disgraced, resigned in 1958. He tried for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Pennsylvania, and lost that, too.
Still undaunted, Stassen continued to run, and campaigned vociferously to oppose the rising figure in the Republican Party, Richard Nixon -a man, he maintained, who alienated the most informed young voters and who would over time decrease support for the party itself. In 1960 Stassen decided to run again. He lost again, but stood up at the Republican Convention to denounce the nomination of Richard Nixon for President, the nomination favored by the party pros. Once again, he was not heeded.
By 1968 the now-perennial Stassen had another cause: Vietnam. Running on a peace platform, he called for a de-escalation of the war in Vietnam. Stassen said that he was simply pursuing a "lifetime commitment to do everything I could to secure peace." His campaign slogan was "Stassen in `68. Why not?" The public obviously wondered just why, and Stassen once again lost.
But he hasn`t given up. As each presidential year has come, so has Harold Stassen, backed by supporters who remember the boy wonder. This time he`s calling for a balanced federal budget and a move to stop inflation with full employment. The message fits the times, but most political pros would call Harold Stassen`s chances about a million to one. One, however, saw it differently. Eugene McCarthy, on the NBC "Today" show, made an interesting observation in 1976.
EUGENE McCARTHY: Well, I`d like to point out that Stassen, the first time he ran, told the Republicans they ought to nominate him and he`d win; and they nominated Tom Dewey and they lost, so Stassen was essentially right the first time. The second time I think his people said he`d make a better President than Eisenhower, and I think he would have -- at least you wouldn`t have gotten Richard Nixon if Stassen had been nominated. And the third time, in `56, he begged the Republicans to get rid of Richard Nixon. So there were three times out for Stassen, and I think he was right each time.
MacNEIL: Before Jim talks to the candidate himself, we want to get some perspective on the man from three people involved in his campaign: David Bush, a twenty-three-year-old law student and borough councilman in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania; Mrs. Theodore Chapman, co-chairman of the Stassen campaign in 1964, former president of the General Federation of Women`s Clubs, the largest organization of women in the world; and William Paul, an Air Force veteran from Georgia and a student at the University of Minnesota.
First Mr. Bush, who heads Students for Stassen. Mr. Bush, why are you, at the age of twenty-three, working for a candidate who is seventy-two?
DAVID BUSH: I feel that a candidate`s age is not essential when dealing with the presidency of the United States. I look at a man`s policies, his beliefs, his background and his abilities. I feel Governor Stassen is by far the most qualified of all the candidates, and after looking at his profile, you`ve pointed out certain aspects of his background that have drawn me to him. For instance, in 1956, his move to drop Richard Nixon from the Republican Party as vice presidential candidate. I feel something like this will appeal to the young people; it appeals to me in particular.
MacNEIL: In trying to make Mr. Stassen appeal to young people, as the head of Students for Stassen, do you have to tell many of them who he is? Are there many who don`t know who he is?
BUSH: I find that to be the situation. A lot of young people have not heard of Harold Stassen, and unfortunately those that have associate the name with the individual that runs for President and has been defeated several times. However, we feel we can overcome that simply by bringing Governor Stassen`s record out, showing his opposition to the war in Vietnam as early as 1968, his opposition to Richard Nixon in 1956 and again in 1960, the Governor`s excellent record on civil rights as Governor of Minnesota, and of course his current position, his opposition to a peacetime draft.
MacNEIL: How do you respond to people who say you`re wasting your time because he always loses? What`s different about this time?
BUSH: Well, of course in any presidential race onlv one individual can win; so consequently if you could pick out the favorite, then everybody else can just quit. I feel that the Governor, when he brings his platform to the young people, we`re going to-get a lot of support and we`re going to be able to make a strong showing at the convention in Detroit.
MacNEIL: You`ve been in New Hampshire already, I gather. What`s the strategy this time?
BUSH: We`re going to go to the young people, we`re going to try to get young people...
MacNEIL: I mean, all the primaries is it, or just New Hampshire, or what?
BUSH: All the primaries. We`re going to hit every state, because we feel that the Governor has to bring his message to the people, the young people as well as the not so young.
MacNEIL: I see. Well, thank you. Now to Mrs. Chapman, an old friend and now a member of the Stassen Advisory Committee. Mrs. Chapman, why is Mr. Stassen relevant today?
HELEN CHAPMAN: Well, with his great integrity, with his vast experience, with his leadership qualities he has analyzed the problems of today and has the answers, I believe.
MacNEIL: What would you say to somebody who asked you, hasn`t his time passed?
CHAPMAN: Well, I would say that he is so dedicated to this country that he can`t forgo an opportunity to present his views, which he is convinced of, which he thinks can solve the problems of our day. And the best platform for that is a candidate for President.
MacNEIL: Do you feel he gets adequate attention in these many candidacies?
CHAPMAN: Well, he does; he certainly does where he gets around. The lacking of funds -- and I think it`s a sad commentary on our system that money elects Presidents. And he`s not had the funds through the years to put on an adequate campaign.
MacNEIL: You know him very well over many years. What is it in his nature that makes him keep running? Is it an ego trip, is it patriotism? How do you explain it to yourself?
CHAPMAN: Well, it`s patriotism. Undoubtedly patriotism, and his inner feeling that he has the answers and that he must present them and give them a chance to materialize before the public.
MacNEIL: Do you think he genuinely thinks he could win the nomination this time?
CHAPMAN: Yes, I think so. I really do.
CHAPMAN: I really do.
MacNEIL: Does he believe that he can have an influence on whoever the Republicans do choose?
CHAPMAN: Yes, I think so.
MacNEIL: By getting delegates that would give him some power base at the convention?
MacNEIL: Why would he, in your view, make a better President than all the people who are currently mentioned as Republican candidates -the Bushes and Bakers and Connallys and all those people?
CHAPMAN: Well, no one can compare to his experience. In the international field, in domestic affairs as the governor of a state and at a national level in Eisenhower`s cabinet and so on, I don`t think any one of them can compare as far as experience is concerned. And then his capacity, as I said, his capacity for leadership, his absolute integrity, honesty, his feeling of caring for people -- I think all these things are going to make him a great President.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Now to William Paul, head of Concerned Blacks for Stassen. Mr. Paul, what appeal does Mr. Stassen have for blacks?
WILLIAM PAUL: Well, Mr. Stassen, by looking into his background, we put trust in Mr. Stassen based on the activities that took place during his administation in Minnesota; he allowed the first black to become a member of the National Guard and hold an executive position, as well as pioneering the areas in regards to the Jefforson town house, if you have heard of that before, in Richmond, Virginia. By talking to Mr. Stassen and plus talking to some black leaders, black leaders throughout the country, they feel that black people are looking for a President with experience and actually cares about our needs.
MacNEIL: Does he actually have visibility or identity among black voters? Do they know about all this?
PAUL: Well, at this time, you know, that`s my job -- to go around and to canvass the black community and to bring Mr. Stassen`s views to the black community, and that`s why we`ve been very successful in Atlanta, Georgia; Virginia; and in Minnesota. The black people are becoming more aware of Mr. Stassen. One other thing I must add is that incidentally, Georgia -- I was just down there a few weeks ago -- and the people in that particular area of the country feel that they are looking for a President that has some experience, and I`m quite certain none of those have any qualms with that, you know, that Mr. Stassen has more experience than any other potential candidate.
MacNEIL: Is it Mr. Stassen himself or merely the Republican Party which might appeal to blacks this year?
PAUL: I believe Mr. Stassen -- I know that it will be Mr. Stassen in the sense that he would be pioneering an area that the Republican Party had been neglecting in the past, and as we know, in 1976 Mr. Car ter received, what, ninety-six percent of the votes -- ninety-three percent of the black votes and Ford received seven. And I feel that that`s a negative aspect of the Republican Party back in that time, and Mr. Stassen has recognized that the Republican Party needs black support as well.
MacNEIL: You`ve been working with Mr. Stassen for several months now. What do you find him like as a man?
PAUL: Wonderful. Mr. Stassen is a very understanding person, he`s considerate, and I notice the amount of energy that he has is remarkable, you know. I`m at the age of twenty-six, and as you have stated, he`s at the age of seventy-two, and most people, they don`t believe that; they assume that he`s at the age of fifty, fifty-one, in that arena.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you very much. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: All right, now to the subject of all this discussion, Harold E. Stassen. Welcome, Governor.
HAROLD STASSEN: Thank you, Jim. Nice to be with you and Robert on
this unusual and excellent program you have, night after night.
LEHRER: Well, thank you, sir. Let me ask you what Robin just asked Ms. Chapman. Why are you running again, sir?
STASSEN: I do feel, Jim, sincerely and deeply, that with all this extensive experience that it`s been my privilege to have, I do have the potential and I`m confident that I can do for the American people what they need urgently done for them: straighten out this oil mess that the administration has caused; stop inflation, and do it with full employment. Those are the kind of policies I`m confident that I can lead in and that I will talk to the people about and carry into the primaries.
LEHRER: Do you think you can win this election?
STASSEN: I think I can, yes. I realize, of course, there are many candidates; but I put it this way, I wouldn`t trade with any of the others.
LEHRER: I see. How do you cope with this million-to-one kind of feeling about you, often accompanied with ridicule and that sort of thing, calling Harold Stassen the perennial candidate. Does that bother you? How do you cope with that?
STASSEN: You expect that in public life, Jim. When I first started to run for governor, they said I was ten million to one, and of course I won and it still stands as the record of the youngest governor in the history of the country, and I think everybody will agree that we did a great job and carried on programs that are still carried forward in Minnesota -- rather basic programs, with compassion for the people, but with balanced budgets and with sound finance. So that this is the record -- and of course it goes on through the United Nations and the Eisenhower years, and right up to now the kind of things I`m carrying on are really what the people need to have carried forward for them.
LEHRER: All right, let`s talk about some of those in detail, particularly your proposal having to do with the economy. As I read it, that is the major thrust of your campaign, is it not?
STASSEN: The greatest danger for the American people today, Jim, is this inflation.-- serious, continuing. As I view it, inflation is like an arsenic poison to a free society; we must stop it.I`m confident I know how to do it. It takes a whole series of things that are different...
LEHRER: Tell me now.
STASSEN: I can give some of them in a quick program. For one thing, you must not go on the high interest and tight money policy; that`s not the way to curb inflation.You must go toward producing and creating and generating the direction for stopping inflation. That in turn means that to have that work out you must balance the budget, and then you must have very constructive programs as to what you do for full employment. Remember that I was in the...
LEHRER: Excuse me, constructive government programs?
STASSEN: That`s right. For instance, in the Eisenhower years -- it`s forgotten perhaps now -- we attained ninety-six percent full employment and no inflation. We started the whole interstate highway system; we did tremendous things utilizing the constructive capacity and productive capacity of the country, and we built up confidence. Confidence is an important part in the government. This shifting we`ve had in recent years is one of the things that causes inflation, uncertainty abroad and at home, and you`ve got to have also an emphasis on integrity. This tremendous corruption that has developed in Washington must be cleaned out. These are the ways you stop inflation, and with it you go forward toward full employment.
LEHRER: Governor, some people might counter what you`ve just said...
STASSEN: Sure they will.
LEHRER: ...particularly on the Eisenhower years idea, that we`re talking about late 1970s, early 1980s, not the 1950s. Have situations not changed? Do you think the same kind of programs would work?
STASSEN: The basics are still correct. In other words, for the 1980s -- and this is really what I`m talking about -- the quality of life for the people, and I think that`s why many young people seem to be coming for ward. I`m talking about how we have the quality of life for the American people in the 1980s; and stopping inflation is one of the most important, because as you know, anytime they go through the supermarket and anytime they try to work out education for their children, inflation is this insidious, arsenic-like poison that just damages the whole people.
LEHRER: Well, let`s be specific. On the whole question of a government program, you said, which would be analogous to the interstate highway construction program...
LEHRER: ...started in the Eisenhower years, what are you advocating specifically that the government do?
STASSEN: This is one of the big construction programs we ought to move forward on promptly, and that is to provide for adequate disposal of the toxic wastes and the nuclear wastes, an abandoned and neglected problem that urgently needs attention. Much construction will be needed and scientific advance, and the government has just drifted on it and it`s so apparent. Furthermore, the matter of...
LEHRER: Excuse me. You mean what the government should do is set up these programs and put people to work...
STASSEN: Put people to work constructing. In other words, there`s a tremendous need for the unused productive capacity of the American people, and at the same time there`s a need to take care of these wastes.
As you well know, all over the country they`ve been kind of neglecting the toxic wastes, neglecting the nuclear wastes; this is a big thing that needs to be done. This is one of the roads. And when you do things that need doing, then that is not an inflationary effect; that builds confidence in the people, and it counters inflation. Likewise in the matter of future water resources and future flood control, there`s much that needs to be done. So constructive things that need to be done for the people, done in a way that creates full employment and does it without this inflationary pressure that this kind of economic policy that recent years have followed have been characterized by.
LEHRER: Well, obviously, Governor, any programs like the two you just outlined would cost money. Where would the money come from?
STASSEN: First of all we`ve got to straighten out our tax program, too much tax evasion and escape; and I`m going to emphasize that there should be a minimum tax, that nobody can use all these loopholes like too much have done; and then you have to straighten out the waste and corruption in government, and then if we need more funds it has to be drawn from all the people fairly, and I believe the best way will be a ten percent nationwide sales tax that incorporates all the local sales taxes and brings the whole economy into complete balance, stops the inflation, which is now, in the soaring prices, costing the people much more than that, and this is the kind of program that can straighten out the finances of this country and stop the inflation.
LEHRER: Well, Governor, as you know, the current mood in the country, both politically and otherwise, seems to be just the opposite. The talk is of cutting taxes...
STASSEN: Seems to be.
LEHRER: ...eliminating taxes, not enacting new ones. How would you get around that?
STASSEN: You have to talk it through. People realize, when they stop to think, that inflation is the most repressive to the poor people; inflation is, as I indicated, a type of an arsenic that just destroys the freedom of the people. So you have to say, we`re going to make everybody pay their fair part of taxes, no more of this escape. We should have -- and I have long advocated -- an excess profits tax part of the total program. But along with that, then you have to have everybody help pay the amount necessary to bring that budget really into balance to stop inflation. And this is the basics of the future of America in the `80s.
LEHRER: Would that be a hard political sell, Governor?
STASSEN: Certainly it is. Certainly it is.
LEHRER: To tell people that...
STASSEN: I never have believed -- as you indicated, I`ve been in government a long time, but I`ve taken the tough issues and brought forward sound conclusions; and there really have been many accomplishments, it hasn`t just been in the races, it`s been in a matter of actually carrying out programs in the governments and in the University of Pennsylvania and so forth that have lasted and shown the results.
LEHRER: How would you accomplish another part of your platform, which is to balance the budget, at the same time enact new federal programs that would give people jobs?
STASSEN: Well, part of the new programs are taking the place of the waste and the fraud and the wasting of assets in the present programs. There have been many stories, and it`s correct, you see many indications, that this administration has gotten so careless and so lax that in many instances in doing business with the government it only went to those who were willing to join in the corruption. In many instances there`s been fraud and ripoffs. And I know how, from experience; as a matter of fact, one thing about my long record: you`ll find no scandals in it; I`ve handled tremendous programs worldwide, and we administered them honorably without ripoffs. And that`s what`s needed in the whole government.
LEHRER: Let me ask you a political question. Do you think that Jimmy Carter is seriously vulnerable to a Republican challenge in 1980?
STASSEN: I think the whole Democratic Party is very vulnerable. I think that these last years the people know there needs to be a change, and that small group of Democrats that have been in control of Congress for twenty years, that needs changing. So one of our programs across America now is to encourage new candidates for the Republican nominations for Congress in those places where Democrats have been in those seats. We`re out to win a Republican majority in the Congress to help do for the people what they need done for them in the 1980s.
LEHRER: Why do you think that you`re the best of the potential Republican candidates to challenge President Carter?
STASSEN: Well, I have that deep feeling that all these long experiences in so many different fields prepared me for what needs to be done for the `80s. I just feel that. And when you find people responding to it in a rather unusual way, why then that further encourages your own deep convictions.
LEHRER: A personal question: do you ever look back on your political history, the history that Robin went through at the top, and say to yourself, Hey wait a minute. If I`d have made that decision a little bit differently here, if I`d done that a little bit differently, maybe things might be a little different today, I might be on this television program or somebody else`s television program in a different capacity. Do you look back with any regret on anything?
STASSEN: No, I don`t think in those terms. You see, for instance, some would say that I shouldn`t have resigned as Governor to go on active duty in World War II. Well, at the time, you know, I thought through, I was a reserve Naval officer; I could no more stay back here while the rest of my generation went off to fight in World War II -- so you do the thing at the time which, in your conscience and prayerfully considered, is the thing to do. And then look at the fact that while I was out in the Pacific, in the war, President Roosevelt called me back to take part in drafting the United Nations charter. So that`s the way in, you have to have a basic faith in God, do the best you can; and I don`t look back and think, well, should I have done this or that. You do what you think is right at the time, Jim.
LEHRER: Sure. Well, what made me ask that, in reading up on you, Governor, I read somewhere that when you came back from the war if you had decided that you wanted to be, say, a United States Senator from Minnesota rather than President of the United States, you might have gone down a whole different course and things might have turned out differently. You don`t think in those terms.
STASSEN: No, I don`t try to reguess, you know. The time of any certain decision, you carefully, prayerfully think it through and then you reach a decision and you look to the future. I`m thinking now of the 1980s. I`m hoping that I can see the year 2000 arise in America, and I hope in the meantime we`ve done something for the young generation of Americans that give them a better quality of life between now and the year 2000.
LEHRER: And your desire to be President of the United States is just as strong today as it was in 1948?
STASSEN: Stronger. Because I know now that with all this experience I could be a better President than in any other earlier year.
LEHRER: Governor, thank you.
STASSEN: Thank you, Jim.
MacNEIL: Yeah, thank you, Mr, Paul, Mrs. Chapman, Mr. Bush; and good night, Jim. That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back on Monday night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Harold Stassen
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- The main topic of this episode is Harold Stassen. The guests are David Bush, Helen Chapman, William Paul, Harold Stassen. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Harold Stassen,” 1979-04-27, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 6, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-qb9v11wc7n.
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