The American Spirit Personified

Presidential debates are a relatively recent phenomenon, originally suggested in 1956 by a University of Maryland student by the name of Fred A. Kahn. I spoke with him about a month ago.
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In what can only be described as a miracle of Internet connectivity, I have heard from a person whom I mentioned in a blog post I wrote last autumn about how and when the tradition of presidential debates began In the post, I noted that debates are a relatively recent phenomenon, originally suggested in 1956 by a University of Maryland student by the name of Fred A. Kahn, who was credited with the idea in newspapers of the day.

Kahn did what he could to get the idea rolling, but it was four years later when the League of Women Voters stepped forward to sponsor the first scheduled presidential debates in 1960. That debate, of course, was the precedent-setting televised debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

About a month ago, I checked my In Box and found several e-mail messages from Fred A. Kahn. Because several months had passed, I did not immediately remember the name, but something caught my attention, and I opened the first message and realized who it was. Wow! This was thrilling! I quickly responded to Mr. Kahn, and set a time for a telephone interview. I wanted to hear about how the idea of the debates had occurred to him and what had happened to him since that time.

Kahn's story represents everything that is good about this country. Kahn was born in 1932 to Jewish parents in Germany, just 40 days before Hitler came to power. His parents fled to Belgium to escape the Nazis. Because traveling with a newborn would have put them all at risk, they left the baby with a childless aunt and uncle eager to care for him. The political situation did not improve so returning for their son became unworkable, but in 1938, with the signing of the Munich Pact (with Great Britain and France agreeing to many of Hitler's demands), circumstances for Jews in Germany became more dire.

Kahn's father worked through connections to arrange for a family friend, a Christian, to bring Kahn by tram to the German border where the family hoped guards would feel there was no harm in letting such a young child cross into Belgium without the necessary paperwork. The two countries had a "no man's land between them," and Kahn's father stood on the Belgian side imploring the guards to let the young boy cross, calling, "C'est mon fils!" Fritz, as he was called then, finally was permitted to cross to the father he had never known, and he went into hiding with his family. He and his parents survived the war but the aunt and uncle who had cared for him were killed in a death camp in Germany.

Kahn immigrated to the United States at the age of 19, and shortly after his arrival in 1952, he received a draft notice for the U.S. Army. Kahn reported for duty but when the officers discovered he was not yet a citizen, they discharged him. Kahn signed up anyway, eventually being assigned to Fort Bragg, the home of the 82nd Airborne. Because of his language skills he was given a role in military intelligence and sent to Germany.

By 1956 Kahn had received his citizenship papers, and he had returned to the United States. Though he was accepted at Johns Hopkins and wanted to attend there, the school was out of the price range of what the young man could afford, even with the help of the G.I. Bill. He enrolled in the University of Maryland where he became vice president of the International Club. It was from this position that he floated out the idea of presidential debates, inviting the 1956 candidates, Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower, to come to the university to discuss the issues.

"I wrote up ten reasons why there should be a presidential debate," explains Kahn. He approached members of both political parties for endorsement of the idea, contacting Eleanor Roosevelt to represent the Democrats, and getting in touch with the Republican Governor of Maryland Theodore McKeldin, who had nominated Dwight Eisenhower at the Republican convention.

"I also contacted the press," says Kahn. "I sent my information and the endorsements to the AP and UPI. [the major news services of the day]."

Unfortunately, the Maryland Board of Regents that oversees the university stepped in and ruled that no political speeches could be scheduled on campus. A previous experience with a politician who launched his candidacy from the University of Maryland made them gun-shy, and the administrators pointed out that most college students could not vote anyway (18-year-olds did not receive the right to vote until 1971).

But Kahn's idea took root. In 1960 the League of Women Voters began what is now regarded as a campaign tradition, though now the debates are overseen by a separate Presidential Commission.

Kahn graduated from the University of Maryland and was given a Woodrow Wilson fellowship which permitted him to get a graduate degree from his dream school, Johns Hopkins. He then went on to a 30-year career as a political economist, helping to create the Job Corps for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity and then working for the Department of Labor. In 2005, the governor of Maryland appointed Kahn to a new state task force to implement holocaust, genocide, human rights, and tolerance education.

Now in retirement, he devotes his time to reminding people of the horrors of the Holocaust so that it will not be repeated. Kahn oversees a Yahoo group to that purpose,

A man who has chosen U.S. citizenship, served in our military, worked for the U.S. government, and donates his time to an important purpose, is a man who is a role model for us all. When I asked Kahn for his best advice to others, he replied without hesitation:

"Lots of people have good ideas but they don't always do what is necessary to get them out there," Kahn says. "If there is something that is important to you, get behind it -- pursue your ideas."