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Sun September 30, 2012
Interviews

The Man Who Jump-Started Presidential Debates

Originally published on Sun September 30, 2012 5:11 pm

President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, are prepping for Wednesday's presidential debate. It's a well-worn tradition now, but it wasn't always that way.

The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon face-off wasn't just the first televised presidential debate, it was also the first presidential debate in more than a century.

Four years earlier, a young German emigre named Fred Kahn, a student at the University of Maryland, wanted to see whether the nominees — Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson — might want to engage with students.

He wanted the nominees to answer questions from a panel of students at the university. Kahn enlisted the help of the school's International Club and started writing letters to everyone he could think of.

Eleanor Roosevelt even wrote him back, Kahn tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

"She said not only would the students of the University of Maryland be interested, but also other students," Kahn recalled. "And that she was going to forward my two letters I had sent to the campaign manager of Stevenson."

But just when it looked like everyone was interested, Kahn's lan fell through.

"The Board of Regents passed a law banning political speeches on campus," he said.

The club had to rescind its invitations, but even though Kahn's efforts failed that year, he'd changed the conversation.

"I went to The Associated Press and the UPI who circulated it nationwide so that I was interviewed and made the newspapers," he said. "And the idea of debate, which was then considered an anachronism, became a subject of conversation, so that in 1960 they were offered three times on television."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, over the past few days, the president and Governor Romney have been preparing for that debate set to take place on Wednesday. It's a well-worn tradition now, but it wasn't always that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: According to rules set by the candidates themselves, each man shall make an opening statement of approximately eight minutes duration and a closing statement of approximately three minutes duration.

RAZ: The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon faceoff wasn't just the first televised presidential debate. It was the first Presidential debate in over a century. But four years earlier, in 1956, a young German émigré named Fred Kahn who was studying at the University of Maryland wanted to see whether the nominees that year - Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson - might want to engage with students.

FRED KAHN: And so I got this idea.

RAZ: He wanted the nominees to answer questions from a panel of students at the university. He enlisted the help of the school's international club, and he started writing letters to everyone he could think of.

KAHN: To both Eisenhower and Stevenson, to the chair of the Democratic National Committee, to the Republican national chair, to Governor McKeldon of Maryland, who was a Republican.

RAZ: Eleanor Roosevelt even wrote him back.

KAHN: And she said she was going to forward two letters I had sent to the campaign manager of Stevenson.

RAZ: But just when it seemed like everyone was interested, the plan fell through.

KAHN: The board of regents passed a law banning political speeches on campus because of the fact the president of the university used the campus for political launching pad.

RAZ: The club had to rescind its invitations. But even though his efforts failed, Kahn had changed the conversation.

KAHN: I went to the Associated Press and the UPI, who circulated it nationwide so that I was interviewed and made the newspapers. And the idea of debate, which was then considered an anachronism, became a subject of conversation, so that in 1960 they were offered three times on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Fred Kahn is the man who may have inspired the modern presidential debates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Thank you, Mr. Smith. Senator Kennedy. First of all, I think it is well to out in perspective where we really do stand with regard to the Soviet Union and this whole matter of growth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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