Presidential Debates: Brought to You by an Immigrant

Written by on October 11, 2012 in Elections, Integration with 1 Comment

Millions of Americans will tune into tonight’s vice-presidential debate, but few will know the origins of the presidential debate process.  While we’ve come to think of these debates as a way to learn more about the candidates vying for our votes, the idea of holding public debates, like so many other great American ideas, can be traced back to an immigrant.  While we frequently note that America’s progress over generations has depended on the hard work and ingenuity of past and current generations of immigrants, it’s important to remember that ideas themselves are a benefit sometimes hard to enumerate, but critical to the American experience.

According to the Washington Post, Fred Kahn, a Holocaust survivor and student at the University of Maryland, came up with the idea of a presidential debate in 1956, peddling his proposal to host a campus debate to the New York papers.  Both the Associated Press and United Press International picked up the story.

Kahn wrote to Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower, inviting them to a debate on campus.  He enlisted other political heavyweights, getting the endorsement of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said that the debate “might be something that would arouse the interest of young people all over the country.”

In part, Kahn wanted to encourage political activism on campus, but he also had a bigger goal:  Kahn had grown up Jewish in Nazi Germany, and had spent nearly two years in hiding in Belgium.  Says Kahn, a retired economist, “In a democracy, you are allowed to have debates, whereas in a dictatorship, you are not.”

The university eventually nixed the idea for fear of engaging in politically partisan behavior, but the concept took on a life of its own, and in 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced each other in the first televised Presidential Debates.

Kahn’s embrace of democracy in all its messy glory continues today as thousands of immigrants eagerly become citizens in order to gain the right to vote.  Similarly, the activism of young immigrants, many of them in the country without legal status, on behalf of the DREAM Act is another reminder that immigrants bring a passion for democracy and all it represents to their adopted homeland.

Whatever the topics of tonight’s debate, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan should consider taking a moment to thank Fred Kahn, immigrant, citizen, and believer in democracy.

Video courtesy of WUSA9

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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  • Fred Kahn

    Thank you for a very gratifying article about me. I am Fred A. Kahn , the person who launched the idea of presidential election debates 54 years ago when I was vice-president if the University of Maryland’s International Club. Then, at 23 years old, after my naturalization at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on November 24.1953, while in the U.S. Army, I was taking my newly gained citizenship seriously.. I received the personal endorsement of my proposal by the former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, on the democratic party side, and on the republican side, by Governor Theodore Mc Keldin. The Associated Press and UPI spread my proposal nationwide and thus started a conversation on the proposed debates whereas before that it was considered an anachronism. Two years later, in l958, I received also the endorsement of candidate in l956,. Governor Adlai E. Stevenson, when I discussed with him while he was on a stop over in Brussels to Moscow. In 1958, I was employed by the US Department of State at the US Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. So that in l960, Gov ,. Stevenson kept his promise to me that he would advance my proposal and testified in a committee hearing of Congress to temporarily amend the Communications Act of 1934, to allow only debates in l960, between the two major candidates. And that is how after Robert Sarnoffof NBC and Frank Stanton, of CBS, got on board, offering free time on television for debates, that the first debate was held on September 26 between candidates Nixon and Kennedy. The first debate was held in the Chicago studio of the local television without any audience in the studio, The rest is history. I am proud on this forthcoming Thanksgiving and on the anniversary of my naturtalization on November 24th, 59 years ago, to reiterate my pride of being an American citizen. I had survived the Holocaust in Germans occupied Belgium and was until becoming a US citizen, a stateless citizen due to the Nazi laws of 1935 depriving German Jews of citizenship. Only in America!