The Story Behind the Presidential Debates

The history of modern-day presidential debates is actually quite a short one.

While the names Lincoln and Douglas frequently come to mind when one thinks of a debate among esteemed politicians, the Great Debates of 1858, as they were called, were actually held for voters who were selecting the next senator of Illinois. Stephen A. Douglas won the election, but the story of the debates lives on. The men discussed so many of the issues that came to the to the fore during the Civil War that the men’s remarks are frequently quoted. 

However, no precedent was set by those debates. We need to jump forward by more than one hundred years—to 1960—before the United States held its first presidential debate. 

Here’s how it came about.

The Push for a Debate

In 1956, a University of Maryland student by the name of Fred A. Kahn, floated out the idea that a face-to-face debate between the presidential candidates would help voters make up their minds on the vote.

Kahn did what he could to get the idea rolling. In a telephone interview in 2012, he told me:

“I wrote up ten reasons why there should be a presidential debate,” said 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.) Administrators pointed out that most college students could not vote anyway. Eighteen-year-olds did not receive the right to vote until 1971.

Debate Scheduled for 1960

But as the next presidential campaign neared, Kahn’s idea took root. In 1960, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters began what has become a campaign tradition. (Now, however, the debates are overseen by a separate Presidential Commission.)

That year, Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy, were in a close race. A debate seemed very appropriate.

Debate Result

What is sometimes forgotten about this first debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy is that there were two versions of who won.

Nixon was hospitalized earlier in the month for a knee injury. To the television audience, he looked haggard and worn out. Those who watched the debate felt the Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy had presented himself admirably. He looked like a winner.

presidential debates

But radio listeners felt differently. Those people who only listened to the debate felt Richard Nixon was the better candidate.

This split in opinion signaled the fact that television was going to forever change the process of campaigning. Politicians now are highly aware that how they look is very important to the campaign process.

Debates Discontinued, Then Started Again

Presidential debates were not held in 1964, 1968, and 1972, though there were some intra-party debates held during the primaries. By 1976, there was talk of scheduling a presidential debate again. The League of Women Voters was again to sponsor it. 

Representatives of Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and Republican incumbent President Gerald Ford agreed on a schedule of three debates. Each debate would be devoted to a separate topic.

Afterward, the debate focusing foreign policy was considered a game-changer. Ford noted that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Ford was unable to recover from this blunder. Carter went on to win the election.

Debates Continued

The League remained sponsors of the debates in 1980 and 1984, but then things turned ugly. Even before the announcement of the two candidates for 1988 (Republican vice-presidential incumbent George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis), there was a lot of push and pull from the political parties over the details of the debates.

In 1987, the League pulled out with a very pointed announcement about the fact that the debates were no longer independent events: “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity, and answers to tough questions…” The statement concluded by saying that the League could no longer be an “accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Today the debates are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a group that is made up of former chairs of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees.

But let’s go back to learn a little more about Fred Kahn, the University of Maryland student who originally pushed for the idea of presidential debates. It’s a purely American story.

Fred Kahn’s Story

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. 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 was a competitive bridge player and well-known internationally. He took advantage of his connections to rescue his son.  It was arranged for a family friend, a Christian, to bring Fritz Kahn by tram to the German border. The family felt that guards might not object to a six-year-old child without proper paperwork coming across the border to his waiting parents. 

When Fritz and the woman arrived, his father implored the guards to let the young boy cross, calling, “C’est mon fils!” Slowly, Fritz left the woman who brought him and crossed over to the father he had never known.  

The family spent the next several years in hiding. When Fritz was 19, he emigrated from Belgium to the United States.

Once in the U.S., Kahn was drafted almost immediately. He was willing to serve, but the military discharged him when they learned he was not a citizen. Fred Kahn realized military service would give him his citizenship papers. Knowing that, he willingly returned to a military office and enlisted.  When he reported to Fort Bragg, the officers learned of his language expertise. He was immediately assigned to a U.S. intelligence unit in Europe. 

After the War

In the early 1950s, Fred Kahn returned to the United States. He had his citizenship papers and wanted to attend college. He was accepted at Johns Hopkins and wanted to attend this top-rated school, he knew that even with the G.I. Bill, the costs would be too much.

Instead, he enrolled in the University of Maryland. He did well and became vice president of the International Club. It was from this position that he launched his plan for a presidential debate.

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. Kahn also worked 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.

Fred Kahn, Exemplary U.S. Citizen

Now in retirement, Fred Kahn devotes his time to reminding people of the horrors of the Holocaust so that it will not be repeated.

He is a role model for us all. He chose U.S. citizenship, served in our military, worked for the U.S. government, and now donates his time to an important purpose.

In our phone interview, 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. If there is something that is important to you, get behind it — pursue your ideas.”

Because Fred Kahn did, we now have presidential debates to help us select our candidate.

From Fred Kahn:

“If there is something that is important to you, get behind it — pursue your ideas.”

For more stories about our voting process, see Political Conventions: A Look Way Back.

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