Photo: Kennedy Nixon Debate 1960
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.
“In a democracy, you are allowed to have debates, whereas in a dictatorship, you are not.”
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.