The Man Who Jump-Started Presidential Debates

Play associated audio

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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

When Caravaggio Plays Quevedo In Tennis, The Court Becomes A Sonnet

"It's a little space, well-measured and precise, in which you have to keep the ball bouncing," says Álvaro Enrigue. His book, Sudden Death, pits the Italian painter against the Spanish poet.
WAMU 88.5

Does "Made in DC" Matter?

D.C.'s first bean-to-bar chocolate maker, Undone Chocolate, got its start in local food incubator space Union Kitchen, part of a wave of interest in locally made products which includes a push for a "Made in DC" logo.

WAMU 88.5

Does "Made in DC" Matter?

D.C.'s first bean-to-bar chocolate maker, Undone Chocolate, got its start in local food incubator space Union Kitchen, part of a wave of interest in locally made products which includes a push for a "Made in DC" logo.

NPR

Password Security Is So Bad, President Obama Weighs In

In unveiling a sweeping plan to fund and revamp cybersecurity, the president asks citizens to consider using extra layers of security besides the password.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.