How a Bethesda retiree altered presidential campaigns 56 years ago by proposing debates

September 29, 2012

From a cluttered den in a modest split-level near downtown Bethesda, a retired federal bureaucrat is laboring to protect his place in history for his role 56 years ago in publicizing the idea of holding presidential debates.

Fred A. Kahn, 79, is writing letters, sending e-mails and making phone calls to the news media to remind them that he drew national attention in 1956 while a University of Maryland undergraduate for proposing a debate between incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower and challenger Adlai Stevenson on the College Park campus.

I’m sorry to say that Kahn can be pretty rude in pushing his cause. When a top Washington Post Style editor didn’t respond to one of his e-mails in August (because it didn’t reach her), Kahn wrote a follow-up calling her a “lowly unwashed discourteous . . . loser.”

I forgive him, though, because his ultimate success a half-century ago vindicated his own idealistic faith in democracy. He demonstrated that a single citizen who agitates for a right-minded cause can have real impact. We’ll see the latest example of his handiwork on Wednesday with this year’s first presidential debate in Denver.

Kahn’s effort came up short in 1956, when no debate took place. But his advocacy helped lay groundwork for the nation’s first debate between the two major presidential candidates in the next election. That was the famous 1960 contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.


Fred Kahn poses for a portrait in 1958, Kahn was a member of the U.S State Department then. (Family Photo)

“He was a student who saw the benefit of doing this in a civic sense and had the gumption to go out and write letters and knock on doors to get people to pay attention to him,” said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Boston’s Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.”

Kahn’s contribution had been forgotten partly because he didn’t bother to point it out to anybody. That started to change four years ago, when Kahn said he decided “to get the record straight.” He phoned Schroeder, among others, pointing to newspaper clippings and faded letters from his scrapbook that provide convincing evidence of his role.

“He did obviously get some ink out of it at the time,” Schroeder said. “One thing we have to give him credit for is there wasn’t any precedent for it.You’re really kind of thinking of something that is original.

Kahn originally proposed a campus debate because he wished to rouse interest in public affairs among other young people. As vice president of the university’s International Club, he was dismayed at the lack of concern about the election.

“The idea was to get young people out of their lethargy,” Kahn said. “Apathy was everywhere, except the International Club. We were the only ones who had regular [political] discussions.”

He was also inspired by his passion for America’s freedoms, which sprang from his childhood experience as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. Kahn was in hiding in Belgium for 23 months during World War II. He left the country after the war and became a U.S. citizen in 1953 while serving in the U.S. Army.

“It’s democracy. I had been stateless. I became a citizen. Therefore, I wanted to be a good citizen,” said Kahn, who retired from the Labor Department in 1993 after a career as a political economist.

In 1956, Kahn visited six New York newspapers to push his idea. He achieved a breakthrough when the Associated Press and UPI news agencies picked up his story.

Could such youthful idealism succeed today?

Absolutely, and I’ve got a great example to prove it. Three New Jersey high school girls recently used the Internet to amass about 170,000 signatures on two petitions that helped persuade the debates commission to pick a woman to moderate a presidential debate, for the first time in 20 years. It will be CNN’s Candy Crowley, who will run the second debate Oct. 16.

As with Kahn before them, the effort by Elena Tsemberis, Emma Axelrod and Sammi Siegel, all 16, validated the effectiveness of grass-roots activism.

“Anyone in our country can make a difference: We’ve been told that since kindergarten,” Axelrod said. “If we can do it, three high school girls with a computer, then anyone can do it. It’s inspiring that what we’ve been told since kindergarten is actually true.

As for Kahn’s effort to get the credit he deserves, his accomplishment has been reported in publications including the Gazette papers, Washingtonian and Bethesda magazines, and Washington Jewish Week.

Kahn’s advanced age prompted him to push for attention now. “As you get old, you think about what was the meaning of your life. Thinking back 56 years ago, I guess it was to make a difference,” he said.

I’m happy for him. My column last Sunday focused on reasons to be jaded about America. It’s gratifying this week to cite examples that instead give me hope.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section.
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