The College Kid Who Created Presidential Debates

By Dan O'Donnell

October 1, 2020

Americans today couldn't imagine a presidential election without debates. They are where voters get a fuller picture of where the candidates stand and how they respond to tough questioning from moderators and open challenges from their opponents.

Debates are the ultimate test of a candidate's ability to stand up to hostility and stand up for what they and their supporters believe in. And tens of millions of voters tune in every four years to watch an intelligent discussion of the most serious issues of the day. Okay, most tune in for the arguments and insults. But they tune in and couldn't imagine elections without them.

For most of American history, though, there were no presidential debates, and the primary reason we have them today is a hardworking student who pushed the idea.

This is the forgotten history of the college kid who created presidential debates.

Listen to this week's episode by clicking "play" or read the transcript below.

Presidential debates are a very modern phenomenon. In the earliest days of American politics, actively campaigning for office was seen as uncouth, so candidates would never engage in something that might cause voters to think that they were trying to sway their votes.

Debates, then, were never even contemplated. The only debates took place on the floor of the House and Senate, the deliberative bodies where the issues of the day were discussed--often passionately and bitterly.

As politics evolved, though, candidates realized that the best way to win votes was to actively work for them and the stigma surrounding campaigning soon evaporated. While candidates would make stops in various cities and give speeches, debates still never happened. The primary reason was practical: Who would see them? Television and radio were still a century away, and the only potential audience was the few dozen people who would actually show up in person.

That changed somewhat in 1858, when Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met for a series of seven now-famous debates across Illinois. Calling them debates is somewhat misleading, however, as there was no moderator. Each man simply gave an hour-long speech and then half-hour responses.

They immediately became legendary, but presidential candidates still never followed their lead until the advent of broadcasting in the 20th century. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the medium more effectively than any president since with his "fireside chats," but in 1940 he declined an offer to debate his Republican opponent Wendell Wilkie.

Eight years later, the very first presidential debate ever broadcast over radio took place in Oregon, when the state's Republican Party hosted a debate between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen.

Not only was this the first presidential debate ever broadcast, it was also the first...and last to focus on a single issue--whether or not to outlaw the Communist Party in the United States. Eight years later, the Democratic Party saw the success of that radio debate and decided to televise a debate between its presidential candidates, Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver.

That, not the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate four years later, was the very first ever broadcast on television, but it is largely forgotten because it was only broadcast in Miami, Florida.

One University of Maryland student named Fred Kahn, though, was mesmerized. He thought it was a brilliant way to get the candidates to discuss the issues of the day. He spent the summer of 1956 in New York City and took his idea to six different newspapers. He then wrote letters to anyone and everyone in government, from Maryland's governor to former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Even though her husband refused to debate 16 years earlier, she loved the idea and forwarded it to the Stevenson campaign. Kahn's idea was remarkably similar to debates today--Stevenson, who had won the Democratic primary, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower would meet on the University of Maryland campus and debate in front of the students and a television audience.

He proposed the idea to the University of Maryland's Student Government Association, which sent official invitations to both Eisenhower and Stevenson and began making preparations for their debate. Unfortunately, the University's Board of Regents stepped in and rescinded those invitations because of a school rule prohibiting partisan political speech on campus.

Kahn was disappointed but undaunted. He kept pushing his idea and, two years later, met Stevenson in person. They talked for a while and Stevenson loved the idea so much that he promised to use his clout in the Democratic Party to push it during the next election.

“I would like to propose that we transform our circus-atmosphere presidential campaign into a great debate conducted in full view of all the people,” he wrote in 1959.

A year later, Republican Vice President Richard Nixon met Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy in what is still considered the most famous presidential debate in history. Nixon was widely seen as having lost the debate and subsequently lost the election, so when he sought the presidency again in 1968 he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice. He refused to debate that year and in 1972, but in 1976, his successor, Gerald Ford agreed to debate challenger Jimmy Carter and presidential debates have been a staple of presidential campaigns ever since.

And for that, we have a hardworking college student to thank...or blame.

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