The Single Best Example

I’ve spoken about the role of the youth in elections many times. It is a subject that I feel passionately about. And yet despite having listed down innumerable examples of the roles the youth can – and should – play in democratic elections, I have apparently failed to point out what may be the single best example of the power of the youth to shape our democratic institutions. The omission was not intentional, I assure you. Infinitely more embarrassing, the ommission was because of ignorance; I simply didn’t know about it.

Fortunately, I was recently privileged to join an international symposium on debates and debate organizing, sponsored by the American Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). For an close to an entire week in Nevada, I and my fellow attendees from 28 nations around the world, listened to each other’s experiences and to the insights of experts in US presidential debates. Needless to say, with such an agenda, the whole symposium was a massive learning experience in both the theory behind holding presidential debates in the first places, as well as the practical considerations involved in ensuring the success and credibility of these face-offs.

I’ll be writing more about these lessons in the following days as I strive to craft a policy proposal intended to institutionalise debates in the Philippines, but in this article, let me focus more on that “single best example” I spoke of earlier.

Funny, that example wasn’t even an actual part of the agenda, much less was it specifically mentioned in any of the lectures I attended. But see, that’s the beauty of these things. Symposia of this nature are not just opportunities to receive knowledge but are, in themselves, like being handed the keys to a door behind which lay things you didn’t know you didn’t know.

The First Hint

As with many things, the first inklings we have that there are things we ought to know more about come when we look back at history. And that’s what this clip is all about. Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the co-Chair of the CPD starts out talking about the candidate selection criteria, i.e., the requirements for a candidate to be invited to take part in a Presidential debate. He then segues into a brief history of the CPD itself, as a way of helping his audience – the symposium delegates and students form the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV, the generous host of the symposium) – understand where and how the credibility of the CPD arose. Check it out.

Did you hear him say “League of Women Voters?” Well, so did I and the name got stuck in my head. It was not the first time I’d heard of the LWV, but it was certainly the first hint I got that it had played a significant role in the history of the debates. And that is what piqued my curiosity to such an extent that I wanted to find out more. Of course it helped that in the course of my work with the COMELEC, I was also involved in Gender and Development.

It was because of my research trying to complete the picture of the history of US Presidential debates that I found that “single best example” I’ve been teasing throughout this article so far.

I Am Kahn (This is a Star Trek reference, by the way)!

Fahrenkopf had recounted how the CPD was formed in 1987. Presidential Political debates however, had been going on long before that, before even the first televised presidential debate in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. That was the time period I wanted to learn more about. How were debates organized and conducted before the CPD took over?  Knowing that the LWV had been doing that task before the CPD, led me to digging up everything I could find about that organisation, but as informative as that research was, the fact was that the LWV sponsored debates only starting in 1976, 16 years after the Kennedy-Nixon debate. During those 16 years, no presidential debates were conducted.

This led to the second phase of my research: what was the genesis of the 1960 debate? I looked and looked, and there it was: my single best example.

Four years before the Kennedy-Nixon face-off, Fred A. Kahn – then a 23-year old student in the University of Maryland, Class of 1960 – wrote a letter to UM President Wilson H. Elkins, suggesting that it would be a good idea to have the U.S. presidential candidates from both political parties, stand on the same stage for the purpose of answering questions from a panel composed of college students.

Up until that point, there weren’t even any Presidential debates to speak of. At most there was the series of seven debates between Senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Nearly a century later, in 1940, Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a debate, but FDR declined.

So in 1956, at a time when the idea of presidential debates was considered hopelessly out of style, Kahn’s proposal was all kinds of revolutionary. And on the off-chance that you missed it, the dude was a student at the time! *mic drop*

My name … is … Khan!

A tireless campaigner for the cause he believed in, Kahn also sent letters to the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, then Maryland Governor Theodore McKeldin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. In response, Mrs. Roosevelt affirmed Kahn’s belief that the youth would be well served by the proposal. She wrote:

” … this might be something that would arose (sic) the interest of young people all over the country … (and) it would be a gesture not only to all those at the University of Maryland but to young people in this group all over the country.”

It’s hard to tell now, how much Kahn’s letter influenced the course of subsequent events but we do know that, when faced with setbacks, Kahn refused to give up and took his case to the national media. Suddenly, his game-changing idea had started national conversation and four years later, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first ever Presidential debate in US history.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The US Presidential debates as we know them now, and as they have influenced our own #PiliPinasDebates2016, can in part be attributed to a young person who boldly asked that the youth be given the opportunity to demand answers directly from those who aspired to rule the nation.

Like I said: the single best example of the power of the youth to shape public discourse.


Many thanks to the Commission on Presidential Debates and the National Democratic Institute for inviting me to the international debate symposium and making it possible for me to unlock this invaluable piece of history that will now be forever a part of the Philippines Commission on Elections’ voter education tool box.



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