Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cousin Fred

Alfred Kahn, who was the man who oversaw the deregulation of the airlines in the 1970’s and served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter, died earlier this week at his home in Ithaca, New York. He was 93.

He was also family; his wife, Mary, who survives him, is my father’s cousin. In April 1979, I used that connection to get an interview with Fred, as he was known, when I was invited to the White House on one of those out-of-town news director jaunts that the Carter administration did. I spent the morning in briefings in the Old Executive Office Building, then at lunch I was escorted up to his office where I was introduced to him for the first time.

He greeted me as if he’d known me all my life. He asked about my father and our family and related stories about other family members, including my grandparents and my Aunt Emily, who was the family’s most outspoken liberal (at the time). Me, the eager and awed news director from a tiny station in northern lower Michigan, got out my Realistic cassette deck and taped an interview with the Carter administration’s leading advocate for deregulation and inflation fighting, asking tame questions and getting energetic responses. In no time, it seemed, I had run out of questions, and turned off the tape recorder. That’s when he started to ask me about how life was in the rural parts of Michigan, where the economic downturn and inflation were really hitting. I told him that we were hanging on, and I remember him shaking his head and saying that just hanging on wasn’t good enough.

We then turned the conversation to my studies in theatre. He was pleased to learn that I had a degree in playwriting and asked if I’d written anything he’d heard of. He also told me of his love of Gilbert and Sullivan and that he’d appeared in several productions. I confessed that 19th century British comic operetta was not something I knew a lot about, and he teased me about that: how could someone with an advanced degree in theatre not be able to recite all the words to “I am the very model of a modern major general”?

Alfred Kahn may be remembered by a lot of people as the man who changed the airline industry for good or for ill; to this day there are those who believe that deregulation was a ticket to corporate excess and a detriment to the traveling public, and those who saw it was an example of free enterprise long overdue, like the breakup of the phone company. But he was also a man who cared deeply about getting the nation back on its feet at a tough time, and a warm and generous family man. I hold him and his family in my thoughts.