“Three, two, one — debate!” shouted one of the students gathered to watch the vice presidential debate at Graham Chapel, one of six remote viewing sites on campus. The digital clock on the big screen in front had just finished its countdown, the lights in the chapel were low and the stage was set for the candidates.
Before the debate started, about 150 students had arranged themselves in the pews, most dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, some with political buttons pinned to their shirts, some carrying placards supporting their candidates. The pre-debate mood was light, and the students chatted quietly in small groups or talked or sent text messages on their cell phones. But they were clearly eager for the show — isolated calls of “Woo hoo!” and “Yes!” came when the lights dimmed about 10 minutes before the start of the debate.
The solemn ambience of the chapel likely set the energy level a notch or two lower than that of other remote sites. According to students who later came to the chapel for the post-debate discussion, Edison Theatre and the Danforth University Center were rowdy at times, with audience members heckling, laughing, wildly applauding, shouting, cheering and waving banners. Other remote sites were Ursa’s Cafe, Whitaker Auditorium and Lab Sciences Auditorium.
“The chapel is a good viewing site,” said freshman Shira Sacks before the debate. “It’s kind of glamorous.”
Freshman Lauren Vassiliades said, “I chose the chapel because of the commentary that’s going on afterwards. I like that they will fact-check each argument that a candidate makes. It helps to get beyond the debate rhetoric.”
When the candidates had shaken hands and taken to their lecterns, the crowd quieted, but soon chuckles and giggles began when one or the other candidate fell back on stock phrases or mugged or winked at the camera. As the debate went on, there were more laughs, along with a few cheers and applause, but the audience was seldom boisterous.
“There were some interesting facial expressions from the candidates,” said freshman Kate Williamson after the debate. “I think a lot of the laughing was due to when (Gov. Sarah) Palin was speaking, and (Sen. Joe) Biden’s facial expressions would change according to what she said.”
“It was nice watching it in the chapel,” said freshman Brook McKeown. “It was serious enough that I could comprehend what was going on.”
From the mainly Sen. Barack Obama-backing crowd, a round of applause came when Biden said about Sen. John McCain’s health-care plan: “You’re going to have to replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the ‘Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.'”
Another burst of applause occurred later when Biden declared, “This is a fundamental difference between us — we’ll end this war.” Clapping and laughter arose when moderator Gwen Ifill invited Palin to respond to Biden’s accusation that McCain let Wall Street run wild. Palin refused the offer, saying, “I’m still on the tax thing because I want to correct you on that again.”
But the loudest cheer came when Ifill said, “That ends tonight’s debate. We want to thank the folks here at Washington University in St. Louis.”
As the lights came up, students slowly filed out, some walking over to see the post-debate spin from Chris Matthews and his guests on “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” which was being broadcast just outside the chapel doors.
Assessing the candidates’ performances, several students said they felt Biden won, coming across as more thoughtful and more informed. Others thought Palin held her own and met or exceeded expectations. A couple of students said this vice presidential debate was more interesting and better moderated than the first debate between McCain and Obama.
When the Red vs. Blue Post-Debate Program started in the chapel a half-hour later, about 50 students were present.
The discussion was led by conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online and a contributing editor to the National Review, and liberal commentator Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of The New Republic.
Each pundit gave his assessment of the candidate’s performances and then opened the floor to questions from the audience. Students lined up for their chance at the microphone to ask the commentators their opinions on the candidates’ stances on Afghanistan, Iran, health care, vice presidential power, the national debt, gay marriage and other topics discussed during the debate.
“This was far more fun than the actual debate,” said freshman David Lee. “They brought up some things that didn’t occur to me when I was watching the debate.”
“Those guys weren’t looking to score any points,” said junior Eric Houtman, a history major in Arts & Sciences. “They might have been here for a little spin, but you didn’t hear the same kind of stuff that you heard from the debate, and I really appreciated that.”
Junior Joel Wood, a political science major in Arts & Sciences, asked a question about Obama’s ideas about Afghanistan. “In a way, this is therapeutic for me,” he said. “I think it was good for all of us to ratchet down some of the tension and sift through what was said and done tonight.”
Other activities that night:
• “Spinning the Presidency.” The Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values, the Student Union and the Gephardt Institute for Public Service presented panel remarks, video and other media presentations on crafting the campaigns at Edison Theatre.
• Vice Presidential Debate and Pre-Debate Panel. In a program presented by the School of Law, Charles Burson, chief of staff to former Vice President Al Gore, and Tom Schweich, Bush administration ambassador for reform in Afghanistan, were featured in a pre-debate discussion at Anheuser-Busch Hall.