The eyes of the world were on Washington University Oct. 2 as it hosted the most anticipated vice presidential debate in U.S. history. Tens of millions in the United States and around the world watched as Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska squared off on stage in the Field House in the University’s Athletic Complex.
The vice presidential debate was Washington University’s first. The University previously hosted presidential debates in 1992, 2000 and 2004.
Coming to Washington University “is a homecoming of the most special kind” for the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), said Janet Brown, CPD executive director, in her opening remarks before the 8 p.m. debate. “This is a remarkable campus with remarkable people.”
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton echoed Brown’s later comment, attributing the success of the most recent debate — the only vice presidential showdown in 2008 — to the effort and patience of the entire University community.
“It was a great privilege for us to host the vice presidential debate at Washington University,” Wrighton said. “For the hundreds of students, faculty and staff who put in countless hours to make this event a success, you have my deepest appreciation.
“Washington University has once again demonstrated that we are an outstanding institution because of the skills and dedication of the people who live, study and work in our community,” he added.
Wrighton, along with Student Union President Brittany Perez, welcomed the debate audience to the Field House, home of the national champion women’s volleyball and men’s basketball teams. The Field House was transformed into a plush debate stage, garbed in red carpet and presided over by a large American eagle.
A few items betrayed the room’s usual purpose: the raised basketball hoops, hidden by lights and scaffolding, and a dark scoreboard as nonresponsive to the proceedings as the debate audience was asked to be.
The 90-minute debate was moderated by Gwen Ifill, managing editor of PBS’ “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
Each candidate stood at a podium under bright lights, while the audience quietly sat in darkness, instructed not to react to either of the candidates’ statements.
In answering Ifill’s questions on both foreign and domestic policy, Palin, running mate of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Biden, running mate of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, faced off on myriad issues ranging from the rights of same-sex couples to climate change.
While Palin lauded McCain as someone who did not always follow party lines, Biden repeatedly compared McCain to President George W. Bush.
Biden stated the need to create a timeline for a pullout of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Palin said it was necessary to be satisfied with nothing less than victory. Both stressed their connection with the common American.
“I think we need a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street … brought to Washington, D.C.,” Palin said.
“Walk with me in my neighborhood, go back to my old neighborhood in Claymont, an old steel town, or go up to Scranton with me,” Biden said. “These people know the middle class has gotten the short end.”
Although most watched the debate live on television, 432 WUSTL students watched the event unfold from inside the Field House, winners of a ticket lottery open to students at the University.
Other students experienced the debate at watch parties that were held throughout the University and beyond. Young alumni took over Steinberg Hall, and more alumni watched the candidates clash in Brown Hall. The University also hosted a debate-watch party for the St. Louis community at the 560 Music Center.
But the campus community didn’t have to wait until the night of the debate to experience the excitement surrounding the event. Many events and programs — including lectures, panel discussions, a donkey-and-elephant cookie contest and red vs. blue robot boxing contests — were held in the weeks leading up to the debate.
On debate day, CBS’ “The Early Show” broadcasted live from Holmes Lounge and MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” aired three live shows, including one after the debate, outside of Graham Chapel. Their crews were among the approximately 3,100 credentialed media members to visit WUSTL throughout the week.
The Media Filing Center — including the famous “Spin Alley” — was the home of most media members during debate week. The filing center, ordinarily the Recreational Gymnasium, flickered with the lights of 70 televisions, and 70 rows of white tables providing a place for media to take notes and compose reports and stories.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, among others, offered their opinions on the debate to eager reporters and cameramen in “Spin Alley.”
The Rec Gym wasn’t the only area of the Athletic Complex that served an unusual purpose as the University hosted the debate.
Thirty athletics staff members gave up their offices during the days leading up to the debate. Fourth-floor offices were used by the CPD, while other offices were taken over by stage crews, television networks and law enforcement officials.
The McWilliams Fitness Center was home to campaign workers. The racquetball courts housed AT&T staffers installing electrical lines — an estimated 8 miles of cables was laid throughout campus — and other campaign workers, and the Intramural Field became the Public Viewing area.
“Essentially every area was different except for I.E. Millstone Pool,” said Andrew Koch, facility manager at the Athletic Complex.
Though both athletic teams and staff had to change their usual routines — either by practicing in other areas, playing road games and working from home — the extra effort required to host the vice presidential debate was worth it, Koch said.
“There seems to be a great sense of pride among those on campus of the reputation the University has earned for the work completed in previous debates,” Koch said. “It is an honor to the city of St. Louis and for students, faculty and staff to have this opportunity to bring such wonderful recognition to Washington University.”
In 1996, WUSTL was selected as a presidential debate site, but that event was canceled a week prior.
More than 500 eager students, faculty and staff volunteered to help with the debate, and their assignments ranged from assisting the CPD to providing hospitality for myriad special events on campus, from distributing credentials to welcoming media to campus.
Security was tight throughout the week. Students, faculty and staff were required to carry their WUSTL IDs Oct. 1 and 2, and those wishing to access the Athletic Complex in the days leading up to the debate needed special credentials. Secret Service agents patrolled the area, and a secure perimeter was set up around the Athletic Complex.
The vice presidential debate, nearly a year in the making, was hosted with the help of sponsors AT&T, Emerson and Wachovia Securities and the entire WUSTL community.
“I am so proud of the team of people who worked extremely hard over the past year to ensure the success of the vice presidential debate,” said Rob Wild, assistant to the chancellor and chair of the Debate Steering Committee.
“This was a lot of work, but it reminded me of why Washington University is such a wonderful place — a place full of selfless, talented, hard-working people who care about each other, our students and our University.”