Dissent and Entertainment at WUSTL’s Presidential and Vice-Presidential Debates

Many of you may not know that Washington University was chosen to host a presidential or vice presidential debate every election cycle between 1992 and 2008, and besides the cancelled 1996 debate, each one came to fruition. All were spearheaded by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-profit, bipartisan agency that organizes the events. Although the Commission did not choose our campus to hold a debate this year, we remain a back-up venue.Presidential-debate_92-457-C-20A
The first televised three-person debate in U.S. history took place on October 11, 1992 at Washington University. Two hundred and fifty students joined journalists, dignitaries, and invited guests at the Athletic Complex Field House, which was converted into a debate hall in a matter of days with the help of student volunteers. The three participants were Independent candidate Ross Perot, Democrat Bill Clinton, and then-President George Bush, Sr. A moderator and a three-person panel asked about the major issues of the day, which were then followed by the candidates’ rebuttals. In the end, hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide tuned in for the televised encounter.

In the debate’s aftermath, faculty and news correspondents remained unimpressed with both Senator Clinton’s and President Bush’s responses, complaining that they rarely veered from previous iterations of their stump speeches. However, Ross Perot entertained many with his folksiness, and remained a wild card throughout the night through his unpredictable replies to the moderator’s queries.

Although the plug was pulled on the 1996 debate, the university did not find this information out until three weeks before it was to occur. The intended event was meant to be the first encounter between Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and Republican candidate Bob Dole. The debates were to be headed by a single moderator, to avoid any confusion created by a panel of questioners, the format used in 1992.

Although President Clinton cited a scheduling conflict (he needed to prepare for a United Nations address at that time), interpersonal issues also threatened the debate. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the event was supposed to feature Perot as a third candidate. However, Dole did not want to debate with the Independent in front of television cameras, threatening to withdraw if Perot partook. Perot himself considered suing the Commission if they wouldn’t include him. As the debate’s scheduled date drew nearer, the Commission postponed, and then cancelled the event all together.

These problems seemed to have cleared by the time Washington University held its second debate. On October 17, 2000, the campus hosted the third presidential debate of that year’s election cycle. Once again, it was held at the Field House, where Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore debated over issues such as health care, tax cuts, the death penalty, and world peace.

A crowd of 900 people, including dignitaries, invited guests, and 150 students, occupied the upper bleacher seats. The Washington University Record gave a rundown of the event: “The two candidates sat on stools facing a “town hall” audience in tiered, circular rows of seats at the north end of the Field House.” PBS’s Jim Lehrer moderated and enforced the rules the candidates themselves had previously set.

However, afterwards various individuals complained to the press about the debate’s format. The “town hall” setting severely limited the spontaneity of the questions and answers. Audience members’ microphones were turned off as soon as they asked a question, meaning that they couldn’t engage further with candidates.

Additionally, a large group protested the event, mostly citing its exclusive nature. The protest included members from overlooked parties such as the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, the Committee Against the U.S. Empire, and the Mars Society, a group advocating the colonization of Mars. The Green Party took the opportunity to protest the exclusion of Ralph Nader from the debate, and Nader decried the issue publically in front of the protesters. After his appearance, Nader tried to enter the Field House media area with someone else’s identification papers, but was turned away at the entrance.

Washington University hosted its third presidential debate on October 8, 2004. President George W. Bush and John Kerry came to St. Louis to discuss foreign policy, national security, the economy, health-care, and stem cell research. However, the candidate mostly quarreled over post-9/11 presidential leadership.

In contrast to years past, the 2004 debates were highlighted by sharp criticisms exchanged by the two candidates, especially regarding the threat to homeland security. “The world is better off without him in power,” Bush remarked. Kerry replied, “The world is more dangerous today because the president didn’t make the right judgments.” Kerry also accused Bush of being “backwards” on medicine and science. As the senator said, “I’m going to be a president who believes in science.”

Finally, on October 2, 2008, Washington University hosted the only Vice Presidential

Debate between Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. That month’s Record called the event the “most anticipated vice presidential debate in U.S. history.”

Although many viewers across the country enthusiastically awaited the debate, many people in St. Louis seemed to be let down by the occasion. Many faculty members and students noted that the debate lacked substance, as the candidates Biden and Palin repeated slogans characterized by a populist tone.

So, why does the Commission on Presidential Debates choose Washington University year after year to host the encounters? Apparently because the university has a good hosting track record, is ideally located between two coasts, and successfully attracts advertising funds from Anheuser-Busch and other corporations. The university is also superb at fundraising, and year after year has raised the Commission’s requisite fee to host the debates.

For more information about presidential debates held at Washington University, please consult the University Archives’ Presidential Debates Collections for 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and the Vice Presidential Debate Collection 2008.

Also see article “In Focus: Archiving the Debate” in Off the Shelf  Fall 2008, page 16.

Sources: Washington University Record Oct. 18, 1992; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thursday, September 19, 1996; Washington University Record, Oct. 20, 2000; Washington University Record, Oct. 9th, 2008.

Photo Credits: All images from University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.

1. Presidential Debate participants: Bill Clinton, George Bush, Sr., Ross Perot. From U.S. Presidential Debate Collection, 1992, Series 03, Box 01(filename: Presidential-debate_92-457-C-20A)

2. Ross Perot supporters. From U.S. Presidential Debate Collection, 1992, Series 03, Box 01(filename: Presidential-debate_92-454-K-13A)

3. Presidential Debate stage with Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. From U.S. Presidential Debate Collection, 2000, Box 04, Folder: Photos (filename: PresDebate_2000_75377)

4. Press Room in Field House. From U.S. Presidential Debate Collection, 2004, Series 01, Box 04, Photo Album (filename: Presidential-Debate_2004_0061_007)

5. Students watching the debate in the Danforth University Center. (filename Debate-2008_students-DUC-3)

6. Aerial view of debate activity spectators and Graham Chapel in background. From U.S. Presidential Debate Collection, 2004, Series 01, Box 04, Photo Album (filename: Presidential-Debate_2004_29_009)

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