University full of debate history
University hosted debates three times between 1992 and 2004
Though heightened security and bustling activity surrounds the run-up to the vice presidential debate, the national spotlight is nothing new for administrators at Washington University.
For every election cycle since 1992, the University has been slated to host the presidential candidates in a debate, and—aside from a last-moment cancellation in 1996—has successfully done so.
The University’s positive record for the events governed the decision by the Commission on Presidential Debates to give it its fifth bid at a debate, this time between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.
“We’ve proven ourselves over and over that we can do this, that this is a great place to host a debate, and that our students are helpful want to be right in the middle of everything,” Associate Vice Chancellor Steve Givens, who chaired the steering committee for the debates in 2000 and 2004, said.
The University showed its ability after its first hosting in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush squared off against then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton. After the Commission’s first choice site was unable to hold the debate, it gave the University the opportunity with one week’s notice. Planners had to compress nearly a year’s planning into seven days.
“It was obviously a crazy time, but we proved to ourselves that we could do this and we knew that if given more time, we could do a better job,” Givens said. “We very quickly divided up what needed to be done, and it was a matter of divide and conquer.”
Burnished by its timely performance four years earlier, the University was once again selected to host the debate in 1996. Because the Commission decided to reduce the three debates to two, however, the event was cancelled.
Nonetheless, the Commission contacted the University again in 2000 and 2004. Givens, calling the University the “gold standard” of debate sites, attributed its success to a combination of factors, including a location conducive to such events.
“One of the things that makes this a great site is the [Athletic Complex]. You not only have the debate itself but six to seven hundred media members filling up the rec. gym,” he said.
Looking forward to this year’s debate, Givens said the University’s preparations have not changed due to this one’s featuring the vice presidential candidates. Because of expanding Internet media, moreover, he predicts that this debate will feature more journalists than previous years.
“Every usable space in the AC will be taken over entirely,” Givens said.
Alumnus Philip Sholts, who graduated in 2008 and currently works in St. Louis, remembers the 2004 debate as a time of elevated student excitement and minimal security hassles.
“There were a few checkpoints around campus where security guards or police officers would check your ID to verify you were a Wash. U. student,” Sholts said. “But it was never really a big issue.”
Sholts noted that all streets surrounding the University were shut down on the day of the debate. Others do not recall significant security concerns in the past.
“To be honest, the security didn’t really interfere with me at all as a student,” Rachel Fitz, another alumnus who viewed the 2004 debate first-hand as a freshman, said. “On the day of the debate, parking on campus was impossible, but that was to be expected.”