This page is from an archive of Record articles from 1995-2003. For the most recent news, please visit news.wustl.edu
There's no debate about it: Washington University has learned a first-hand lesson in "Politics 101."
An eight-month handshake -- the offer of hosting the first 1996 presidential debate -- fell limp last weekend as the Democratic and Republican campaigns proposed a debate schedule that does not include St. Louis.
The news came suddenly and was disappointing for members of the Washington University community, hundreds of whom had pitched in to be a positive part of the political process.
James W. Davis, Ph.D., professor of political science in Arts and Sciences, said the University got a front-row education about 20th-century American politics.
"There are all sorts of ways you can decide where to hold a debate," Davis said. "You can flip coins, you can draw straws or you can be political. What are politicians if not political?"
The odyssey started with a Jan. 29 news conference in the Alumni House. University officials announced on that winter day that the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates -- the committee that was formed to siphon politics out of the process -- had chosen the University as the site of the first 1996 presidential debate. The first debate was to be held Wednesday, Sept. 25.
"We are delighted and grateful to be returning to Washington University," Paul C. Kirk Jr. and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairmen of the commission, said last January. "The University did an extraordinary job in 1992, pulling together the first debate with barely a week's notice."
In large part, the Herculean job the University did in 1992 led to its selection in 1996. In addition, the 1996 debate would be an opportunity to let the campus and regional communities play a more active and involved role -- something that was not possible with the hurried pace of 1992.
Indeed, this time students would be able to plan events, invite speakers and volunteer their time. More than 650 students filled out applications to volunteer. Faculty shaped and implemented educational programming. Administrators and staff members prepared the campus and the venue to host the candidates and 2,000 members of the media.
On Sept. 12, however, things began to fray. That day was the first that representatives for President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole met to discuss the commission's long-standing plan of having four debates -- three presidential and one vice presidential. Joining the proceedings late was a representative for Ross Perot of the Reform Party.
No agreement on a final plan was reached that day.
The debate about the debates was waged -- off and on -- during the next week. On Sept. 17, the commission announced that only Clinton and Dole would be invited to participate in the debates, adding that Perot and other third-party or independent candidates did not meet the established criteria of having "a realistic chance to win election."
On the next day -- Thursday, Sept. 19 -- things began to unravel. The commission announced that because an agreement had yet to be reached between the candidates, the first debate could not be held as scheduled on Wednesday, Sept. 25. The University went into a holding pattern, suspending scheduled construction, building tours and parking lot closures.
The rope snapped on Saturday, Sept. 21. In Washington, D.C., the Clinton and Dole camps met that day for a marathon session -- without the commission's presence -- and hammered out an accord. One debate site was to be eliminated, another would have its date changed and another would have its format altered -- all major revisions that would require commission approval.
But in an end-around that caught commission and University officials off-guard, the two campaigns announced their plan -- as the plan -- to the media Saturday night. A CNN special report and local 6 p.m. TV newscasts sent commission and University officials scrambling from their dinners to their desks.
The period from that Saturday evening to the morning of Monday, Sept. 23, was an intricate interval for University officials. Yes, the media were reporting the candidates' plan as the finished product. And, yes, there were those on campus who felt the University was "in denial." Still, there was legitimate behind-the-scenes hope. In fact, by Monday morning, the commission still had yet to receive complete details of the new proposal from the candidates.
In addition to citing its discontent over the process the candidates used, the commission pointed out that the candidates' proposal was flawed. A conflict in scheduling needed to be ironed out with the Hartford (Conn.) Civic Center, where a season-opening hockey game was scheduled for Oct. 6. The Shiley Theater in San Diego was not suited for the shift to a proposed "town-hall meeting" format.
"The dates and locations of these rescheduled debates are not yet definitive," Volkmann said, "but we expect the events will happen as proposed by the candidates.
"Special thanks go to the hundreds of volunteers -- students, faculty, staff and community leaders -- who worked tirelessly and with great enthusiasm for several months to prepare for the debate. Their support of the 1992 debate was a major factor in our selection by the commission for a 1996 debate.
"In addition," Volkmann continued, "we are grateful to Anheuser-Busch for its generous gift to the Commission on Presidential Debates to bring the 1996 debate to St. Louis, and to Civic Progress for its support of DebateWatch '96. Extraordinary support and encouragement came from the Regional Commerce and Growth Association and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.
"Most of all," he concluded, "Washington University thanks those on campus and our many partners, friends and volunteers in the community for their efforts that reaffirm the can-do attitude that is a hallmark of the St. Louis region."
Sara Johnson, special assistant to the chancellor and the convener of the University's Presidential Debate Planning Group, said: "Many, many people on campus worked hard to ensure that the presidential debate would be a success and that our community, especially our students, would have meaningful opportunities to become directly involved.
"We know what we can do when we work together to make something great happen. I'm just disappointed that the whole world won't see the results this time," she added.
Jim Davis also was part of the Monday news conference, adding his perspective as a political scientist. He offered one last lesson to a suddenly schooled campus. "The two candidates are the stars -- they're the only ones calling the shots," he said.
-- David Moessner
Please send comments and suggestions to: