Bruce’s Robertson Attends Presidential Debate

j_robertson.jpgChancellor Khayat drew the first 10 names from the Leadership Lottery,
followed by various staff members. My name was the tenth called from
the Passport Lottery.

Last week, the University of Mississippi hosted the first Presidential debate in what is quickly becoming a historic election season.
This is an election of firsts. America will either see its first African-American president, first female vice president, or oldest president. It seemed only appropriate that Ole Miss, a university with a scarred past, be added to this list for hosting its first ever presidential debate. As a freshman at Ole Miss, I j_robertson.jpgwas honored with the opportunity to attend this momentous event.
When Ole Miss received news that they would be hosting the debate last November, the university made students a priority, scheduling more than 60 events and 16 classes relating to the debate for the fall semester. Chancellor Robert Khayat declared that all tickets allocated to the university by the Commission on Presidential Debates be given to students.
A student-led programming board determined those tickets would be allocated through three different ways.
Tickets were first awarded to winners of campus events including a debate competition, scavenger hunt, quiz bowl, and a policy proposal contest. In addition to competing in these contests, students could enter either a Leadership Lottery or Passport Lottery.
In order to enter the Leadership Lottery, students had to complete an online application indicating outstanding campus leadership and scholarship characteristics. The number of entries each applicant received was determined by the judging of their application.
The third and final method of distribution was the Passport Lottery. All students were allocated a “Passport to the Debate” which could be stamped up to five times, once for attendance at any of the more than 60 debate-related events sponsored by the university.
On Thursday, Sept. 18, I turned in my passport and entered my name in the lottery four times. The first event I attended was a U.S. Naturalization ceremony held in Fulton Chapel. Attending the naturalization ceremony was a unique experience for which I was grateful.
Waiting for the ceremony to begin, I watched families snap pictures together. For me, it was very moving to know that the ceremony would be one of the most important events in many of those peoples’ lives. I believe that sentiment was felt throughout the room and I was honored to be a part of an event that would shape and define how each of those individuals viewed themselves.
I was humbled by the thought of my own citizenship and the casual sense of entitlement with which I usually view that privilege. Being a citizen of the United States of America, the freest nation ever devised, is nothing to be taken lightly.
I received another passport stamp for attending a brown bag lunch lecture entitled “Tell Every President to Listen to the Blues,” in which blues archivist Greg Johnson and "Highway 61" radio host Scott Barretta played audio clips and discussed presidential politics in relation to the blues.
I also attended a lecture by Joy Connelly, New York University Classics professor, discussing contemporary politics and its foundations in classical rhetoric. My fourth stamp came from attending the final round of the debate competition in which the struggling democracy of Pakistan was discussed.
The drawing was held on the afternoon of Sunday Sept. 21. Chancellor Khayat drew the first 10 names from the Leadership Lottery, followed by various staff members. My name was the tenth called from the Passport Lottery.
My excitement was soon quelled by the announcement that since the university had not yet received the tickets, they could not guarantee all winners a ticket.
As journalists from sundry media outlets descended on campus during the week of the debate, I spent many hours garnering publicity for our fledgling first-year student organization, the UM Constitutionalists. In support of third party candidates, the group is endorsing “None of the Above” this election.
I had put the thought of winning a ticket to the debate out of my mind until Thursday afternoon when I received an e-mail from the university listing the names of students who were now guaranteed a ticket. My heart began to race as I scanned the list for my name and nearly stopped as I located it among 150 others.
We were instructed to arrive at the “Welcome Tent” at 4 p.m. the day of the debate, four hours before the actual debate was scheduled to begin, to pick up our tickets and go through a security check before being shuttled to the Ford Center for the big event.
The security check was relatively quick, perhaps speeded along by my decision to travel light; carrying only my wallet and keys. While waiting to be seated in the Ford Center, I viewed an exhibit sponsored by C-SPAN that detailed the lives of all 42 American presidents. The idea that one of the two men I would hear tonight would become number 43 was simply awe-inspiring.
After what seemed like ages, we were seated to await the beginning of the event. After brief introductions of members of the Commission on Presidential Debates and a welcome by Chancellor Khayat, Jim Lehrer took the stage. Anchor of PBS’s “The NewsHour,” Lehrer was the moderator for the night.
At what seemed like the culmination of months of planning, preparation, and expectation, the two candidates took the stage to much applause and acclamation from the crowd. Most who watched the debate from home probably had a better view of the candidates than I, given my seating on the back row of the balcony. However, I was grateful to be there. The significance of the event and the urgency for solutions due to recent national crises was palpable in the room’s atmosphere.
Following the debate, I was pelted with questions of “Who won?” Honestly, I didn’t think there was a clear cut winner. For those who follow politics even somewhat regularly, neither candidates’ remarks were surprising.
It wasn’t what the candidates said, but how they said it, that mattered. In this debate, the CPD altered the format to allow a direct dialogue between the two candidates. At first, both were reluctant to initiate directly with one another, but with the prodding of Lehrer, Senator Obama entered into the format and began to address Senator McCain directly. Obama even interjected remarks in his defense during some of his opponent’s accusations.
Senator McCain, however, trudged through his remarks ignoring the comments. I will not attempt to address these instances, since they can be interpreted in a variety of ways; many directly dependent on the interpreters’ political leanings. Nevertheless, this was certainly the first time interaction on this scale between two candidates has ever been seen at a debate, an unprecedented element which further added to the significance of the event.
The First Presidential Debate of the 2008 Election proved to be an exciting opener to a historic election which is still far from over. Ole Miss stepped up to the challenge and elegantly showcased the progress and promise of the Great State of Mississippi.

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