“From historic Danville, Kentucky, good evening and welcome to this year's only vice presidential debate…”
That simple introduction from CNN’s Bernard Shaw signaled the beginning of the 2000 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman for the viewing public, but for the people who worked to make the event happen it signified the culmination of a whirlwind year. An idea few thought possible had become a reality.
Clarence Wyatt, co-chairman of the 2000 debate steering committee, said some at the college had considered applying for debates in the past under President Michael Adams, but plans never gained traction. When President John Roush arrived from the University of Richmond, though, it was one of the first subjects he brought up.
Roush, a former vice president at Richmond, had been in charge of that school’s successful staging of the 1992 presidential debate and saw what it could do for a school.
“The thing I was absolutely certain about early on, as I am now, is that we had the quality of people and the level of expertise at the school and in the community to pull this off at a high level,” Roush said. “There was some concern about whether we could make our facilities functional in the way they needed to be, but through cooperation and some amazing creativity we were able to do it to a level that set a new standard.”
Vice president for college relations Richard Trollinger — Wyatt’s co-chairman on the 2000 debate steering committee and the head of the effort to land the 2012 debate — said the topic first came up in an open setting during the first meeting of the college’s board of trustees executive committee. Roush was asked what the college could do to tell its story to the rest of the world.
“He talked about how the debate helped put Richmond on the map,” Trollinger said. “But at the time, he might as well have been proposing we host the winter Olympics.”
Both those at Centre and with the Commission on Presidential Debates will tell you the fact the school has many of the same people in place was big reason why the debate is coming back to Danville in 2012. While other sites may boast grander facilities and big-city appeal, many at Centre said their experience 12 years ago allows them to look forward to 2012, confident that a small school in a small town can pull off such a big event.
In 2000, to ensure the campus — the smallest school in the smallest town to host a general election debate in 2000 and again in 2012 — would be a suitable host site it required $1.4 million and marshaling a massive human effort that began during the application process in 1999.
Among the requirements from the debate committee, the school had to be able to provide a media center equipped to handle more than 2,000 journalists, political handlers and security details.
In order to really sway the commission on debates, though, Centre had to promote two seemingly contradictory ideas.
On the one hand, Centre was pushing the concept of national politics played out on Main Street in Small Town, U.S.A. They also had to prove that some things about being small actually trumped the amenities of a larger setting where the debates are usually held.
Wyatt said the school was able to turn the perceived problem of a less urban setting into an edge, both thematically and practically.
"We were able to turn some of these amazing technical demands into positives," Wyatt said. “For example, the commission wanted thousands of hotel rooms within 30 minutes of the debate site. In terms of miles Lexington may be farther away than a debate site in a place like Houston, but it could take you twice as long to get from place to place there. Our pitch also emphasized that we were small town America and a majority of the population still lived in small towns.”
Trollinger said the relatively compact campus center also worked in the school’s favor.
The school knew that the commission only allowed about 700 people inside the debate hall itself, which negated the advantage of larger halls. The proximity of the Norton Center to Sutcliffe Hall, only about 100 yards away, was also a boon when compared to facilities in some cities that may have to run enormous amounts of cable for blocks.
In addition to the work done by the college, students in the local school systems got busy writing letters, poems, essays and even jingles promoting Danville and Boyle County as the ideal backdrop for a debate.
Unlike this year's process, in 1999 the commission cut the list of finalists before making the actual announcement. After months of meetings, letters from students and community members, inspections by the commission and evaluations by the television production company, the pitch had been made and it was time to wait.
The announcement came on January 6, 2000.
“Unlike this fall, where our community was invited to a rally to celebrate Centre's selection to host a debate, the suspense at the rally leading up to the 2000 debate, when we actually learned that Centre was to be a host, was exhilarating," said Patrick Noltemeyer, a senior in 2000 and now the college's associate dean of students and director of community service.