“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.
After the jubilation, months of work started in earnest. What the casual observer may not remember after Centre’s debate was ultimately so well received is that it almost didn't happen.
In early September, the Bush-Cheney campaign announced Centre wasn't among the debates they would agree to. With hundreds-of-thousands spent, and thousands of man hours worked, the decision was devastating.
“It was right at the start of school and there had been so much excitement,” said Ann Young, director of Student Life and Housing and the volunteer coordinator in 2000. “We had all been working so hard, doing so much planning and then you just hit this lull.”
Trollinger said he remembers the announcement vividly and has a tooth broken from frustration-induced grinding to prove it. He, Wyatt and a few others had gathered in a room at Old Centre on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. In the midst of what seemed like a disaster, they made an important decision.
"We were going down swinging," Wyatt said. “The theme — and it is what we said to everyone who would listen — was that surely no candidate for president or vice president would turn their back on small town America.”
The campus community and the people of Danville, particularly some of the same persuasive local students, were enlisted in their second public relations push in less than a year — this time to save the debate. The campaign succeeded in drawing support from across the country. Newspaper columnists opined, CNN ran a sympathetic piece multiple times and well-placed alumni lobbied.
When it was announced that Cheney would be making a campaign stop in Paducah, Wyatt loaded up a van full of bipartisan, politically active students packing handmade signs and hit the road to make a last gasp personal appeal.
Twin brothers Wes and Les Fugate were on the bus and were heavily involved in the debate effort through their roles as campus leaders, as well as working for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
Les recalls the awkward position of representing the potentially aggrieved college while also working with the Bush-Cheney campaign. He gave interviews to state, national and international media outlets during that time.
Wes recalls approaching Paducah when the group got word the debate at Centre was back on. There was a burst of cheers and the students got busy changing their signs from pleas for the candidate to reconsider to ones with messages welcoming Cheney.
Wes said he remembers Mike Duncan, father of a Centre student and husband of a Centre trustee, coming out of the building where the rally was held and getting Secret Service agents to allow the students to come inside with spots on the front rows. There they got to hear Cheney announce he was pleased to be in Kentucky and was looking forward to coming back for the debate.
That sickening feeling so many people had carried in their stomach pits gave way to another round of celebrations, but also meant kicking the preparations into high gear.
The man who was asked to pull off some of the most daunting feats ahead of the debate was current director of facilities Wayne King.
Then an associate director of facilities, King was tasked with basically designing and installing a heating and air-conditioning system for the then un-air conditioned Sutcliffe Hall, which was being transformed into the media center. That meant hanging duct work and portable air conditioners throughout two gymnasiums that would keep the temperature constant at 68 degrees while the rooms were packed with thousands of people.
For King and his people, the ultimate validation of their work was not having anyone notice it during the broadcast. The massive amount of actual labor that needed to be done could have been worrying enough, but they also had to consider the number of witnesses there would be for even the smallest glitch.
"If something didn't go right it wasn't just people in Danville or even the United States who were going to see it and know we messed up, it would have been around the world," King said. "We weren't going to let that happen and we won't let it happen this time."
It didn't happen because of the considerable attention paid to avoiding the nightmare scenario that unfolded during a presidential debate in 1976, when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter stood in the dark for 20 minutes during a power outage.
King had to bring in two 1750 kVA generators — that's a lot of power — and be able to have a one millisecond transfer to the backup system if something went awry.
"In other words, if electricity went out the lights couldn't blink," King explained.
Although he hadn't done it before, the testing protocols King and his crew instituted in the weeks prior to the debate have now become required at all commission-sponsored debates.
In addition to helping make the debate a success, Wyatt also credits King for helping the college get the event in the first place.
"When you get to that point you are always wondering what they might see that you don’t see yourself,” Wyatt said. “That was where Wayne was so valuable. Every time their team asked about whether we could do various things, Wayne could give them a good answer.”
One of the other challenges for organizers was the influx of people using cell phones in a time when the technology was still relatively new. Trollinger, who said he carried two phones and two hand-held radios himself, had to track down portable towers that were brought to campus.
While King and others worked their magic behind the scenes, a group of 648 volunteers — 170 of them students — were fanned out across the campus, town and state. The legion of unpaid help logged about 4,500 hours.
Young, the volunteer coordinator, has kept all her files from the last debate, folders filled with detailed lists of every volunteer's role and their position down to a doorway they may have been assigned to stand next to.
"Our main focus was having absolutely everything covered, so if someone didn’t know the answer we knew where to get it,” Young said. “We took what they asked for and tried to go above and beyond that. We might have over-prepared, but we had to make sure we did this the right way.”
The hundreds of workers were assigned to help with everything Young and her team could imagine, from riding shuttle buses from three off-site parking locations to providing information to pedestrians on Main Street. In addition to working on campus and around Danville, people were also stationed at the airports and major hotels in Lexington and Louisville.
It was Young's job to make sure each volunteer, a sought-after job which required a review by the Secret Service, was placed in a role that fit their personality and knowledge.
Young herself acted as a de facto culinary liaison for the shadowy security teams cloistered in various parts of campus, bringing Burke's Bakery doughnuts to Secret Service members on a daily basis.
Absent the thousands of smart phone applications that now give restaurant locations and information at a the push of a button, Young also became the go-to source for hungry secret service members staying in Lexington. When she heard they were frequenting some chain restaurants she pointed them to several of the areas more notable eateries.
The experience was memorable for most students and transformative for some.
Noltemeyer said the debate had an invigorating affect on students, as they worked hard in the classroom to free up time to work as volunteers. It was Noltemeyer’s job to recruit fraternity volunteers and to help install miles of security fencing that criss-crossed campus.
“There was an incredible sense of pride and responsibility at that time, and I think students worked even harder that semester in their classes to make sure they would have time to participate as volunteers for the debate,”¿Noltemeyer said.
Working on the debate and the campaign lit a fuse for the Fugate brothers, who served as assistant house managers at the Norton Center during the debate.
Les Fugate, chairman of the College Republicans at the time, went on to head up former Secretary of State Trey Grayson’s communications staff and worked with him until he resigned to a take a job leading Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Fugate is now executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for Rural Development in Somerset.
“I had knocked on doors and attended rallies before, but nothing like this,” Fugate wrote in an e-mail. “That exposure changed my life. Shortly after graduating from Centre, a friend of mine, Trey Grayson, ran and won his race for Secretary of State. His campaign manager and he had remembered the interviews and work that I had done for the party during the debate. Trey called me up and said he couldn't afford someone with experience to be his communications director, but thought that my experiences during the debate had positioned me well to do the job.”
Wes Fugate recalls switching from his debate job duties to his work for the College Republicans following the debate.
He was asked to distribute buttons welcoming Cheney to various prominent Republican governors, senators and congressmen. One of those he and his brother commiserated with after the debate was then-Congressman Ernie Fletcher.
Wes Fugate would go on from Centre to become Fletcher’s deputy chief of staff.
Some of the more entertaining behind-the-scenes stories also came from the ranks of the volunteers. Private scenes and information few knew, such as the Cheney's staying at the Old Crow Inn, continually circulated.
Wes Fugate recalls an exchange when he was charged with making sure ticketed guests entering the debate hall did not bring their cell phones. Fugate said he had to tell former astronaut Sen. John Glenn he needed to hand over his phone.
“He looked down at me and said ‘Young man, if I can go into space, I can take my cell phone into the debate,’” Fugate wrote. “About that time, a Secret Service agent came up and directed the senator to hand me his cell phone or he would not be permitted inside.”
John Erwin was working the phones in the help center during the debate. Erwin, a Centre alum and Toliver Elementary School teacher then and now, was the answering service for the entire country’s real time reaction to what was happening on the stage.
“There was a woman from Nebraska who wanted us to get a note to Dick Cheney while he was on the air letting him know that he looked presidential,” said Erwin. “Another lady from Kansas called because she was concerned Cheney wasn’t getting the same amount of time for his responses as Lieberman. She wanted us to let Bernard Shaw and whoever was keeping the time know.”
Aside from a few local students, the audience inside Newlin Hall when the debate was going on included mostly well-connected people with ties to the college or the political parties.
Lotteries were held and tickets were in such high demand, Young said, getting one elicited a sense of unbridled euphoria.
“We found out about anything that happened right before it happened,” Young said. “Someone from the commission came in about 30 minutes before the ticket lottery with five tickets and offered them to some of the girls. They started screaming and yelling so loud some of the Secret Service agents and state police came out to check on things.”
In lieu of a prime seat in the hall, the college decided to put up large viewing screens to let people watch the debate. The community viewing was preceded by a festival on the lawn behind Cowan Dining Commons, now the Campus Center.
The free event featured local performers like the Danville Children’s Choir, the First Baptist Church Men’s Chorus and the Advocate Brass Band, along with acts like B.J. Thomas and Danville native Larnelle Harris.
The performances and other festivities taking place on campus and around town gave way to hundreds of townspeople gathering on the lawn to watch history taking place a few hundred yards away. That atmosphere left the most lasting impression for observers like David Von Drehle of the Washington Post, who glowingly described the debate day as a “happy pageant of Norman Rockwell meets Alexis de Tocqeuville.”
“On the common, bands played marches and choirs sang gospel hymns,” Von Drehle wrote. “Hours before the debate began, the gently sloping ground filled with grandparents on lawn chairs and moms and dads on blankets and children who twirled and ran and tumbled and picked leaves from their hair ... Gore campaign chairman William Daley wandered onto the common a few hours before the event and broke into a huge smile. ‘Isn’t this great?’ he said. He turned to an aide and said, ‘Tell the press if they want my spin, the chairman’s out here under a tree.’”
Everyone involved has at least one unshakable memory or a moment from the time surrounding the 2000 debate and for many of them it involves the satisfaction felt during the debate and its afterglow.
King remembers the huge sigh of relief when the call came over the radio that the debate was complete.
For Roush, it was when the rain that had held off all day began to fall — Wyatt marked the time as 11:27 p.m. — during his short walk home.
“Susie (Roush) and I were walking back toward Craik House and it had threatened rain all day but never did,” Roush said. “A light rain started and we could hear the jets leaving Stuart Powell Field about one every minute and all the television folks were tearing down their equipment and moving out. It was so clear to me it that had been an absolutely perfect day.”