Les Fugate couldn’t win.
It was a few months before the 2000 vice-presidential debate that would shine an international spotlight on his beloved alma mater, and the presidential ticket he supported was backing out of the event. Shortly after Fugate and his classmates returned for the fall semester, the Bush-Cheney campaign had decided not to come to Centre College, favoring a vice-presidential debate at the site of the final presidential debate instead.
Fugate, president of the College Republicans at the time, had basically been on call around the clock as aids delivered freshly devised talking points and instructions on building the organization on campus. He also had been asked to speak on behalf of the school’s soon floundering debate bid.
Fugate said the college preferred him to say publicly that coming to Centre, situated as it was in small-town America, would help them in the state and across the country, while the campaign favored something along the lines of “Governor Bush does love Kentucky, he believes Kentucky will show him love in November and he needs to focus elsewhere.”
Flashing his preternatural skills as a pol, Fugate, who went on to work for Secretary of State Trey Grayson, tried to land somewhere in the middle.
“I typically avoided both talking points,” Fugate said. “I would say that I was still hopeful the campaign would consider the debate, but I would also point out Gov. Bush was strong in the state for good reasons and poised to win Kentucky.”
Unlike the last several presidential elections, which Republicans have won handily, Kentucky was still considered a swing state in 2000 and remained hotly contested. A 6th District congressional tilt between Ernie Fletcher and Scotty Baesler also provided some intrigue during election season.
Two weeks went by with the college and community heaping pressure through the media and any other means they could to convince the Bush campaign to send Dick Cheney to Centre to meet Joe Lieberman. When it became clear there had been a reversal, Fugate joined in the celebration, but he had a secret: He already knew the campaign had decided to come after all.
Because of his hotline with campaign headquarters, Fugate was likely the first person from Centre to know for sure the campaign had a change of heart until it was announced.
“I got a call from Austin and they told me ‘you can’t say anything about this, but you’re going to get good news later today,’” Fugate said.
He was happy but also set up for a gut-wrenching encounter with Centre President John Roush, whom he looked up to and considered a mentor. Walking across campus early on the day of the announcement, Fugate passed Roush and was unable to tell him what he had heard.
“When I ran into him later, he smiled at me and said, ‘You knew didn’t you?,’” Fugate recalled.