First, everyone is asking how we got our debate tickets . . . so, here it is. Jim Lehrer was supposed to stay in our guest house while he was here in Oxford. The Debate Commission ended up moving him to another location that was a little closer to the Ford Center which is where the debate was held (disappointing!). We got to keep our "golden tickets", though. Sorry for all the secrecy, but Lehrer wrote the questions for the debate--which obviously meant that he knew the questions that were going to be asked before the debate took place. People didn't need to know where he was.
At around 5:00 yesterday afternoon, we went to a parking lot about half a mile from the debate venue. We parked and walked up to a huge white tent, and there were signs everywhere on the outside of the tent saying "No cell phones! No cameras!". Since we had been told that we could bring cameras, my husband told the volunteer at the door that we would just take them in and check on it for ourselves (love that man!). We asked our friend from the Debate Commission what to do about our camera, and she asked the secret service agent who was screening everyone. He told her we could bring them in--just to turn them off. Done. We scarfed down some great hors d'oeuvres since we knew we wouldn't be eating again for five or six hours. Then we went through security--metal detectors and bag search and boarded a bus for the Ford Center.
When we arrived, we were tunneled by barricades right into the door of the venue, and people were directed to their floors. We stood around in the lobby for a while . . . waiting . . . .waiting, and then the doors opened. The place looked amazing--you saw the stage for yourself on TV. We were on the lower balcony, so we had a great view of everything. About half of the seats on the back of the lower orchestra level (about 200 or so seats) had been removed to make room for the six major news networks who were allowed inside the venue. Platforms had been built and six mini televisions studios had been partitioned off. This is where people like Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw, and Shepherd Smith were broadcasting from. The rest of the press (3000 or so people) were outside in the press tent. More about that later . . .
We walked around and talked with people for a while, and then everyone started heading for their seats. At 7:15, it was lockdown. You could leave the room--but you could NOT come back in for any reason. The pre-show began at 7:30 and the Debate Commission directors spoke about turning off cell phones and cameras (they pretty much drilled that one in). They talked about the role of the Commission for Presidential Debates which is a private organization--not sponsored by the government or any party, and their mission is voter education in presidential elections. Our Chancellor Robert Khayat spoke next. He spoke with his usual endearing eloquence and mentioned that earlier that day, someone had been putting in an irrigation system in Morton, Mississippi, and accidentally cut the fiber optic cable feeding the entire debate venue. Only in Mississippi! He did mention that they had put in two of everything so that a back up would be in place--but you didn't want to have to be using your backup before the debate even began. Whew! He also revealed that as chancellor of the university he was given 150 tickets, and he gave them all to students through various essay contests and lotteries. He asked all of the students who were present to stand. This is one of the amazing things about our chancellor--he could have given those tickets to wealthy donors and VIPs, but he gave them to the students. Lastly, Jim Lehrer spoke to the audience about the debate format and about his expectations for us as an audience--we were basically to remain completely silent. He even threatened to specifically point to disruptive people and take time away from their favorite candidate if they misbehaved.
Then the debate began (I won't rehash the specifics of the debate since you all saw it on TV--but I did think both candidates were great). My friend at the Debate Commission had told me that when the candidates walked out onto the stage, it had to be perfectly orchestrated so that they would arrive in the middle at exactly the same moment so no one would appear to have an advantage. Also, McCain's podium was a little shorter so that more of his torso would show--to even the playing field in the all important "height" issue!
After the debate, we were herded back out to wait for the buses, but our friends who work for the debate commission asked us if we would like to come with them to "Spin Alley". Well, of course we would! We jumped the barricade and walked down to the gigantic "tent" that was put up about a month ago to house the thousands of journalists from around the world. We were soon shoulder to shoulder with cameras, people, lights and general chaos and craziness. At one point I turned around and found myself staring at Madeline Albright who was being interviewed by about twenty different news organizations. My mom actually spotted me on TV in the background of several interviews as she flipped channels post-debate (I'm so famous!!). We saw Hannity and Colmes, Rudy Guliani, Trent Lott, Howard Dean, Senator Danforth, and hundreds of newscasters whose names I could never remember. We went by the hospitality tent for a beer but were sad to find it closed--so we headed back and caught the last bus to the parking lot.
Then, we went to the Square to people-watch and attend after-parties which were winding down by the time we arrived. John and I sat at the Lyric rehashing the debate before calling it a night. I wish I had gotten lots more (and better!) pictures, but the camera issue was a little "iffy". The last thing I wanted to do was be thrown out for taking a picture when I wasn't supposed to be. Scroll down to the next two posts to see the pictures that I did take.
I just cannot express how proud I am of our town, state and university for pulling this off without a hitch--especially with all the uncertainty on Friday. The Debate Commission, Secret Service Agents, and the international press consistently said how impressed they were with the people they worked with from the university. They all said that this debate was handled beautifully with perfect organization and capability. Mississippi gets a bum rap a lot of the time (and sometimes we deserve it), but I'm thrilled that we were able to shine at an international level.
And, I haven't even mentioned the Ole Miss Rebel victory over Florida today!!!!! We've definitely got some good karma workin' for us here in Oxford.