Off The Record: Centre should demand a recount of decision on presidential debate

December 22, 2003|HERB BROCK

Centre College officials graciously and gracefully accepted the news last month that the college was not chosen as a 2004 presidential or vice-presidential debate site. They expressed disappointment but said they appreciated being the site for the 2000 veep debate and would strongly consider making a bid in the 2008 debate cycle.

Meanwhile, I've been doing a slow burn. Centre folks have class. I don't. But while I lack class, I do have plenty of crass. Thus, let me crassly complain.

In my view, Centre should be celebrating a special but well-deserved Christmas gift this Thursday morning. But, instead, there will be lump of black coal in its gold and white stocking.

And that lump was deposited by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission committed a big error by denying Centre the chance to reprise what was a wonderful town and gown experience in 2000, something the group noted itself ad nauseum. I believe Centre should demand a recount. Some chads must've been hanging at the commission headquarters when they decided who would be 2004 debate hosts.


The debate not only was good for the community and college, it supposedly was good for everyone. According to the commission itself as well as reps from both vice-presidential camps and the media types that flooded the community, veep debate 2000 was a very successful event put on by the smallest site for a modern vice-presidential or presidential debate ever.

Because of the accolades that showered on them after the 2000 debate, Centre folks were, at least privately, pretty confident of landing a presidential debate in 2004. They had three big reasons for their confidence.

First, the college got straight "A's" in 2000 for selling itself as a debate site by packaging itself with the community, and it enlisted the writing and art skills of hundreds of local school kids in pre-debate promotions, a successful PR tactic it followed this time around as well.

Second, Centre and the community pulled it off. It's one thing to promote yourself as a debate site. It's another to demonstrate those promotions weren't a bunch of empty promises. From facilities to accommodations to security to college and community support, the veep debate was a winner, big time, to use Vice President Dick Cheney's jargon.

Third, the college's small, compact size would make it a much easier place to secure than other, much larger prospective debate sites, and security is even more important in this post-9/11 world.

Despite the record of 2000 and all the applause the college and community received for the debate, Centre wasn't a lock. There were 13 other candidates and not everyone could be picked. That's understandable. But what is somewhat galling is that one of the places that was picked already had been chosen three previous times as a debate site. This would be Washington University in St. Louis.

Wash U., as it's nicknamed, is one of the nation's best universities. It is also is turning into a teacher's pet of the debate commission. It must be doing some big-time sucking up, beyond covering the half-million dollars it and other debate sites must cough up for debate expenses. Why else would it practically become a permanent debate site.

The commission has been in the debate-sponsoring business for a relatively short time. It has sponsored presidential and vice-presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000. Wash U. was a site three of those years and was selected to be a site a fourth time but it had to decline for scheduling reasons.

I recall talking to Wash U.'s vice president of public relations for a story I did a few weeks ago about some of Centre's competitors. The fellow was polite and informative enough but he exuded an attitude somewhere between confidence and cockiness. Let's call it smugness.

He rattled off several advantages of Wash U., including its location in a major city and all the transportation, accommodations and communications benefits that such a setting offers. But time and again, he mentioned Wash U.'s track record as a successful debate site.

Well, a lot of prospective sites would be successful, too, if they got to practice umpteem times like this haughty debate hog - I mean, Wash U.

By practically giving Wash U. a lifetime membership in the debate site fraternity, the commission is limiting the opportunities as well as probabilities of other colleges and communities across this great country ever getting a chance to join this select group of American institutions and their towns that get to be not just a backdrop for a major event in U.S. political history but also a part of that history.

I recall a fairly recent debate that went down in history as a major point in a presidential campaign. It was one of the debates between Republican incumbent President George Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and billionaire Ross Perot in 1992.

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