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WashU's latest debate reflects the future, and recalls the past

Workers put on final touches for Sunday's Washington University debate setting
Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio

At Sunday night’s presidential debate, about 40 St. Louis area undecided voters will get a chance to pose questions to Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

They are being chosen by the Gallup polling organization, which has undertaken the job in previous town-hall debates, at the behest of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Departments..

But lots of other things have changed, when it comes to the town-hall format, since a similar debate was held in 2004 at Washington University between then-President George W. Bush and the Democratic nominee, then-Sen. John Kerry.

Peter Eyre, senior advisor for the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, laid out some of the differences Friday as he led reporters on a one-hour “walk through’’ in the actual debate hall.

“It will look and feel different than it has during prior town-hall debates,’’ Eyre said in an interview.

As carpenters hammered away, Eyre pointed out the physical changes since 2004, such as an updated and expanded stage, as well as improved technology.

Much of the hall’s floor, for example, won’t feature seats. Instead, there are booths in the back for some of the major TV broadcast and cable outlets that will show the debate proceedings live.  The audience in the hall is expected to be relatively small.

The rise of social media also has transformed the debate process, he said. For example: about half of the questions expected to be posed Sunday night will have come from information collected on Facebook.

A blast at the past

The changes are notable to this reporter, in part, because I’m one of the few currently active journalists in St. Louis who has been involved in the coverage of all of the previous presidential debates held at Washington University since it first was selected in 1992.

From that first debate through the last WashU-held event in 2008,  I worked as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In 1992, I was assigned a supporting role to cover a huge Republican watch party and rally held in the gym at Forest Park Community College.   Thousands attended, listening to country-western music and then watching on a theater-size screen the Washington University debate between then-President George H. W. Bush, the Republican, and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, arrived at the rally soon after the debate ended.  The couple was in a celebratory mood, with Bush then blasting his Democratic rival – Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton – as a man seeking to “tear down our country.”

In 1996, Washington University was all set to host another presidential debate when Clinton sought to change schedule. The St. Louis debate was canceled, although I covered Republican Bob Dole’s appearance on debate day at a rally held at St. Louis University. There, he declared, “I’m ready. I was ready. I’m here.”

The 2000 presidential debate at Washington University between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore captured the region’s attention earlier for days, particularly since Gore had spent part of his preparation time in quarters at the nearby Innsbrook resort.

But the debate -- held on Oct. 17, 2000 -- became an after-thought locally, because of the tragic plane crash the night before that had taken the life of Missouri’s governor, Mel Carnahan.  Most of the local press coverage was about the crash and its aftermath. I was removed from the debate detail. In the end, little locally was recorded of the Bush-Gore encounter.

The 2004 town hall most closely mirrors Sunday’s event. It was the second debate, and Kerry had the political wind at his back after a strong performance in the first encounter with Bush.  I had a seat in the hall’s balcony to watch their second face-off.

What I remember the most of that debate, held on a Friday night, was a news conference earlier in the day when then-Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe (now the governor of Virginia) declared that Missouri remained a targeted state and that the party was committed to spending time and money here on Kerry's behalf.

By that Sunday, less than 48 hours after the debate, Kerry’s Missouri campaign operation had boarded planes and left the state.

Ironically, the last debate that Washington University hosted – the vice presidential debate in 2008 – was supposed to be a consolation prize. But because of the buzz surrounding the GOP running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, her encounter with Democrat Joe Biden ended up being the university’s most-watched of all the debates it hosted.

Almost 70 million people tuned in.

I sat in moderator Gwen Ifill's chair a day or two before the 2008 vice presidential debate at Washington University.
Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
I sat in moderator Gwen Ifill's chair a day or two before the 2008 vice presidential debate at Washington University.

As the Post-Dispatch’s chief writer for that evening, I was swamped with the magnitude of the job.  But there’s two other incidents that have stamped that last debate assignment in my mind.

A day or two before, while at the debate’s media-filing center to write a preview, I was able to enter the debate hall for a scheduled “walk through’’ with no other reporters around.  A Secret Service agent offered to take pictures of me at each of the two lecterns and in the moderator seat to be occupied later by Gwen Ifill. I posted them to my Facebook page, where they remain.

The night of that Biden-Palin showdown, as I sat at my laptop in the media center preparing to fulfill my job, comedian John Oliver – then on Comedy Center’s “The Daily Show” – came up and asked if the show could film his skit while he sat next to me.  He said I was supposed to go on working as if he wasn’t there.  The episode underscored how a presidential debate can be a force, and a farce, all at once.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.