OXFORD – The whole world was watching as Mississippi took center stage Friday night for the first Presidential Debate of 2008 held on the Ole Miss campus.
While it may not be clear which candidate came out ahead, there’s no doubt that the university and the state were the big winners from the comments of visitors and the international media who covered the event.
Hosting the debate was a huge undertaking and required an army of workers estimated at more than 400 university faculty, staff, students, volunteers, and part-timers hired just for the occasion.
Several Yalobushians were among those who helped staff the debate activities. Also, a number of local folks were in Oxford just to take in the events on campus and downtown on the square.
Reporter Jack Gurner was in Oxford Friday and provides this account of events surrounding the debate for Herald readers.
Media representatives who arrived on campus Friday parked in the lots around the coliseum. From there we were shuttled to the Triplett Alumni Center to pick up press credentials that had been applied for months earlier through the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The volunteers staffing the credentialing center were mostly students. One proudly showed off his university provided Ole Miss polo shirt with both the debate logo and the Nike swoosh. “This would cost 75 bucks if you could buy it,” he commented.
From there, I was directed to the entrance to the secure area surrounding the Ford Center on University Blvd. One of the two University Police officers guarding the first checkpoint was Water Valley native William Sheffield, a 13-year veteran of the department. Although Sheffield recognized me, he still checked to make sure I had the proper press pass.
After walking through a maze of concrete barricades, I had to pass through metal detectors and have my camera bag pass through the x-ray machine. I emptied my pockets into a tray and one of the officers noticed my pocketknife.
“What do you need this knife for?” he asked.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I responded and then explained than most of us southern boys carry some kind of pocketknife.
To his credit, the officer was very nice and even offered to let me go back out and put the knife in my car or leave it with someone. But, he made it clear it wasn’t going into the secure area. I let him keep it.
After being cleared, I walked east on University to the front of the Ford Center. Governor Haley Barbour was giving an interview. He had only learned within the past few minutes that Senator John McCain was on his way to Oxford. “I expected Senator McCain and Senator Obama to be here tonight,” he said with a wide grin.
As the governor answered questions about the current economic crisis, Wayland Adams, a Water Valley native who is head of the Executive Protection Unit, watched over Barbour. Adams has been with the unit since 1992.
On the north side of University Ave., just west of the Ford Center was a massive grandstand-like stage erected for the television journalists. As I walked past, I could hear well-known voices including Shepard Smith, Major Garrett, and Tom Brokaw. I could also hear other voices filing their reports in foreign languages.
Down the hill from the grandstand was the media filing center, a huge tent filled with row after row of tables. This area was the working home for the majority of journalist covering the debate. It also was home to spin alley, the area used to perform interviews after the debate.
Water Vallian Melinda Grimmet, production control supervisor for the physical plant department, worked in the media filing center. Among her jobs was troubleshooting power and communications problems. “It’s been exciting to see it all come together,” she said.
According to a technician with One Path, a company working under AT&T, there were 38 miles of wire just for voice and data in and around the filing center.
Beyond the filing center was a hospitality tent, providing free food and drinks, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. And, nearby were the restroom facilities. Although they were on wheels, it would be unfair to call them portable toilets. The manufacturer refers to them as luxury mobile restroom suites. A fellow Mississippi journalist called them hotty-toddy potties.
At the far north end of the lot was the area reserved for the satellite trucks. The price tag for a parking space was $1,850 for a network vehicle.
Almost out of sight at the very north end of the lot was the 18-wheeler communications trailer belonging to the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol. The area was also used as the command center for their SWAT Team and Special Operations Group.
Law enforcement agencies from around the state provided support during the debate including horse patrols of the perimeter fence and utility vehicles used as shuttles, one of the ranking officers said.
At least four Yalobusha officers worked as special temporary officers for the University Police Department including Lt. Rick McCuan and Capt. Roger Thomas of the Water Valley Police Department; David Wallis of the Sheriff’s Department; and Mark Martin of the Coffeeville Police Department.
Just before 2 p.m., word spread that Senator Barack Obama was about to arrive. Photographers crowded the street near the back entrance to the Ford Center. As his campaign bus pulled up, another bus loaded with the traveling press pulled directly in front of those of us already in position.
We scrambled around the bus and repositioned on a narrow strip of grass between the two streets. Uniformed federal police made us stay on the curb. No one saw the candidate get off the bus, but it is believed he went into the Ford Center for a sound check. No one got a picture then.
By 2:30 his motorcade left for parts unknown and we waited for Senator John McCain who was scheduled to arrive about 3.
McCain’s group arrived in the standard armored Suburban SUV that is favored by the Secret Service. His vehicle went under the tent at the back entrance. Again, no picture.
McCain’s stay was brief and as the vehicle pulled away, he waved at the assembled press. Most of us got off three of four quick clicks.
A Walk Through The Grove
It was 3:11 and nothing was scheduled to happen for several hours. I decided leave the press area and walk through the grove. The noise level from the Rock the Vote concert and all the candidate signs were enough to cause sensory overload.
It looked like game day with all the activity. Along with booths for both presidential candidates, just about everyone else running for office had their supporters bearing signs. One woman was cooling herself with a hand fan that read, “The true candidate for change, U.S. farm raised catfish.”
Where there’s politics you’ll find Snooky Williams. He and Yalobusha Circuit Clerk Daryl Burney were taking in the sights. Other local folks in the grove included Connie Rogers who gathered a group of Avants and Deans for a photo.
Their group had been watching Chris Matthews who was broadcasting his MSNBC show live from the grove.
Justin Chandler, a 20-year-old junior majoring in political science and public policy, was walking the grove covered with McCain stickers and carrying a large McCain sign. Chandler is a 2006 WVHS grad.
A few steps further, I was passed by a group of about four who were twirling pizza crusts as they strolled along. The leader was Chris Green of Oxford, trainer for the National Pizza Team.
Steve Parks of Senatobia, an Ole Miss alumnus, was showing off his bouvier (that a big poodle-looking dog) wearing McCain décor. Gracie, the bouvier, is a Republican, he said, and then added, “Our pug is uncommitted.”
The only protestor I saw in the grove was carrying a large sign that singled out immigration as the number one issue facing the nation. He seemed pleased that I took time to make a photo, but was disappointed when I told him that most of the media were in the secure area.
The Big Names
Having seen just about everything and getting a headache from the noise, I went back to the media big top. As I approached I saw a young Asian reporter interviewing Senator John Kerry, who was sitting on the curb drinking Ole Miss bottled water. The reporter, Sun Heidi Saeboe, represents several Norwegian newspapers.
Near the entrance to the media tent, reporters had Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina cornered. Among the throng was Abigail Lista, a 12-year-old Mississippi student representing the Scholastic News Service.
Just inside, a throng of reporters surrounded Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. A petite woman with Cobra Security was having no luck moving the crowd who were blocking an exit.
At about 7:28 Senator Obama arrived for the debate. This time he got out of a Suburban carrying a blue three-ring binder. He smiled and waved to the crowd of journalists. Bingo. Most of us got the picture.
After he went into the Ford Center, I noticed a blue backpack leaning against the light pole near where his motorcade had parked. I raised my camera and took a shot. A man in a dark suit – presumably a Secret Service agent – reached down and snatched the backpack and quickly walked to our side of the street. One of the Air Force ROTC students who were “guarding” the media said that it belonged to her. The agent told her to leave it on our side. It happened so fast no one had time to think bomb scare.
Next came Senator McCain at 7:45. His motorcade moved in rapidly and his vehicle disappeared into the covered entrance. No picture of McCain arriving.
With nothing left to do until the debate started, I walked to the front of the Ford Center to photograph the building at sunset. A uniformed federal officer came out of the building with a student in tow. The student was obviously drunk.
A few minutes later, UPD Assistant Chief Ray Hawkins of Water Valley came out with another drunk student. It was reported that a third student was removed from the Ford Center for being drunk.
The Actual Debate
By 7:58 I was back in the media center to watch the debate on the dozens of big screen televisions set up for the media. Only a very privileged few of the press got into the Ford Center including the networks that had rented $4,800 platforms high up in the debate hall.
Inside the media filing center, hundreds sat in front of laptop computers writing their stories or posting their blogs as McCain and Obama dueled. I found an unoccupied corner and sat in the floor. Dozens of student volunteers passed out copies of the candidates’ comments just moments after they spoke.
As the end of the debate neared, former New York Mayor and Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani came in and stood for more than ten minutes in front of a Fox network camera waiting to do his spin. Greta Van Susteren of Fox walked out of the stand-up booth to take a photo of Giuliani as photographers photographed her photographing Giuliani.
Giuliani was soon followed by a group of representatives from both parties who filed into the media center each followed by an aide carrying a large sign mounted on a pole much like a Roman standard bearer. Reporters would group around the various spin masters who were explaining their candidate’s comments.
Former Senator Trent Lott was a favorite and moved quickly between the network stand-up booths giving his take on the debate. The noise level rose quickly with so many voices vying for attention.
With the candidates gone and reporters gorged on spin, the activities began to wind down. Reporters without an immediate deadline started leaving the secure area. As I walked out through the concrete maze blocking University Avenue, I met with Vallian Clay Ashford who commented on the week’s events.
I grabbed a media shuttle to the parking lot and drove to Hwy. 6. The Highway Safety Patrol still had westbound traffic blocked for the candidates who left to attend parties in their honor.
The price tag for the debate estimated by university officials: $5.5 million.