Retirees Association

Donna Schlagheck reports on the first presidential debate at Hofstra University

Political Science Professor Emerita Donna Schlagheck reports on her experience accompanying 15 Wright State students to view the first debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump

Standing on the Hofstra University campus on the sunny afternoon of Sept. 26, 2016, I wondered how the experience might have unfolded at the Wright State University campus. The excitement of traveling with 15 WSU students was mixed with bittersweet, but the energy was palpable in Long Island.  The Long Island Expressway, which bisects Hofstra, had been closed down at the campus.  Banners, buses, campaign signs and news media platforms crowded the campus site.  Helicopters buzzed constantly overhead.  The first meeting of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the debate stage was hours way.

After he was notified of the change in the hosting assignment last July, Hofstra President Rabinowitz offered President Hopkins 15 tickets for Wright State students.   An anonymous donor offered to cover their expenses, and 15 names were drawn from the combined pools of students who had applied for tickets or had volunteered to assist in the debate.  The students (8 women, 7 men) represented majors in Art, Communication, Economics, Engineering, Finance, Medicine, Nursing, Psychology and Theater. Three were graduate students, and several were veterans.  The Students Affairs members of the WSU host committee tapped me to lead the delegation to New York, along with Debbie Kimpton from the President’s Office.    Chairman of the WSU Board of Trustees, Michael Bridges, joined us in New York.

On Monday morning, Sept. 26, we shared breakfast with the Hofstra’s VP for Student Affairs and VP of Student Government.  The rules of conduct for attendees of the debate were rigorous, and frequently reviewed.  No speaking, cheering, booing, etc., would be tolerated.  Physical removal from the hall was the punishment promised to offenders.  Entry at the first layer of credentialing and security began at 2:30 p.m. in Hofstra’s Cradle of Aviation Museum, at Billy Mitchell Field from which Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight had begun. At 7 p.m. we received our tickets and awaited the “clean” bus to Mack Arena.  While there, students spotted Mark Cuban, who generously took selfies with many of his fans.

The debate hall was set up on the same stage Wright State would have built.  Our seats were in the bleachers, with a perfect view of the stage, the VIP’s on the floor, and the media booths staffed by CBS, CNN, MSNBC, FOX and PBS.  After one last review of the ground rules for the audience, the debate began promptly at 9:03 p.m.  The AP photographer sitting beside me generously offerd to share the occasional view through his camera.. He wanted the handshake shot.  I was shocked to see the rules go by the boards 10minutes or so into the debate when a VIP in the front row among the Trump family stood, raised his arms and clapped vigorously.  Of course, the Clinton supporters followed suit, and the funereal silence in the arena ended.  Lester Holt eventually stopped signaling for silence.

Before our trip, I had arranged for Communication Professor Melissa Spirek, and Political Science Professors Paul Leonard and Lee Hannah to meet with the WSU students to discuss the debates.  Lee Hannah advised us to “be in the moment, take it all in.”  Some note takers couldn’t resist, but most of us followed that advice.  Cell phones had to be turned off, and I found myself able to give 100% attention to the event.  We had no split screen  close-up shots.  The body language of the candidates was evident.  I was surprised how quickly the 90 minutes passed.  On reflection, I compared it to attending a football game.  No commercial interruptions, no instant replays.  Yet by the conclusion, the dramatic difference in candidate preparation was obvious. 

Following the debate, as we all assembled near our van, discussion and analysis of the evening with the students was intense. Was she prepared or rehearsed?  Why did he interrupt so often?  Why didn’t Lester Holt ask about e-mails?  (He did, she quickly admitted her mistake, and Holt moved on.)   Who is Alicia Machado?  Several students were texting their reactions to hometown papers and the DAYTON DAILY NEWS. Others did radio and Facetime interviews, and also gave time to WDTN Ch. 2, which had sent a team to cover both the debate and the WSU delegation.  We got pizza and turned in around 2 a.m.  (The professor had to stay up to watch more analysis, of course!)   

The next day, before heading to the airport, Wright State alumna Karen Seiger met us at the Tribute Center, operated by survivors of 9-11, and provided a tour of the center and the grounds of the rebuilt World Trade Center.  It was a deeply moving experience.  The trip concluded quietly.  It was evident how much the students had taken in, and were reflecting upon as we travelled home to Dayton.  I am confident that the students will be watching the remaining debates, and will appreciate both the beauty and the chaos of the democratic process.  It has been a campaign season like no other.  See you at the polls!