DANVILLE – The free festival for the vice presidential debate at Centre College Thursday – held on the college’s festival lawn for the masses who didn’t have tickets inside the Norton Center for the Arts – seemed to go off without a hitch.
That is, other than the man who climbed a tree and started yelling out his political views, and whom police couldn’t get down for the duration of the debate. But more on him later.
For the “City of Firsts,” this debate was a second. Centre hosted the debate between Dick Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2000, dubbed “Thrill in the Ville.” Centre was then the smallest college to ever host a national election debate.
Thursday, Centre had the privilege, and problem, of once again hosting thousands of media members, campaign workers and other visitors on a campus home to about 1,300 students. And this time, the stakes and complexities were higher.
More security was needed because one of the debaters was an incumbent vice president. And the usually low-consequential vice presidential debate was elevated due to the president’s universally panned first-debate performance and resulting slide in the polls. It was up to Joe Biden to try and stop that slide, and up to Congressman Paul Ryan to continue it.
The festival started at noon and went to the end of the Marshall Tucker Band’s Performance scheduled immediately after the debate. This reporter, arriving around 6 p.m. in Danville, found the designated route off U.S. 127 blocked. A police officer said the Secret Service had just ordered it closed.
But Danville was prepared for just such an occasion. Free buses were taking visitors into town and back all day. This reporter parked at First Baptist Church, near a car with a Romney sticker.
Before I boarded my bus, I was handed a map, an agenda, a water bottle and a copy of the New Testament – everything mind, body and soul needed to survive the maw of partisanship that is a national debate. The driver of our bus took a back road detour into Danville, usually a city of 16,000, after being informed an oil tanker was blocking yet another road. Obama/Biden road signs lined the road in.
“It’s just something you don’t see every day,” said Tony White, who also rode the bus. He lives nearby and attended the 2000 debate, and on Thursday he brought two members of his family. He just came to see what was up – he recounted excitedly that there were protestors with animal masks last time.
Stepping off the bus in Danville’s historic downtown, it was clear the excitement was back. There was red, white and blue on the buildings, a Romney/Ryan tour bus nearby, a man on a unicycle, someone with a “Repent and Believe” sign, more people with political signs, and all manner of campaign merchandise from both teams.
Buttons at a Romney/Ryan table included “Give Me Liberty, Not Debt” and “I’ll Take the Mormon Over the Moron.” Down the block, an Obama booth was selling a “Save Big Bird” handbag. Big Bird has been invoked by Obama supporters since Romney mentioned him in the first debate when he said he would cut PBS funding.
Dan Clinton was punching his own buttons on the street, and his jacket was covered with ones supporting Obama. He entertained passersby with a rambling, humorous, unverified story about what happened when he arrived to Kentucky from St. Louis.
He said he had a hotel room in Frankfort that he was holding for $75, but a reporter who offered the hotel $300 stole it. He apparently caught a ride with a Secret Service agent in a pickup truck to Danville, but not until after seeing a deer.
“I saw a deer,” he exclaimed. “I’m from the city, we watch animal channel.”
Animal Planet is the correct name of the channel. Clinton said he opposed war and thus opposed Romney/Ryan.
“And he’s got money,” Clinton said. “I ain’t got no money. He and Ann are crazy.”
Despite their political disagreements, Clinton gave Pat Boyd, a Romney supporter who worked in Frankfort and now lives in Salvisa, a big hug and some buttons. He also got a high-five from one of the young people who gathered to hear him.
“Yay Big Bird!” she said.
As I got closer to the college, the crowd thinned out, and when I arrived on the festival lawn there was more than enough room to have a seat among the families chewing on food and listening to music. But there was still much to see.
A crowd had gathered around the MSNBC stage outside Crounse Hall to see a live recording of Chris Matthews. He was yelling about something, as is his custom, but it was drowned out by Kentucky native Ben Sollee’s music from the main stage and the sound of the crowd – holding aloft mostly Obama/Biden signs and one shaped like a coffee mug saying “Four More Cups of Joe.”
As the night wore on, important-looking people dressed to the nines emerged from a building on campus, were scanned by security and ushered onto a bus surrounded by several police officers. One guessed they were the lucky ones going into the debate hall. The rest of us would wait outside in the increasing cold and watch it on the big screen on the festival lawn.
People lined up on both sides of the street to await the candidates’ motorcades. They seemed to be mostly Obama supporters – there was a “Fired Up, Ready for Joe” sign, several people holding letters spelling “Biden,” and a giant “Hope” sign.
It was a grassroots show of support – somewhat. A woman in an official-looking blue dress kept coming down the line telling people to spread out, and instructed the “Hope” sign carriers to stand under the street light so they could be better seen. Troy Wigginton, who lived up the street, was unhappy with the blue dress lady and didn’t want to leave his tree.
“I fought hard for this tree; this tree is taken,” he said.
By the time the blue dress lady started an unenthusiastic chant of “Fired Up, Ready to Go” among the increasingly impatient crowd, Wigginton was silent.
“I am ready to go, actually,” he said.
Kentucky State Police were keeping people off the road and officers on horseback had arrived by the time the first motorcade rolled through quickly – blue dress lady said it was Ryan’s, though many people mistakenly cheered. The crowd was subdued and cold by the time Biden came through at 8:20 p.m.
It was then 40 minutes until the debate started. I returned to the field to find the crowd gathering to watch pre-debate coverage on C-SPAN. There was a cheer when Centre College president John Roush appeared on the screen to announce “Thrill in the Ville 2.”
But then, over the silence of the crowd, someone was yelling “abortion” at the top of his lungs. Next to a spotlight, a man had climbed a tree, clutching a sign, telling people to vote against Obama and for Romney because Obama supports murdering babies.
Police and many members of the crowd surrounded the tree, and many people taunted him. There were chants of “Four more years” and “Taser him” and “C-A-T-S Cats, Cats, Cats.” The man compared himself to the Biblical Zacchaeus, a tax collector who climbed up in a tree to see Jesus and was blessed for it. Good thing I had a New Testament.
The man said support for abortion caused earthquakes.
“What about hurricanes?” one person asked.
“Hurricanes will come, too,” he shouted.
The situation was getting tense as firefighters put a ladder against the tree, and modern-day Zacchaeus climbed higher. But then Biden and Ryan took the stage, a cheer went up, everyone turned back to the screen and the man in the tree was left alone to yell whatever he wanted.
There was silence during the first question about the death of the Libyan ambassador, in which Biden defended his administration’s actions and Ryan harshly criticized the lack of security.
“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” was the first laugh line for the crowd on the festival lawn. Biden had said it early on in response to criticism from Ryan on foreign policy. Biden had made it clear that he’d put up a better show than the president in this debate.
But while Obama/Biden supporters had the clear advantage in signage, the crowd reaction suggested that the number of Ryan supporters was roughly equal. They began by clapping politely at Ryan’s strong comebacks and gave more enthusiasm when Ryan denounced Obama for appearing on “The View” instead of meeting with foreign leaders while the United Nations was in New York.
There were laughs when Biden – who constantly smiled and seemed amused by his opponents statements – said “Oh, God” in response to Ryan’s comments on the threat of a nuclear Iran. But there were also cheers when Ryan said a nuclear-armed Iran was worse than another war in the Middle East. Biden got cheers when he replied that war should always be the last resort.
There were huge cheers for Biden blasting Romney’s “47 percent” comments – something the president’s supporters lambasted him for not doing – and huge laughs for Ryan’s retort about politicians not always meaning what they say, a jab at the gaffe-prone Biden.
Ryan fans seemed to be growing in volume, but later bickering between candidates in the debate was met with silence. A huge cheer went up when Ryan said he believes life begins at conception. The guy in the tree, still up there, shouted his agreement.
At the end of a seemingly even debate performance, many on the lawn packed up their chairs and towels to leave.
Guy Boisselle, 51, of Danville, came in supporting Ryan and said Ryan won slightly. When asked if Biden put up a better fight than Obama, he said “of course.”
He said he supports Ryan because he believes in smaller government and strong national defense and is anti-abortion.
Tammy Higgins 45, and Lee Garner, 50, of Junction City, agreed the debate was close but said Biden won slightly. How did he do compared to Obama?
“He was more assertive, more confident,” Higgins said. She said she supported Biden because she was pro-choice and part of the middle class.
Garner added that she supports health care reform because she has a chronic illness.
“It makes a difference to know that I can be insured,” she said.
While waiting for the bus, a van covered in bumper stickers, glitter and Christmas lights, with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on top and hauling a trailer holding a giant eagle statue, drove around town. Two supporters of Gary Johnson – the libertarian presidential candidate – showed up holding signs.
“We just kind of wanted to see what it was all about,” said Ben Ellard, 26, of Campbellsville. He said it was interesting to hear both major party candidates, although he said they sounded the same.
On the dark bus ride back, the partisan debates had mostly gone to sleep with the attendees. Ellard, however, was debating policy with a 13-year-old on the bus. And somewhere in Danville at “Thrill in the Ville 2,” Zacchaeus was probably still in that tree.