October 19, 2012

PSU student sees presidential debate close-up


---- — To get to Hempstead and attend the second presidential debate, I had to leave Plattsburgh first. 

I gassed up at a Stewart’s Shop and grabbed two michigans for the road and set out from the overcast chill of Plattsburgh to the crisp, clear autumn of Nassau County.

I cruised the normally long trip in five and a half hours, and after a brief stop in Queens to pick up my mother, Christine Tully, we made our way to Hofstra University and the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The coliseum, the home of the New York Islanders, was where attendees had been instructed to park their cars and pick up their tickets. The process was painless, and Hofstra’s student volunteers helped direct hundreds of people to lines for ticket pickups, refreshments and coach buses that would shuttle us to the debate hall.

All types of people milled through the corridor of the venue. Men wearing expensive suits and ties and women with designer dresses and pinpoint stiletto heels stood in line with people wearing blue jeans, sweaters and sneakers. What these people shared was the tickets they held, described by news anchors as “the hardest tickets to get on Long Island.” 


Money could not purchase those tickets, and of 6,500 Hofstra students who entered the raffle to get one, no more than 300 did.

After going through a security check of metal detectors and another line, we crowded onto coach buses. The ride was just minutes long, yet it passed through security checkpoints staffed by what seemed to be every police officer in Nassau County. Everywhere one looked there were cop cars parked sideways across double-yellow lines. Their lights flashed and motors ran, and I could smell car exhaust on the air until I entered the debate hall.

The inside of the debate hall was packed. In the hall was the stage, the carpeted area where television viewers would see the candidates, 82 undecided voters chosen to ask questions and the moderator, Candy Crowley.

The room was cool to keep both debaters and spectators comfortable, and when it was time to be seated, the lights dimmed a tad.


The audience was addressed by Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and other members of the commission. Then, Stuart Rabinowitz, Hofstra’s president, stepped up to the podium and spoke.

He touted student involvement, saying what those in attendance were about to witness could not be measured. He informed us he had given his ticket to a student and would watch the debate elsewhere on campus.

Crowley told the quiet audience how the debate’s format would work and the timetable for the candidates’ arrival.

Familiar voices belonging to television anchors introduced the event, but they sounded distant and small, like someone in a room down the hall with the door cracked open.

Then the candidates arrived, and the silence disappeared in an instant.


By now, you have heard the debate or read its transcript and know what the candidates said to each other and the moderator; in the mind of this reporter, it contained everything the previous debate had lacked. It had format, a moderator who was not meek or willing to be spoken over and two enthused candidates who really duked it out.

At one point, Obama and Romney were a foot away from each other, almost face to face, arguing heatedly, and I loved that Crowley let them go at it a short while. Audience members broke the rule of silence several times, and when they did, they were applauding the president.

Romney interrupted Crowley and the president several times, and when Obama attempted a similar interjection, Romney replied, “You wait your turn.”

At one point, Crowley had to ask Romney to take his seat.

This debate covered a much wider array of topics than the first one, from deficits to the availability of contraception, and I think the candidates both offered much clearer insight into their views on those topics.


After the debate, the candidates shook hands, and Obama patted Romney on his right elbow. Everyone exited, but rather than be shuttled back to Nassau Coliseum’s parking lots by the buses that brought us to the hall, the audience was left to wait out in the cold for an hour. The well-oiled machine of local police, and State Police and Secret Service that had brought viewers in did not seem to know how to let them leave.

Many, including this reporter, were displeased by the wait. Many men wore suits that did nothing to staunch the cold, and many women wore dresses that left their bare legs exposed to the chilly autumn night. We were told the president had yet to leave, and crowd movement had been quite literally frozen until that would happen.

But at 11:45 p.m., a mass exodus of debate-goers walked back to their cars, warmed only by their company and the spectacle they had seen.

Ian Tully is a journalism student at SUNY Plattsburgh getting work experience in the Press-Republican newsroom.