Run-up to presidential debate energizes Washington U. students | St. Louis Public Radio

Run-up to presidential debate energizes Washington U. students

Oct 6, 2016

As Washington University gets ready to host the second presidential debate on Sunday night, 18 of the school's freshmen are not only learning about how the face-offs affect who will win the White House. They’re also excited to cast their first presidential ballots.

In class, history Professor Peter Kastor and his students engage in lively debates themselves, about how the candidate sessions shape the election. And, Kastor said, they have many questions for him.

One may have shattered any illusions they have about the power of professors: “One of the first things they asked me,” he said, “is can we get tickets to the debate. No. I can't get them tickets to the debate.”

Any tickets the university gets will go to students via a lottery. So the best hope for the seminar participants will be to watch the WashU debate on TV, as they did for the first one last month at Hofstra.

But that hasn’t diminished their enthusiasm over hosting Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the school’s athletic complex.

Kristine Xu put it this way:

“It’s just absolutely so exciting. I think the point is not even that the actual candidates are going to be on campus, although that is really cool. But it’s the fact that there’s such an energy from other classmates of mine. My peers are really excited.” 

Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

That excitement has become a way of life at Washington U., which has hosted a presidential or vice-presidential debate almost every election since 1992.

Kastor last taught the seminar eight years ago, when Barack Obama made history as the first African-American president. He said students are finding this year’s contest just as riveting.

“For many of them,” he said, “it’s the first time they’re going to vote. It’s the first time they understand what’s going on.

“They might well remember the previous presidential election, when they were 13 or 14 years old, they’re really excited about doing it as adults. They feel like they can connect to this.”

Another Clinton?

Once the incoming students were able to sign up for classes, Kastor said, the seminar filled quickly. Even though not all the students plan to major in political science, all have a keen interest in the campaign. And they are ready for their first vote, Kastor said, either in St. Louis or in their home states via absentee ballot.

“Their enthusiasm is uniform,” he said. “Their knowledge base is really good. These are really bright students. They know their civics.”

They’ve also shown Kastor how a new generation brings a different focus on the presidency. Take that familiar last name that’s on the Democratic ballot.

Kastor said that just a few years ago Bill Clinton was more important to students "who had a living memory of his presidency and his post presidency. These students know him as Hillary Clinton's husband. They know he was president, but he isn't nearly as big a figure as he was just a few years ago.

And, Kastor noted, whoever wins will be the oldest president in their lifetimes, after youthful predecessors.

Washington University Professor Peter Kastor leads discussion in his freshman seminar on presidential debates
Credit Dale Singer, file photo | St. Louis Public Radio

“To them,” he said, “the president is a man in middle age, with young children, who's very athletic. That's not just Obama, that's George W. Bush on his mountain bike and cutting brush.

“It's these people who were just models of health and vitality. And I actually think Hillary Clinton's bout with pneumonia was a real wake-up call for them. I'm not saying she's not healthy enough to be president. Not at all. But their notion about the president in a certain stage of life is very different.” 

Who does pop into their minds when they hear the word president? Not surprisingly, the most frequent answer is the man in the White House as they grew up. But other men symbolize the Oval Office as well, including one from fiction, not fact.

“When I hear the word president,” said Jordan Phillips, “of course I think Barack Obama, but I also think of John F. Kennedy; I think of Bill Clinton; I think of Ronald Reagan.

To Ali Rayef, the answer is “FDR, Barack Obama, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman. Those are like in the top five, I would say.”

And Geordan Neinstein isn't limited by historical figures: “Either Barack Obama, the actual president, or as a West Wing fan, I’d have to say Jed Bartlett.”

Key questions

Kastor said the freshman seminar has Democrats and Republicans. But unlike some of the discourse in the nation at large, the students engage in respectful but lively discussion of the candidates.

“For many people they're easy punching bags,” he said. “There's a lot to make fun of in them, and that makes it easier for them. It releases the tension for the students to talk about them. They make fun of both candidates, and I'm glad to see that.”

The day after the first debate, Kastor asked for topics the class should discuss. Students quickly offered suggestions: What was the role of the moderator? How did the candidates interact? What points did they make? How did social media figure in?

And biggest of all: Who won?

One student characterized Clinton as the kindergarten teacher who couldn’t get the 5-year-old student to stop talking. Others thought she tried to get a rise out of Trump, and he rose to the bait.

Most agreed that after the first half hour, he abandoned a more-reasoned approach and reverted to the persona that had captured the nomination.

Media Center banners go up and carpet is installed for the debate at Washington University
Credit Washington University | Flickr

In interviews after class, students responded to a number of questions, including whether the debates are the best way to decide who should be president. Abby Selcho took this point of view:

“I don’t know if it’s the best way, but I think it is a good way. I think it’s kind of our only way to help us get to know them on a more personal level.”

Added Liza Sivriver: “I think it’s important to listen to the news before you watch the debates, just so you have a full picture, because like the debates didn’t touch on all the issues, and they won’t.”

To Rayef, the debate setting is a kind of litmus test.

“I think the debates show a lot about how a person thinks on their feet and how they interact with their opponents or their adversaries,” he said. “I think it’s important, and it tells a lot about temperament and how much they know without referencing a speech or script. “

Neinstein said Clinton performed a lot better in the first encounter than Trump did.

“I actually do think it showed a side of Hillary Clinton that we hadn’t seen before,” he said, “and that really did more show her ability to be in a room under pressure, and it showed her qualifications to be president more than we’ve seen in the past.

“She actually made me laugh, which is something that had never happened with her before.”

Xu thought that the historical nature of Clinton’s candidacy has been lost in the rest of the odd nature of the campaign.

“It’s a bit obscured in the fact that’s female, period,” she said. “So everything about it is just caught up in the gender dynamics. What she wears, how she looks, how that’s perceived in the media.

“It’s not even about the fact that she could be the first female president. It’s just the fact that she’s female, period, and that she’s gotten this far.”

And where the campaign will bring her is to the WashU campus, with an excitement that is hardly lost on the students.  Even with having to cope with added security and other restrictions this week, student Jack Wasserman said it’s an impressive start to a college career.

“I can go walk around and see all the news stations around and have the expectation to see people and to hear things. It’s a cool experience and a great environment.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger