During every presidential election, I am always eager to learn which locations have been chosen to host the presidential debates. The selection process itself is quite political with intense lobbying by prospective host sites.
When we submitted our bid to have Hartford host a presidential debate between then-President Bill Clinton and Republican candidate Bob Dole in 1996, we researched extensively the history of televised presidential debates and found that New England had never before hosted one. Working with our state's congressional delegation, we garnered the support of the entire New England congressional delegation to endorse our bid. With the financial help of the major corporations in our state, we raised the funds necessary and we offered the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, a world-class venue, as the site.
Our goal had less to do with the debate itself than using the event as an economic development opportunity. We brought more than 3,000 members of the world's media to Hartford and pumped millions of dollars into our local economy. And we also had another goal. Our group comprised young professionals who were (and still are) committed to the revitalization of Hartford. We hoped we could show the world and our community that this was a great place to live, work and raise family. Our debate was a tremendous success and created an enormous amount of goodwill in our city and state.
I have been following with great interest the selection of the University of Mississippi at Oxford as the host for the first presidential debate of this election. I am surprised the Commission on Presidential Debates selected a site with such a checkered past. But, what amazes me most is the truly remarkable moment that will occur tonight — assuming that it goes ahead. A black man will walk on to the stage as the nominee of one of our major political parties to participate in this historic event.
Ole Miss, and the state of Mississippi, have had a complicated and fractured history over my lifetime. Is this the right place to host a debate? I'm not sure. Certainly, the university and Mississippi have come a long way from trying to bar James Meredith's admission in 1962. But, the University of Mississippi is still segregated in many ways and, although Mississippi may be 40 percent black, blacks at the university comprise only 14 percent of the student body. Those in this country who say we have not made progress in race relations since 1962 are wrong, but we clearly have greater distances to travel.
Regardless of which candidate you support, it will be inspiring to see Barack Obama step to the podium and assume his rightful place behind his lectern. Not at the back of the bus, not sitting in the balcony in the "colored" section and not asking if he can drink from a particular water fountain. He will be front and center, as a symbol of progress in this country — a symbol to the students at Ole Miss, to the people of Mississippi, to all Americans and, just as important, to the rest of the world. I hope and pray we watch two candidates debate the truly important issues facing our country.
As we watch this debate, we should reflect on the progress we have made as a country, remind ourselves as a nation how far we have come since 1962, and take a moment to recommit ourselves to the vital issues we face now and in the years ahead.
Daniel I. Papermaster is a lawyer and was the general chairman of the 1996 presidential debate in Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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