Witnessing a ‘historic moment’

Moments before the candidates appear, members of the Commission on Presidential Debates welcome participants to the town hall at Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Moments before the candidates appear, members of the Commission on Presidential Debates address participants of the town hall at Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

It’s a little before 6 p.m. on debate night — exactly two hours until Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will take the stage for the second presidential debate. Outside the Washington University Field House, there’s already a frenzy of spin and the pre-inventing of narratives, but inside it’s calm and chill.

Literally. As a rule, TV studios are kept at a crisp 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Field House — typically home to bouncing balls and sweaty student athletes — is downright brisk.

The doors are about to open, and when they do, the handful of student volunteers who have been chosen as ushers will be ready. But for now, they are bubbling with nervous excitement.

“We don’t have Division I sports and all that attention, but this is just as good — even better,” said Sara Jackson, a senior in the Olin Business School. “You can’t turn on the TV this weekend without seeing WashU all over the place.”

Jackson and Sarah Dunn, a sophomore in Arts & Sciences, are at the gymnasium floor entrance — the VIP entrance — checking tickets under the watchful eye of a Secret Service agent. At exactly 6 p.m., the doors open.

The eyes of the world will be centered on this very room, and the excitement in the Field House is palpable both in the VIP sections — one for each candidate — and in the upper deck where 352 student lottery winners are filling in the stands amid flashing cameras and the familiar pose of digital shots at a half-arm’s length.

Scott Myers, a senior in finance, was a volunteer assigned to usher the VIP section. He had a seat on the floor for the entire debate. “You couldn’t see much, but I’m so glad I was there,” he said. “There was a bit of tension between the two sections.”

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton welcomes participants of the presidential debate town hall to Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton welcomes participants of the presidential debate to Washington University in St. Louis Sunday, Oct. 9. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

But that’s not evident to the crowd in the upper deck. The mood is quiet and reflective until a little after 7:30 p.m., when Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, walks onto the debate stage and says that coming back to Washington University for the fifth time is a “treasured homecoming.”

Welcoming remarks by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and Student Union President Kenneth Sng, the native of Singapore who lauds the “the great democratic experiment,” that is the United States, inspire the crowd.

Then, the booming voice of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in a makeshift studio at the back of the Field House is the first indication the debate is about to start. It’s 8 p.m., and the networks are going live.

“This historic moment begins right now,” Blitzer said.