The murmur of reporters died down in the Hamilton Gymnasium, a basketball and volleyball venue transformed into a media room for the first presidential debate at the University of Denver Oct. 3 in Denver, Colo.
The room was furnished with more than 50 flat screen televisions, hundreds of phones, and power cords—basic supplies the media would need to report the from the event. Amassed in the filing room were print, web, radio, and television reporters from all over the world.
And me. A second-year law student with no background in journalism, covering one of the marquee political events of the year.
“Good evening from the Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. I'm Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour.”
After months of anticipation, hype, and planning, the debate had begun. Chris Kyriazi, an undergraduate radio technician and my cohost, was fidgeting with our equipment. Transmitting the debate live via KXDU, the University of Denver’s campus radio station, we were having minor technical difficulties. Behind me, French and Japanese reporters were discussing the debate in their languages, and NPR reporters were whispering softly into their microphones. On the screen Lehrer was explaining the rules to viewers at home. “The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent,” he said. “No cheers, applause, boos, hisses, among other noisy distracting things.”
I had made no such promise.
My road to the first presidential debate began the summer after my first year of law school. I was working in the White House as an intern for the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, and amazing experiences were the norm that summer: walking through the White House; being in a crowd of Hispanic appointees applauding recently confirmed U.S. Ambassador Marie Carmen Aponte; high-fiving people in my office when news came that the Affordable Care Act had been upheld; and my favorite, actually hugging First Lady Michelle Obama.
While other interns were using their spare time to secure positions at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, I was contacting the Commission on Presidential Debates. I’d already arranged with the KXDU station manager for media credentials and had received an e-mail late in the summer saying I’d been approved.
So there I was.
It’s hard to convey how much the debate had invaded our lives leading up to the event. My first day in Election Law included Washington Post reporter Robert Barnes shadowing our professor, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler. Every week provided new debate-related events that gave students an extra entry into the lottery for a debate ticket. Debate banners were hung in downtown Denver. Because I live across the street from the debate site, I needed Secret Service-issued credentials to get back to my apartment.
Back at the debate Governor Romney was on the offense. “The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more—if you will, trickle-down government—would work.”
I was impressed by the media’s ability to not react to what was being said on screen. I was having trouble.
As an enthusiastic supporter of the President, I was disappointed. He appeared ill, or at very least distracted. Governor Romney, by contrast, was confident, motivated, and even joking. As the night progressed, I found it hard to retain journalistic neutrality. My Facebook account provided the space for some venting about Lehrer: “I think the NFL Replacement Refs just found a new job,” I posted.
We all know that after what many called “The Dud in Denver,” President Obama came back stronger at the other two debates. He was back in the fight. And the rest is history.
Many have criticized the combative and contentious tone of the debates and the election in general, but I see things differently. The issues matter. Government policies, or lack thereof, have a tangible effect on our lives as Americans. There should be passion about the direction our country is going. Americans need to care deeply about their government.
My personal interest in politics stems from an understanding that government is one of the most effective means to any end. Growing up in Washington Heights, a low-income community in upper Manhattan, many of my friends benefited from government assistance programs like Head Start, Medicaid, WIC, etc. Despite their social class status, many of those friends made it from our community to Cornell, Yale, Columbia, and Colby, among other schools. But the effects of government in our lives go back to our parents’ generation, when free English language programs helped recent immigrants assimilate and low-cost education gave them a chance to succeed.
After law school, I hope to work in the government in some capacity, ensuring that the next generation of immigrants receive the same kind of help my family received, and helping, I hope, create new American success stories. As the President said at Hofstra University, “We all understand what this country has become because talent from all around the world wants to come here. People are willing to take risks. People who want to build on their dreams and make sure their kids have an even bigger dream than they have.” I am living testament to the truth of that statement.
Antonio Mendez ’06 is an International Law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. He was a member of the first Posse Scholar group at Colby, a Fulbright Scholar in Andorra, a Colorado Legislative Fellow, and, most recently, a White House Intern.