By: Beth Summers
Complimentary goat-milking lessons are an unusual hotel amenity for a traveling political reporter. But in Danville, Kentucky, it’s part of the package — at least at The Farm, an eight-room inn nestled in central Kentucky horse country, about four miles north of the site of Thursday’s vice-presidential debate.
With a population of 16,200, Danville is the smallest city ever to host a VP debate. Downtown is six blocks long, and surrounded by rolling green hills and farmhouses like innkeeper Angie Martin’s. Earlier this year, Martin and her husband Roy turned their home, still a working farm, into a bed and breakfast. With its dairy goats, pigs, chickens and guinea fowl, the couple is more accustomed to hosting parents of college students or farming hobbyists than members of the press, but they don’t seem particularly fazed by the invasion of some 3,200 credentialed media.
Maybe it’s because they’ve seen it all before. Twelve years ago, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman faced off on the same stage where Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan are set to debate Thursday night. Centre College, a private liberal arts school with a student body of just under 1,500, will again play VP debate host, the first time a place has been selected twice to do so. (Washington University holds the record for presidential debates, having hosted three.)
So why choose a tiny town, in the middle of a state known more for horse racing and bourbon distilleries than for its swing voters, as the site for an event as big as the vice presidential debate? And why do it twice?
"It sounds so self-congratulatory, but we’re good at this stuff," says Centre College President John Roush. He points to the debate venue, a 1,500-seat concert hall designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, as evidence: "The Vienna Philharmonic toured in Fall of 2010. They came to two places in America — Carnegie Hall in New York City, and here." Indeed, the Los Angeles Times referred to Centre that year as "a college that consistently punches above its weight."
Across the way from the performing arts building, the school’s 120,000-foot athletic center has been transformed into a makeshift press filing hub equipped with more than 500 work stations. As co-chair of the debate steering committee, Centre history professor Clarence Wyatt is overseeing all of the debate preparations. That ranges from transforming the gymnasium to ensuring that the debate hall’s air conditioning is powerful enough to offset the hot TV lights but calm enough to keep the candidates’ hair in place. Wyatt, who played the same role in the 2000 debate, says everything is bigger and more complex this time around. Twelve years ago, 28.5 million people tuned in to watch; Thursday’s TV audience is expected at upwards of 70 million.
"As a TV show, this is second only to the summer Olympics and the Superbowl in its complexity," Wyatt says.
And then there’s the security. Concrete blockades and metal fences line the outskirts of the college. Roads to and from downtown are closed off. The closer you get to campus, the thicker the presence of local and state police, as well as Secret Service officers. None of this was around in 2000, which was pre-9/11. It’s a "different world" in terms of security now, Wyatt notes.
Martin, whose family also runs an insurance business in downtown Danville, worries that the street closures could keep customers away.
"It puts a burden on the arena of businesses in the proximity of Centre," she says, but then quickly adds, "Is it outweighed by the prestige of having the debate here? Yes."
College officials say they feel more prepared this year. "We’ve had far fewer surprises this time around," Wyatt says. He recalls an incident from 2000 when he and his colleagues were caught off guard by a last-minute influx of campaign surrogates and corporate jets and no provisions made to transport them to the college. One of the managers at the aviation field took matters into her own hands and began ferrying the senior party leaders into town in her station wagon — including then-Senator Joe Biden, who was acting as a surrogate for the former vice presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman.
"[It was] one of those moments that captures how this small town in central Kentucky rises to the occasion to host an international event," Wyatt says.
Danville was recently ranked one of the 25 best places to retire in the country by Money Magazine, but it has not been immune from the recession. At the time of the Cheney-Lieberman debate, unemployment in Boyle County (Danville is the county seat) was just over 4 percent. Today it’s up to 10 percent. The town has seen losses in the manufacturing sector, and several plants have closed. But health care remains a big employer, with the largest hospital south of Lexington stationed just blocks from Centre’s campus. The college itself is also a big source of jobs.
Hosting the debate helped the local economy in 2000, Wyatt says, and he predicts it will again. "I can’t give you a specific number, but just logically, having every hotel room in the community and surrounding area being taken up — all the vendors from pipe and drape to telephones to catering — we had a very significant nice little spurt. And in longer terms, one of the things it helped do is raise the visibility of the community," he says.
Another thing that’s changed here since its last debate: the availability of alcohol. In 2000, Danville was a dry city — selling alcohol was prohibited. Anheuser-Busch was an official debate sponsor, but could only sell soft drinks at its four-post tent outside the hall. In 2010, the city voted to go "wet," and things are different this year, as evidenced by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association representatives poised to distribute samples of bourbon Wednesday night.
Pundits anticipate a spirited clash between Ryan and Biden Thursday night – just as they did in advance of the Cheney-Lieberman debate. But it didn’t happen; as TIME magazine put it at the time: "[T]he shocker was in the, well, civilized nature of it all." And this year, as in 2000, both the candidates and debate moderator Martha Raddatz will be seated rather than standing, a format then-moderator Bernard Shaw said forced civility: "It’s hard to be discourteous to your opponent when he’s sitting at the same table with you."
We’ll know soon enough whether history will repeat itself. And if the debate fails to impress, there’s always the goats.