When Belmont University President Bob Fisher thinks back on the 2008 presidential debate the school hosted, he remembers a tremendous positive energy that permeated the city and a festival-like atmosphere on campus.
The debate between future President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. John McCain served as a sort of coming out party for Belmont. The small, private university with ties to the Baptist church was growing and evolving. Its basketball team, led by legendary coach Rick Byrd, had become an annual threat to reach the NCAA Tournament. Its music program was churning out household names such as Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley and the debate itself was held inside the Curb Event Center, the crown jewel of an ambitious fundraising effort that served as Belmont’s launching pad to national recognition.
Even though a recession was bearing down on the nation and the debate came with its typical partisanship, overall it was a happy time on Belmont Boulevard.
Things have certainly changed compared in the last 12 years. Belmont is a household name nationally, the COVID-19 pandemic has deprived the city of the festival-like atmosphere and the political mood is downright bleak. At publication time, the Oct. 22 presidential debate is still scheduled to be in person at Belmont but the second debate went virtual after President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The Tennessee Lookout interviewed Fisher about Belmont’s ascent, the significance of the 2008 debate and what road ahead as the university prepares to host its second presidential debate.
Tennessee Lookout: Can you sort of give a history lesson on how Belmont got into the process of hosting presidential debates that led to that first debate in 2008?
Dr. Fisher: Back in 2001, we hadn’t even started building the Curb Event Center and Mike Curb was over one day. It was the first time I’d met him. We were having lunch and he started asking me about what are our big dreams. I started telling him about having an event center and how that needs to be the first step in the process.
He seemed really interested, and we finished lunch and he said, “Well, do you want to show me where you’re going to build this?” So we walked down the campus and I stood there and started to tell him about what all might happen in that event center.
So I started to tell him, “Try to imagine, you turn on the television and someone says on the sportscast, ‘Tonight at the event center, Belmont beat Vanderbilt.’” And he kind of ignored that. So I said, “What about LeAnn Rimes at the event center?” He just kind of grinned – that was one of his artists.
Then I remembered how involved he had been in politics; he was the lieutenant governor out in California and the Reagan national campaign finance chair. I said, “How about this, Mike, you turn on your TV and the guy comes on and says, ‘Sending you now to Jim Lehrer on the campus of Belmont University, the third and final in a series of presidential debates.’” It was one of those moments, I wish I had a video. He just kind of grinned and was looking right past me and said, “How much would that cost me?”
So, that’s where that $10 million gift came from. So at that point, I was like, I have to try this every time. He believed in it. We didn’t even finish the center until 2004. We applied, but didn’t get selected then. But, in 2008, we got selected. We’ve been involved either as a backup site or selected pretty much every round. So we were selected again this time. While that was a little bit off, what it’s come to is we feel like we’re a partner with the debate commission. We’ve worked well with them and we think together, this is really important work. We think this is one of those shining moments in our democracy where we get to think about who’s in charge of this country, and who makes all the decisions. And guess what? It’s the people.
Tennessee Lookout: What are your recollections from that first debate in 2008?
Dr. Fisher: I remember extreme energy everywhere you looked, and I remember positive energy. We opened up Belmont Boulevard, the street in our campus and set up basically a political fair. Anybody who wanted to could set up a table and hand out things. This was the day of the debate. It was just so much fun. Bill Clinton was there, Richard Nixon was there – obviously with people walking around in costume.
The news agencies were set up in the main lot of the old historical side of campus. Folks were just having a great time. The night of the debate, what I remember is it rained. Those were the things I worried about, but it didn’t seem to dampen the experience of the evening.
After the debate was over, the press was in the press tent. It was like a who’s who of politics. Even walking through the Curb Center, it was Mitt Romney talking to Joe Lieberman. You think, “Wow, that’s interesting.” And then in spin alley afterwards, there were all the folks giving their opinions about who won or lost. Certainly the debate was fun. Maybe one of the best things came out of it was it became a Saturday Night Live sketch. That really highlighted some of the little snafus, like when John McCain walked in front of the camera, blocking Obama speaking. Just those little things, I remember all of that.
And I think this one’s going to be equally memorable, but obviously different. There won’t be the opportunity for us to set up the street fair for example, because of the pandemic. The health protocols are going to be extreme, very, very strict. The Cleveland Clinic along with HCA, our local partner in this, everyone who goes inside will have to show a negative test, and obviously be masked and follow every safety protocol that is known. (A note to readers: Dr. Fisher was interviewed prior to the news about President Donald Trump contracting coronavirus).
Tennessee Lookout: Right around the center opening, Belmont had a five-year stretch where you had incredible growth on campus, the basketball team advanced the name recognition for the university, you had even more artists become national figures and then you had the debate. Do you feel like all those things converged and sort of became a launching point for Belmont?
Dr. Fisher: You’re right on all of those things, except all of those things were really years in the making. There were great artists out there already. There were great executives out there. The basketball team was doing pretty well. I think 2008 may have been the year we almost beat Duke.
We have continued to grow since then so people can say, “I remember when you beat Temple in the NCAA Tournament.” And I can say, “Well yeah, we did that.” Building a university is a long-term process. But to your point, as I look back over 21 years I’ve been here, that moment was just transformational for Belmont. It was a moment where people stopped and looked at us. I think all of those things were happening, it was just nobody was paying any attention to us. You bring the Super Bowl of politics to your campus and everybody says, “Now who are they? And, what are they doing?”
I think that was a moment where people really looked at us differently, especially locally. I think people began to think of Belmont as maybe giving us a little more respect.
Tennessee Lookout: You mentioned the positive vibe from 2008. Not that politics weren’t contentious, but it was nothing like it is now with this toxic environment that’s out there. How does that impact a college campus, and what from your seat can universities do to combat that, if anything?
Dr. Fisher: The most important thing we can do is have influence on our students. That won’t change the whole world over night. But in our programming for this debate, and obviously that’s different too. All of the things we were able to do last time, like having 5,000 people in the Curb Event Center to hear David McCullough speak, or Ken Burns speak in person, we can’t do those kinds of events this time. Everything is online now.
But, what we can do is talk about civility and talk about respecting other people’s ideas and even the bigger idea of what is this country all about. I quote Bono – I’m a huge U2 fan – and of course Bono is more than just a rock singer. He has huge ideas about the world. And him being from Ireland, looking at the United States, he once said, “America is an idea. It’s one of the greatest ideas in human history.” That was his quote. You stop and think about that. What’s he talking about? What is the idea?
That’s what we try to form for our students. It’s about of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s about people being in charge of the government. It’s still a unique way of governing. It’s still unique in this world. We tried to spread democracy, and others have spread democracy, not just us.
I just think our country, we’re still growing up. We’re not that old. We’re still learning what that idea is, and sometimes it gets messy. It’s been messy before in our history. But hopefully what we teach our students is to try to be civil, to respect other people, to listen, learn, and then be strong in your own commitment and your actions.
All of that sounds pretty high-minded, but it’s a pretty high-minded thing.
(Featured photo by Ray Di Pietro)