The 1992 presidential debate held at the University of Richmond was ground-breaking because it was the first time people other than journalists had a chance to ask the candidates questions, said panelists, who took part in the debate, at a 20th anniversary celebration held Thursday in the Alice Haynes Room.
Marisa Hall Summers asked a question in that first town hall debate that stumped President George Herbert Walker Bush. She was a panelist on Thursday and said that she would ask the same questions again because they were still relevant.
The question was: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”
She had known several people at that time who were not able to find work, had been recently laid off and were truly struggling with the economy, Summers said. She began to wonder if the candidates knew about people’s struggles, she said. “The only person who knew my question,” Summers said, “was my mother.”
Carole Simpson, a broadcast journalist who served as the moderator in the 1992 debate, connected to the discussion from Boston accompanied by her class at Emerson College via Skype and reflected on being the first African American female to moderate a presidential debate.
“I was terrified,” Simpson said. “I didn’t know the questions that were going to be asked. I had no idea who was going to say what next.”
Panelist Denton Walthall, another questioner in the 1992 debate, said he had decided on his memorable question involving negative campaigning when he had seen protesters on Three Chopt Road as he made his way to the debate.
The way Walthall phrased his question, which asked candidates to pledge not to negatively campaign against each other, has remained a popular way to phrase questions at town hall debates, said Diana Carlin, the associate vice president for graduate education at St. Louis University.
The town-hall format prevented candidates from being protected behind the podium, said Jennifer McClellan, a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates. McClellan served as the president of College Democrats as a student at Richmond in 1992 and shared fond memories of President Bill Clinton.
“In retrospect, it’s amazing that the debate set the standard for what is still expected in the debates today,” McClellan said.
Carlin said: “The fact that the citizens finally had a voice in the debates is one of the more significant parts of the legacy; that the voice has continued, and now, through social media, citizens can be truly engaged in debates and elections.”
Walthall told Summers he had felt his anxiety increase as he had sat on the couch and had watched the most recent town-hall vice presidential debate, recalling memories of the power felt in the room even after two decades, he said.
Debates show how someone will handle tough questions, Carlin said. “The town hall debate remains important because it gives candidates the chance to address individual citizens and shows how candidates relate to people,” she said.
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