The Important People and the day the presidential debate came to town


On October 11, 1992, St. Louis hosted the first three-way presidential debate in U.S. history, with Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and George Bush going head-to-head.

As millions of Americans watched on television, about 600 more — mostly campaign workers, local dignitaries, reporters and University of Washington students — entered the Washington University Field House for the 94 minute debate.

Bill McClellan was on the scene, and here’s his report.

ABOUT AN HOUR AND A HALF before the presidential debate, August Busch III walked into the Anheuser-Busch hospitality tent next to the Washington University Field House.

A murmur ran through the crowd. ”Who is it?” asked a Secret Service agent with an audio cord sticking out of his ear.

“That’s the important Mr. Busch,” said a local cop, differentiating the head of the brewery from the President of the United States.

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Maybe the cop was exaggerating things, but if so, only by a touch. Not only had the important Mr. Busch agreed to cover the cost of the debate, but he was also the ticket man.

Of course, that comes to $12,500 per ticket, so the rest of us can’t complain. Money talks.

Just like Vladimir Noskov, the gonzo journalist of KSD radio. He is particularly good at asking outrageous questions. When Marilyn Quayle was in town about a week ago, Noskov confronted her.

“Considering your husband is Dan Quayle, don’t you think there’s something to be said for women who choose to be single parents? ” he asked her.

And Sunday night he was there at the press tent, desperately trying to get credentials.

”Your name is not on the list,” the credential man said.

Around that time, St. Louis Police Chief Clarence Harmon entered the tent.

“The leader will vouch for me,” Noskov said.

”He’s a journalist,” said the chief.

”His name is not on the list, but if you personally vouch for him, that’s fine with me,” the credential man said.

”Of course,” said the leader, and Noskov rushed into the country house.

Inside the country house, a beautiful buffet had been set up for the hundreds of journalists who had been herded into their own rooms where they could watch the debate on dozens of televisions. Political dignitaries walked around, offering opinions ahead of the debate.

Noskov took on Mario Cuomo.

“What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans? asked Noskov. ”I didn’t notice any difference.”

Cuomo launched into a speech.

Willie Obermoeller, a local electrician I know, came looking for food. He is living proof that these big events really inject money into the local economy. He’s been working on the audio preps all week.

“My God, it’s nice and warm here,” he said.

I must have looked puzzled because he pulled his pants up a bit to show me his long underwear.

“I work in the debate room,” he said. ”We’ve kept it at 55 degrees since Thursday. I guess the contestants want to be sure not to sweat.”

Unlike the reporters, Obermoeller had actually seen the candidates. They had come up to the podium earlier to check things out. I asked him for his impressions.

He said Bush and Clinton both seemed relaxed. Clinton had spent the most time getting ready, checking out different jackets and ties, trying to get the right look.

“He didn’t even bother to check things out,” Obermoeller said. “I guess he’s just going to pilot it. ”

While I thought about what that meant, I went upstairs to see the Important People pass by, the ones with real tickets, who could still tell they had seen this show live.

Most people looked properly important. I saw Busch and Charles Knight. Congressman Richard Gephardt walked past.

“I am an immigrant,” he said. “Who has more power, the president or Congress?”

“Neither has more power,” Gephardt said.

Dan Dierdorf walked past. His presence seemed appropriate. When I arrived on campus, I was reminded of college football. The chill in the air, the sense of an impending contest, the sound of staged cheering.

In fact, it hadn’t been pleasant. Libertarians chanted in protest.

”Fifty states! Let him debate!

And now the game was about to begin. As I stood in the hallway, excluded from the actual debate because of my low yellow pass, the organizers suddenly realized that they had room left.

”Hey, journalist! You want a blue pass?” asked an official-looking guy. ”Do you want to enter the debate?”

I declined, as I had decided to watch from the hospitality tent where the TV was set up.

“I’ll take it!” Noskov shouted, and I watched him duck down the hall.

Whether he was able to face any of the candidates, I don’t know.

Incidentally, the consensus in the hospitality tent was that Perot had won.

Unless you count the important Mr. Busch. It was a good show he brought to us.

Post-shipment coverage

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