Even as Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) called for a renewal of public service, it was almost politics as usual at the ServiceNation Presidential Candidates Forum in Roone Arledge Auditorium on Thursday night.
The candidates spoke back-to-back—McCain before Obama, as determined by a coin toss—and shook hands on stage in front of photographers in between their interviews. Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel and PBS senior correspondent Judy Woodruff interviewed each candidate, questioning them on service policy, as well as the campaign.
The two-day ServiceNation Summit aims to commemorate the Sept. 11 attacks by conducting a nonpartisan forum dedicated to public service. Out of respect for the memory of those who died that day, both campaigns released a joint statement pledging to tone down attack ads, and they also visited Ground Zero together.
The theme of the event, which was not sponsored by Columbia, was public service and volunteerism. Nonpartisan group ServiceNation, a coalition of organizations that promote volunteering, sponsored the event.
Occasionally, pointed questions from the moderators combined with the tense tone of the campaign to bring political issues, as much as service, to the fore. That fact did not go unnoticed.
"I think it's still very political," said David Isserman, a Business School student who attended the forum. "I'm not sure that they would necessarily make this a top priority if it weren't September 11th and highly publicized and close to the election."
McCain repeatedly stressed the importance of faith-based organizations to service, the need to expand the military, and that volunteerism should be fueled more by the private sector than by government. Obama touched upon themes of how to financially help students interested in volunteerism, the importance of governmental service programs, and the narrow demographic make-up of the military.
According to his campaign site, McCain, if elected, will increase service opportunities for families and give them opportunities for service abroad, increase service opportunities for the disabled community, and expand Senior Corps. According to Obama's site, he will, if elected, expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 slots, and double the Peace Corps to 16,000 by 2011. He also plans to create different types of Corps for healthcare, schools, and veterans.
Early speakers included actor Tobey Maguire of Spider-Man fame and New York Gov. David Paterson, who announced the creation of a state cabinet-level position devoted to public service. University President Lee Bollinger kicked off the event by drawing attention to both McCain and Obama's Columbia ties. McCain's daughter, Meghan, graduated from Columbia College in 2007, and Obama graduated from Columbia College in 1983.
Both candidates faced Columbia-related baggage at the forum. McCain last spoke at Class Day in 2006, where he was greeted by a protest in the form of banners and buttons that said, "McCain Doesn't Speak for Me." Obama has made minimal reference to his time at Columbia, perhaps because he came as a transfer student and did not live on campus.
Both referred to their Columbia ties on Thursday night, with McCain saying he was proud that his daughter graduated from the University and Obama asserting: "I have home court advantage here. This is my alma mater."
But it was a controversial University policy rather than fond memories of the school that drew the most Columbia-related commentary from the candidates. Both said they opposed Columbia's long-standing ban on on-campus military Reserve Officer Training Corps programs.
ROTC was first removed from campus after the 1968 protests as a symbol of opposition toward the Vietnam War and has not returned since. In recent years, the University has reaffirmed the policy, citing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward gay servicemembers, a position which has drawn flack from pundits. Columbia currently has no ROTC group on campus, though students can take ROTC at any one of a series of local schools and ROTC can recruit on campus.
"I'm proud that my daughter graduated from this school," McCain said. "But you know that this school will not allow ROTC on this campus? Now I don't think that's right. Shouldn't the students here be exposed to the attractiveness of serving in the military, particularly as an officer?"
Obama agreed, saying that it is important for students to have the option of military service.
"I recognize that there are students here who have differences in terms of military policy," he said. "But the notion that young people—here at Columbia or anywhere in any university—aren't offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake."
In an interview after the event, Delaware Senator and Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden agreed that ROTC should be a group on campus. "I think that there should be ROTC on campus. No one has to show up and sign up. Just as I defended this University's right to invite Ahmadinejad, regardless of how bad that judgment may have been, how can you say that there should not be an ROTC group here?"
Obama said the urge to serve lies within people's consciousness, but needs a governmental structure to have an impact. But he would prevent sprawling bureaucracies, he said.
Obama was strongly questioned about whether his service goals are overly ambitious, but he said he believes he has emphasized the right priorities.
"Do I expect that my national service plan gets passed exactly as I've proposed?" Obama said. "Of course not. That's not the way legislation works. But I believe we are in one of those special moments, one of those defining moments where the American people recognize that we are not on the right track."
McCain was asked about disparaging remarks that his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, made about Obama's work as a community organizer—an experience Obama later called the best education he had ever received. McCain responded by blaming Obama for the negative timbre of the campaign.
"The tone of this ... whole campaign would have been very different if Senator Obama had accepted my request for us to appear in town hall meetings all over America, the same way Jack Kennedy and Barry Goldwater had agreed to do so," McCain said.
Around 100 Columbia students won seats at the event through a lottery that received over 15,000 entries. Also in attendance were military veterans, service organizers, families of victims from Sept. 11, and a variety of celebrities. But there were several empty seats in the auditorium, which organizers said was because their views to the stage were obstructed.
"We understood that the seats behind the TV riser with completely obstructed views were intended by organizers for press and campaign staff, but it appeared that a number of people were ultimately permitted to stand on the side aisles instead," Executive Vice President for Communications David Stone said.
"This was a historic night for Columbia," Stone added. "A very challenging public event came off very well and energized people on campus while giving people here and across the nation a rare opportunity to hear two presidential candidates, each with a connection to the college, speak in depth about an issue that clearly reaches across party lines."
Emma Manson, Alix Pianin, and Daniel Amzallag contributed reporting to this article.