ServiceNation summit, pt.3 - The Candidates!

Wow. Want to know what it’s like in the press room of a Presidential Candidates’ Forum? Here’s a handy timeline! Apologies for length, but tonight was an amazing symposium of service, and I feel it is my duty as your official ServiceNation correspondent to report as much as I can! So read on, and watch all the rest of the Forum here

6:35pm – After registration and credentialing, I enter the press filing room at Low Memorial Library, which looks more like a museum. That’s probably the 1st century Chinese pottery displays talking. Columbia is awesome.

6:36 – Have a seat.

6:37 – Get up and help self to the catering. Notice the house music; two Lounge Against the Machine songs, then The Shins, then Bloc Party. I bet all the other reporters are stoked too.

6:38 – Sit back down, right behind the Washington Post. Open soda as quietly as possible. Fail.

6:39 – Realize that being an occasional journalist – incredible talent or no – I am pretty lucky to be sitting down with the biggest names in reporting. Polish SCA lapel pin a little.

6:40 – Did you ever show up for the first day of class with a new notepad and your trusty pen, open it up to the first page, then look around and see everyone else open their new laptops?

6:43 – Nice woman from HealthCorps hands me a sticker advertising the ServiceNation Day of Action on September 27th. I mention I would be happy to post it on a lamppost in Washington. She gives me 40 more. They’re going up!

6:48 – Live feed switched on. The Candidates are speaking in Alfred Lerner hall, a block south of us. I guess they knew I would be applauding too enthusiastically in person.

7:09 – Program begins! Bill Novelli, the CEO of AARP, and Laysha Ward, President of the Target Foundation, speak very well about the importance of service today. They invite onstage ServiceNation’s Leadership Council, who are received warmly. Usher, ServiceNation’s Summit Youth Chair, looks like he stepped out of a photo shoot for Rolling Stone. The crowd kind of goes wild when he’s introduced.

7:13 – Laysha Ward: “[America’s] legacy is based on the understanding that our world is bigger than we are.” I like that….

7:21 – New York Governor David Paterson takes the stage. I’m excited to hear him speak; he’s the first African-American governor of New York and the first legally blind governor in U.S. history.

7:22 – …He’s also hilarious: “Thank very much [Columbia] President Bollinger for that very kind introduction.  I wish you were president when I was at Columbia. Maybe I would’ve gotten out sooner.”

7:24 – Paterson quotes Teddy Roosevelt: “The welfare of each of us is dependant fundamentally on the welfare of all of us.”

7:28 – Paterson: “Today, I am elevating the Director of our Office for National and Community Service right here in New York State…to a cabinet position in my administration.” Lots of applause for that one! “Thank you. Thank you. I thought you would like that.” David Paterson is awesome.

7:42 – Toby McGuire speaks enthusiastically about the 2008 election and the candidates: “Both of the candidates have lived lives of service and both have made a call to service a part of their campaign. My only election prediction is that we will have record turnout…it’s thrilling to see so many people get involved.” Right on, Spider Man!

7:46 – Liz Ackerman, co-chair of the Memorial Committee for Families of September 11th and co-founder of the Peter C Alderman Foundation, gives the best speech yet, about her son, Peter, who perished in the September 11th attacks. Her foundation works for the victims of terrorism and mass violence in post-conflict countries; “Peter would be very proud of the foundation that bears his name, and if he could see me standing here tonight, he would think his mom was a hoot.”

7:50 – Jay Winuk, the Vice President of MyGoodDeed who I was lucky enough to meet earlier today, takes the stage. “In this city and this nation, we value courage, we value honor, and we honor those who sacrifice for others.” It’s getting hard not to cheer along with the live audience. This is great.

8:03 – Time for the main event! TIME Managing Editor Richard Stengel and PBS Sr. Correspondent Judy Woodruff are moderating. The first candidate is Senator John McCain, who gets a very warm response.

8:05 – The first question is how to best honor the sacrifices of the victims of September 11th, 2001. McCain: “I think the best way to commemorate…and show our appreciation for…those who have sacrificed, is to serve our country.
“That’s what this forum is all about…that way I think we can honor their service and their sacrifice to our nation.” Right on.

8:08 – McCain: “[The 2008 election] is an opportunity. This is an opportunity to lead the nation and talk to the American people and reform our government and ask for more service.”

8:10 – Asked about mandatory national service, McCain replies, “I think when you [require] someone to do something, then you basically are in contradiction to the fundamental principle of having people wanting…and willing, and eager to serve.  Americans are still eager to serve.”

I haven’t mentioned SCA in awhile, may I point out that our thousands of alumni are a testament to that!

8:20 – Asked about the government role in disaster recovery efforts, such as in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, McCain is quick to say that “faith-based organizations, as well as other volunteer organizations, did a magnificent job. There’s a place called the Resurrection Baptist Church down in New Orleans. Thousands of volunteers from churches all over the country came and are still working in New Orleans as we speak.” Credit where credit is due!

8:25 – McCain: “I’m very pleased at the volunteer effort in America. I’m very pleased at what we’ve seen around this country, particularly as we are in difficult times. I think we can be proud of Americans, and obviously if we need to take some steps to encourage that and make it easier for them, I’m all for it.”

8:34 – Echoing Governor Paterson’s announcement earlier, McCain says he would make service a cabinet-level appointment. And after about a second of thought, says yes to Woodruff’s question of whether he would hire Senator Obama for the position.

8:50 – McCain departs to a great reaction. However, Senator Barack Obama is brought onstage at the same time, and I daresay the crowd goes a little bit wild. Obama, after shushing the crowd politely, blames the cheers on his “home field advantage” (Columbia University class of ’83).

8:54 – Asked a similar opening question about what September 11th means to him, Obama replies, “I think of that spirit after the tragedy had occurred…the outpouring of patriotism, emotion, volunteerism, and the desire for service in the minds of everyone… [it] was a moment when the petty bickering and partisanship that comes to characterize our public life was set aside.
“And so the question is, how do we recreate that spirit…how do we honor those who died, those who sacrificed - the fire fighters, the police officers - how do we honor them every day?” Answer: service!

9:00 – Obama: “We’re going to have a bold energy plan that says that we’ll reduce our dependence on foreign oil* by 20 or 30 percent over the course of a decade or two. We are going to ask all citizens to participate in that process, not just government, but each and every one of us…are going to make commitments in terms of increasing fuel efficiency in our cars, in our homes. And the government is going to be in partnership with citizens to make that happen.”
*Someone in the crowd SCREAMS. This is the first mention by either candidate of energy policies.

9:05 – Obama: “America is the greatest country on earth.  But…part of what makes America work is the fact that we believe in individual responsibility and self-reliance, but we also believe in mutual responsibility, in neighborliness, in a sense that we are committed to something larger than ourselves.“

Okay, I know I started out this entry on a lighthearted note, but this is seriously awesome. Both Senators are speaking very passionately about the importance of national and international service, which is so important for me to hear. This is already a historic election race but I really like what I’m hearing from both candidates!

9:09 – Obama: One way of making sure that we encourage [civic-minded] citizenship is to start early, to make sure that our young people in high school have community service opportunities, making sure that our university students, in exchange for making college affordable, are giving something back, that they’re working in under-served communities…”

Yes! It’s alright you didn’t mention the SCA directly senator; we know you were thinking of us when you said that.

9:12 – Obama: “I think there are a lot of creative ways where we can provide more [service] opportunities than exist right now.” Like what, Senator?  “I want to create…a clean energy corps that can mobilize individual citizens to help create greater energy efficiency in our country.” Applause!

9:32 – Obama: “You know, when I think about the choice I made as a 23, 24 year old, to spend three years working with churches to help people help themselves— no insult to the president of this fine institution, but it was best education I ever had.

I bet he would have loved to do an SCA Conservation Corps…

“…It taught me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they’re given a chance and when they’re brought together. And that’s something I want encourage for every young person.”

9:36 – So what’s the role of government in citizen service? Obama: “…If it weren’t for government then we wouldn’t have a Civil Rights Act. If it weren’t for government, we would not have the interstate highway system. If it weren’t for government, we would not have some of our parks and natural wilderness areas that are so precious to America.”

Obama has touched on a number of conservation themes in his time onstage, and it’s very refreshing for me to hear. I think that last nod to America’s parks is a great note to end this update on.

Both candidates spoke exceptionally well, and I’m so glad to have been present for this forum, if not in the same room. I hope everyone who has read this takes the promises of these two people seriously; at the risk of sounding preachy again, it’s up to us as citizens to make sure they keep their promises!

Remember, MTV’s streaming video from the forum is available here. Regardless of whom you’re voting for (and you ARE voting!), watch the candidates and hear their statements on providing service in 2009 and beyond.

See you tomorrow as ServiceNation continues!