RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Swingers at Westminster

Greetings from Missouri, the swing state. The crossover state. The battleground state. The candidates' must-have state. Missourians have been inundated with campaign commercials since the earliest days of the primary and a couple of weeks ago my campus hosted two contenders -- Cheney and Kerry -- on the last week of classes.

Just the juxtaposition of those two names should make you scratch your head. In fact, from the first announcement that on April 27 Cheney was coming to campus to make a major international policy statement, we started to ponder. When in history has a vice president made policy announcements?

The answer, of course, is that this is no ordinary administration. On April 29, two days after our Cheney speech, we saw Bush coming out of the 9/11 hearings where he testified with Cheney, saying it was important for the panel to see him with the veep, see their "body language," like puppet master and puppet, or like two horses hitched to the same dray.

Cheney's speech at Westminster was major-clocked by the clock-watchers at 45 minutes -- and the biggest Rs from Missouri passed majestically through security to crowd the gymnasium elbow-to-elbow. Security was understandably tight and slow, so at the last minute about fifty students and faculty with tickets were turned away and herded into an alternative venue where they heard and saw the veep via video feed.

From my "embedded" position -- I've been "embedded" at Westminster since 1988, and embedded in Fulton since 1973, all without the benefit of extraordinary inoculations -- I was amazed at how little grumbling there was over this rejection of ticket holders. It may have been because the gym's not air conditioned, and because the seats were more comfortable and more dependable in the room with the video feed. In the gym, the husband of one English teacher, seated on a wobbly folding chair, crashed to the floor noisily mid-speech, much to the alarm of the secret service guys.

Interesting footnote: Everybody at the speech reported on how jumpy the Secret Service guys were; nobody had much to say about Cheney's behavior. He must feel that his job is more secure than theirs.

Long story short, when Cheney's speech turned away from making a major policy announcement and toward campaigning, the mood turned. First, the collapse of the English professor's husband's folding chair, then a walk-out by a few students and faculty who joined a cluster of protesters outside.

The next day, our college president, Fletcher Lamkin, reacted with gentlemanly indignation. "Frankly I must admit that I was surprised and disappointed that Mr. Cheney chose to step off the high ground and resort to Kerry-bashing," he wrote the campus body in an email, "we had only been told the speech would be about foreign policy." Sending the memo was a courageous act for the president of a tiny college in a small community, and an even mightier act for president of an institution that depends heavily on conservative donors.

Then, Lamkin issued an invitation to John Kerry to speak. It was a move that honors the college, its history and the liberal arts tradition. Lamkin later told Keith Olberman of MSNBC, "I would like a balanced view of the issues expressed on this historic campus."

Kerry accepted the opportunity and arrived on campus four days after Cheney left. To the credit of the college, a giant portable air conditioner was located and installed and the folding chairs tested.

To the credit of John Kerry, he kept to the high road and discussed issues -- Iraq and how to end the slaughter -- in his speech. To read the whole thing, and it's a good one, go to this article at

If nothing else was accomplished, the two speeches created a new atmosphere of inquiry on campus. Students suddenly revealed themselves as "Republican" or "Democrat," "Green," or "Independent," and gave every appearance of thinking about some of the issues that faculty had been trying all semester to talk about. "There's a lot of responsibility on the voter to find out where candidates stand," one student told me. Uh-huh.

Coincidentally, I had been fielding emails from readers answering my May 1 column that asked for responsible role models for our young people. In his action, our college president provided a positive role model and the students have responded by becoming interested in the world beyond the campus.

Not every college can host two candidates in one week, and not every college would want the opportunity the week before finals. But, to those who want to get young voters interested in the issues, the Westminster experience provides a model.

Bring speakers with various perspectives to the students. Don't be afraid of allowing ideas different from your own, but let the kids decide which are best. If one side bashes the other, point out the problem and offer balance.

Folks are saying that 2004 will be the most important election year of our time. The future of international relations, the environment, employment, health, social justice and the very Constitution hang in the balance.

Help bring the future into the tent.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

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