From magazine rankings to movies, most portrayals of Charleston seek to capture the city’s secluded gardens, flavorful cuisine and charming architecture. But what happens when the gracious, old soul of the South collides with the muddy fury of modern politics? Quite a lot actually.
Dr. Amanda Ruth-McSwain spearheads the College’s Bully Pulpit Series, a program that has been bringing major political candidates to campus since 2007. The series originated when the advisory board of the Department of Communication realized that “South Carolina plays such a big role in the primary season” and recognized the need for relevant programming at the College, McSwain explained. The first season of events took place in 2007-2008, including everything from “more intimate town hall events to a large rally in the Cistern Yard with President Obama,” McSwain remembered. The next election cycle, in 2011-2012, saw a marked increase in Charleston’s national prominence. “That’s when the series became a little larger than life.”
McSwain works in an unpaid service position as the coordinator of the series. She teaches a Capstone course that integrates students into the process of planning and executing the Bully Pulpit events. The experiential learning is valuable and fast-paced, with a busy season of four to five months. McSwain pointed out that the program sometimes has “as little as 48 hours” to plan a candidate visit. The College extends a formal invitation to any candidate who has filed with the federal government and registered in the polls at some point; party affiliation is not a consideration. McSwain noted that Charleston has several unique attributes when it comes to attracting candidates. They see “the progress and the innovation coming out of Charleston as a large city in South Carolina,” she said. “We’re an interesting area of the state because we do and have, as a majority, voted Democrat. It’s a small blue part of quite a red state.” This relative ideological diversity brings many candidates to Charleston instead of, say, Columbia.
What has Dr. Ruth-McSwain learned from her time with the program so far? “These campaigns have very clear personalities,” she said. She recalled that some candidates wanted to control every aspect of their appearance at the College, while others were content to just show up. McSwain is also proud of the impact the series has had on student engagement. “I hope that it gets students thinking about their own voice,” she explained, “and how to share their voice in a larger discussion.” At the core of the series’ mission is a desire for students to think critically and develop their own authentic political identities. McSwain pointed out that a student does not have to be likeminded with a candidate in order to make something of the event. “A lot of universities that tend to host events surrounding elections are a little more reactive in nature,” she observed. “What I’m proud of is the intentionality now surrounding student engagement.” Want to refresh your memory? Here is a reflection on a few of the big events that have taken place in Charleston this election season.
Mayoral Debate- Oct. 14, 2015
What’s the Big Deal? This autumn, Charleston elected a new mayor for the first time in 40 years. One of the longest-serving elected officials in the United States, former Mayor Joe Riley left massive shoes to fill. The candidates came from diverse backgrounds in state government, nonprofits, education and faith-based activism. Businessman John Tecklenburg ultimately won the election.
Quote: “I’m a millennial in a baby boomer’s body” – Candidate Ginny Deerin
You Had to Be There: Wading through the sea of suits and skirts backstage, a certain young reporter realized too late that her shorts and flip flops were not exactly up to par. But hey, it was hot as heck that day and nobody wants pit stains.
Ted Cruz- Nov. 16, 2015
What’s the Big Deal? Sen. Ted Cruz was the first presidential candidate to visit the College through the Bully Pulpit Series. His speech came right on the heels of a major terror attack in the heart of Paris. Cruz, a favorite among very conservative voters, has since successfully separated from the pack of GOP candidates. But the competition is far from over if he wants to unseat frontrunner Trump in the polls.
Quote: “We cannot defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a President who won’t utter the words radical Islamic terrorism.” – Sen. Ted Cruz
You Had to Be There: While Cruz shook hands and took pictures, two student protesters climbed on chairs and chanted their opposition to Cruz. Their slogans included “We don’t want a President who discriminates against Muslims” and “Where’s your uterus?”
Marco Rubio- Dec. 1, 2015
What’s the Big Deal? Sen. Marco Rubio was the second presidential candidate to participate in the College’s Bully Pulpit Series. Hailed as a rising star in the party, Cuban-American Rubio is the youngest candidate on the GOP side. His youth has worked both for and against him, with many opponents targeting his inexperience. His campaign slogan is “A New American Century.”
Quote: “The opportunities of the 21st century are as real as its challenges.” – Sen. Marco Rubio
You Had to Be There: 79-year-old local Elease Pickens brought the house down with an emphatic declaration: “I would like to see marijuana legalized.” Rubio chuckled while the crowd, mostly students, applauded.
Republican Debate- Jan. 14, 2016
What’s the Big Deal? With so many competitors still in the field, Republicans went into this debate looking for stand-out performances. Although Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Jeb Bush gave strong performances, it was conservative darling Sen. Ted Cruz who pulled out in front of the pack. Cruz and persistent frontrunner Donald Trump established themselves as the ones to beat.
Quote: “Look what’s happening in Indonesia. It’s bomb bomb bomb bomb.” – Donald Trump
You Had to Be There: Trump’s entourage reminded us of the group photo they take on America’s Next Top Model after the makeover episode. The overall effect is impressive, but there’s always that one girl with a terrible weave.
Mike Huckabee- Jan. 15, 2016
What’s the Big Deal? Gov. Mike Huckabee was the third presidential candidate to take part in the College’s Bully Pulpit Series. Although Huckabee’s poll numbers at the time had labeled him as finished, he refused to quit until Feb. 1. Huckabee continued to campaign as a means of giving a conservative voice to the issues plaguing average Americans.
Quote: “I’ve learned that politics is about giving something that doesn’t matter that much to you to get something that does matter to you.” – Gov. Mike Huckabee
You Had to Be There: Huckabee’s microphone was not working properly, so the first few minutes of the event were just loud, awkward static. Good times.
Democratic Debate- Jan. 17, 2016
What’s the Big Deal? Sen. Bernie Sanders has shocked establishment Democrats by gaining enough steam to challenge heavy-favorite Sec. Hillary Clinton. Sanders, a professed Democratic Socialist, has won big with young people. Clinton, an experienced establishment icon, tends to do better with moderates and minorities. All eyes were on this debate as the two faced off on gun control and healthcare.
Quote: “I’ve never met a self-respecting deer hunter that needed an AR-15 to down a deer.” – Gov. Martin O’Malley
You Had to Be There: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog made the rounds with the press in the spin room. While journalists questioned Gov. Martin O’Malley about the future of his campaign, Triumph shouted out facts about his feces.
*This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Yard.