McCain spoke first but they had not come for him. Sitting in the moonlight on the broad steps of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library, the crowd that watched the ServiceNation Presidential Candidates Forum on a giant screen wore the micro shorts and athletic sweatshirts of American student-hood. And they were avidly pro-Democrat.
Obama and McCain talked inside, separately, in the university’s Lerner Hall, a modern structure with glass walls and banisters festooned with banners. There the 1000 strong crowd was rather different, a mixture of 9/11 victims, veterans, policy leaders and only a smattering of students chosen through a lottery. Inside they cheered at the mention of the lack of military presence on college campuses. Outside there was silence.
The ServiceNation event took place on the seventh anniversary of the attacks of 11 September, 2001. Earlier in the day the two candidates had laid wreaths at the former site of the World Trade Centre. The evening event too, which was attended by celebrities including Caroline Kennedy and Tobey Maguire, was devoted to service, rather than campaigning. But despite the slick veneer provided by the compeers, TIME managing editor Rick Stengel and PBS’s Judy Woodruff, politics was not far beneath the pomp.
McCain noted how the attacks seven years ago had brought unity to America. “We weren’t Republicans on September 11th,” he said. “We weren’t Democrats. We were Americans.”
In the wake of his party’s sarcastic attacks on his opponent’s work as a community organiser, the Republican candidate was also careful to be gracious, saying, “Senator Obama’s record there is outstanding.”
However when attention switched to Obama, who was sporting a red tie with his trademark slim suit, woops and cheers rang across the university’s neo-classical campus.
The Democratic candidate studied himself at Columbia as an undergraduate, although his time there is less well publicised than his later period at Harvard Law School.
Obama claimed that if he wins in November then service would be a key feature of his presidency. “We believe in mutual responsibility,” he said.
Like McCain, he also made mention of his days as a community organiser, saying that he had followed the inspiration of the civil rights movement. He added that he had earned just $12,000 per year for his work in Chicago.
The young audience outside were glued to the screen, beneath a floodlit stars and stripes that flew at half-mast in honour of the victims of 9/11.
Katie Scallon, a 24-year-old Real Estate Development Student, said: “You can tell from the energy here this is going to be our next president.”
Colin Webster, a second year Classics student, was one of many who relished the chance to see national politics at close range. “It’s the chance to hear the candidates speak, hearing them in such close succession.”
Elsewhere, Sannan Bengali, a MBA student in a white hijab, was glad that, seven years after 9/11, life was getting easier for American Muslims. “It’s getting better with time,” she said.
Pro Democrat sentiment was less unanimous amongst the older members of the crowd. Chinata Damu, a 53 year old of Romanian parentage, said, “I think Mr McCain did very well. He deserves to be president because of what he went though in the war.”
Columbia is no stranger to big name political speakers. In September last year President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stirred controversy when he told an audience at the university that there were no homosexuals in Iran and that the holocaust should be treated as theory rather than fact, and therefore open to debate and research.
This time, for a very different line-up, extensive security preparations were in place. As a prosperous Ivy League institution in the heart of relatively poor neighbourhoods on the Upper West Side of Manhattan Columbia has the private infrastructure of a city-state, with its own ambulances and security forces. Yet for the ServiceNation event these were joined by a massive police presence, and phalanxes of the squat shouldered secret service men. Some of the key experiments in the development of the atomic bomb took place at Columbia, and sixty-three years on from the end of the Second World War it was clear that no one wanted to risk this new, presidential Manhattan project ending in meltdown.
Outside the event too, on the upper reaches of Broadway, hawkers made rapid sales of campaign merchandise. “Everyone’s buying,” said Nova Felder, a 30 year old from the New York borough of Queens, with a table full of Obama t-shirts.
He was not selling any McCain merchandise. Firmly Democrat New York is not the United States, and Columbia is not New York. But many of the younger generation who watched the candidates speak will be hoping that their shouts and cheers for Obama will echo to a larger audience come November.