Ashley Sides Johnson ’01 shares memories from 2000 VP Debate
When the Vice Presidential Debate comes to campus this October, students will have a front row seat to experience the political process—something Ashley Sides Johnson ’01 can personally attest to.
Johnson was a debate intern at Centre in 2000, and was extremely involved in all things Vice Presidential Debate before, during and after the main event.
“I spent about 18 months preparing for, executing and cleaning up after the debate,” Johnson says. “One of my primary tasks was to get in front of any type of media outlet and talk about Centre and the VP debate. I racked up quite a reel of news segments, newspaper and magazine articles, as well as some radio interviews, before it was all over.”
Johnson was front and center both while preparing for the debate and in the exciting aftermath, particularly in Spin Alley, a headquarters for the media to interview political figures after the debate had finished.
“We had phone lines—yes, actual landlines—that zig-zagged across every available inch of floor space. The media had to be able to call in their stories and receive assignments and at that time cell phone service was extremely limited in Danville,” Johnson says. “It was amazing to watch all the post-debate interviews in Spin Alley. It was even more amazing to meet astronaut John Glenn and now-Vice President Joe Biden.”
Many memories from the 2000 debate stand out for Johnson, particularly going to the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles as part of Kentucky’s delegation.
“Clarence Wyatt, Julie Hewett Kuhnhein ’01, Richard Trollinger and I went together and had a booth in the exhibitor’s hall,” Johnson says. “During that week, I met celebrities, got on the floor of the convention hall to hear amazing political speakers and enjoyed tons of fun activities like dancing at the Conga Room.”
Johnson also recalls working with Mona Wyatt—director of special events, director of alumni and assistant to the President—to design and sell merchandise for the Debate.
“We ordered frisbees and t-shirts and stuffed bears as well as struck deals with blown glass artist Brook White and Louisville Stoneware to create one-of-a-kind mementos of our big adventure,” Johnson says. Hosting a national political event brings lots of changes to campus—and lots of security. Johnson particularly remembers the day the Secret Service began its duties at Centre.
“I was standing on the second floor of the Norton Center looking out toward the fountain when a sea of black suits enveloped an entire block of campus. It was an extraordinary sight, though not to be outdone by the sight of snipers on the roof of the library as I walked to class the next day,” Johnson says. “I was able to learn a lot about the Secret Service during debate week as I took them food and made sure they could find all the supplies they needed.”
Once the debate was over, Johnson remained highly involved with the upcoming election—and watched the results come in live.
“Through contacts I made during the debate preparations, I got to be on the front row in Nashville on election night in 2000. Several Centre students and I stood out in the rain until midnight waiting for Al Gore to be declared the next President of the United States and come out to address us,” Johnson says. “Our tired, sad little faces were all over CNN when they announced that the election would not be decided that night due to some voting issues in Florida. Thankfully, my history professor saw me on TV and knew why I didn’t show up for class the next morning.”
Johnson says that volunteering for the debate gave her insights and experiences that have effected her life since then.
“The experiences I had in those 18 months helped me decide that I did not want to do political events planning for a career as I had previously planned; figure out that although being in the Secret Service would be awesome, my lack of swimming skills would keep me from success in that field; and cling to the knowledge that for a short period in my early 20s I could call MTV and go to their trailer at the national convention in L.A. on legitimate business,” Johnson says. “I was so blessed and privileged to be able to help Centre put on a world-class event.”
For more information about the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre this fall, click here.