FULTON — Westminster College became a dance floor for presidential partisan politics last week. The music was foreign policy and the disc jockey was Fletcher Lamkin, the college’s president.
Lamkin strove for balance by inviting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to speak Friday on campus, just four days after Vice President Dick Cheney addressed the Westminster College community on Monday.
And balance is what he got.
“In the fraternity houses and the dorms, they’re talking politics — heated politics,” Lamkin said. “They’re really thinking about the future, and I think a week like this might inspire a number of them to become much more involved as citizens, to be critical thinkers and to explore all the issues in more depth than you might have without this experience.”
Kerry outlined his foreign policy plan for the U.S. military and political involvement in Iraq. He highlighted three things the United States should do: rely on military assistance from NATO to build “collective security” to stabilize the region; appoint a high commissioner to oversee reconstruction, manage elections and supervise the drafting of an Iraqi constitution; and launch a trained Iraqi security force.
“This is a task to do in partnership with other nations, not just on our own,” Kerry said. “This is a task which must be successful. If we fail to create viable Iraqi security forces — military and police — there is no successful exit for us and other nations.”
By emphasizing international military and financial cooperation, Kerry distinguished his plan from that of the Bush administration, said John Langton, a political science professor at Westminster. Langton said the United States faces future challenges securing international support because of how the Bush administration launched the war in Iraq.
“There clearly has to be some effort to say ‘We undermined your authority when we went into this the way we did without a security council resolution. We actually stuck a thumb in your eye,’” Langton said.
Even with Westminster’s tradition of bringing high-profile world leaders to campus, Langton said Cheney’s and Kerry’s speeches within one week are unprecedented for the college.
“I’m not sure there’s ever been a time in American history where two presidential candidates have come to the same small school or even a large university in the same week to deliver foreign policy addresses,” Langton said.
Kurt Jefferson, a political science associate professor at Westminster, said the speeches represent the first “firing shots” in the battle to win Missouri, a crucial swing state in the 2004 presidential election.
“Fulton is the place where this happens,” Jefferson said. “Never have we had such two ad hoc speeches literally within seven days. This has just taken our campus by storm.”
Jefferson said Kerry carefully laid out his plan for Iraq but will need to continue emphasizing foreign policy to appeal to Missouri voters. He added that last week’s speeches will either signal a starting point for bipartisan cooperation in terms of foreign policy, or more likely, “nasty partisan politics” until the November election.
In fact, Steve Schmidt, the Bush-Cheney ’04 spokesman, issued a three-page response after Kerry’s speech entitled “The Raw Deal: John Kerry Offers No Credible Iraq Policy Alternatives.”
“The bottom line is, Missouri is a microcosm for the United States,” Jefferson said. “And that’s why the candidates will come here. ... This will not be the last stop Kerry or even President Bush has here in Missouri.”
Don Shire of Mexico, Mo., heard Winston Churchill’s 1946 “iron curtain” speech broadcast over loudspeakers from the lawn of the Callaway County Courthouse in Fulton. Shire, a Kerry supporter, said the past few days have been the most controversial for mid-Missouri in recent memory.
“If we get three extra votes out of here, we might win this thing,” he said.
Peggy Henderson of Rolla arrived in Fulton on Friday morning without a ticket but just hoping to support Kerry. She said she waited in the rain outside the Westminster gymnasium for almost two hours and snagged a ticket at the last minute.
“I was so thrilled to get in,” she said. “I am impressed by the way the president of Westminster reacted by inviting Kerry here (Friday). And I’m proud of him for not wanting to be used and abused.”
Don Johnson of Columbia said this year’s election race is the most polarized he has ever seen.
“The people who love Bush loathe Kerry,” he said. “Those who love Kerry loathe Bush.”
On both ends of the ballot, Fulton residents are talking about politics.
“I think that the speeches by Vice President Cheney and by John Kerry are both good for Westminster, and it just shows that civic engagement is again alive here,” said Joshua Harlow, vice chairman for Westminster’s College Republicans. “And I think that’s very important, even if you’re a Republican like me or a Democrat. People are thinking about the issues, and that’s the most important thing.”
— Missourian reporter Anna Sharp contributed to this article.