A View from Inside the CNN/Reagan Library Presidential Debate

Ann-Marie Villicana
Co-Founder LA Trump, Former Pasadena City Council Member and Realtor

villicana and husbandIn this era of reality T.V., it is inevitable that even the most watched  Presidential debate in history can take on that scripted surreal air.  It definitely was real and probably a bit scripted, but the action was live and exciting!

We arrived at 12:30, a bit early, to get a good parking spot before the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library opened at 1:00 for the CNN Presidential debates. 

At the base of the hill, union organizers were gathering with matching t-shirts, drums, placards and Donald Trump piñatas.  Crowds gathered with signs that said “No hate in LA” and “No hope without the Latino vote”.  Those seemed like good messages, I agreed with both! They were supposed to be anti-Trump, but they all looked like they were having a great time as they watched the shuttles and cars transporting candidates and the select 500 debate viewers.

At the top of the hill, we arrived at the Library and saw that media scene we see on TV so often. Film crews had tents set up, portable stages and news anchor people with wires and microphones, all presumably giving the run down on what was happening in the moments before the debate and surmising what would transpire once the debates began.

We waited in line for the gates to open at 1:00.  There was a nice light buffet lunch in the Presidential Rose Garden before entering the debate arena in the magnificent structure that houses Air Force One.  The rain clouds passed overhead and the sun shone through.

People watching was in full force.  Everyone watching to see who was there, who knew who, all in eager anticipation of the two debates ahead and wondering how the event would transpire.

There was a retrofitted Air Stream in which you could go in and pose a 15 second question to the candidates which was immediately posted on CNN’s Facebook and could then be posted on your own social media.

We lined up again to go into the Air Force One pavilion stage area, specially built for the debate. Red, white, blue, gold and green wrist bands directed us to our seating areas.   The green group was sent downstairs, under the Air Force One plane to watch the debate on a big screen, while the rest of us sat upstairs and watched the action live.

We were in the red section, on the right, with 9 rows and 14 seats per row.  The middle was white and the left was blue.  The few rows of floor seats were the gold section for the special dignitaries and family members of the candidates.

The four clear podiums with a white column were set up for the first debate in front of Air Force One, each with a pad of paper, 2 pens, 2 bottles of CNN water and a Reagan Library California coffee mug. People were going to the podiums and taking photos and posting selfies before the candidates arrived. The backdrop was Air Force One and the Golden California Mountains outside the huge windows.

So many craning necks to see who was there at this most exclusive gathering. There were seat tags for candidate family members and dignitaries. Former governors Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson, four Trumps, Michael Reagan, former Congressman David Dreier, Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus, T. Boone Pickens, to name a few.  We sat down and met the man next to us, Mark Vafiades, the Chairman of the Republican Party of LA County.

The voices were more subdued and in hushed tones as we waited the first debate.  We were told that Mrs. Reagan had personally invited each candidate to the debate, but that she would not be in attendance.  We listened and looked at the huge American flag at the back of the stands while God Bless America and our National Anthem were sung.  A stage manager gave us instructions to be on our best behavior and then the first debate began.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the lower gallery, the overflow viewing area beneath Air Force One, the audience had a different experience. They wore headsets with a battery operated device so that the sound would not ricochet upstairs to the live debate. The transmission was delayed a few seconds for them, so after we applauded or laughed upstairs, the same reaction could be heard downstairs a few moments later.  Staff had placards saying not to laugh or clap, but people laughed and clapped downstairs anyway.  As we were overheating upstairs in the debate area, those down below froze as they tried to get cool air up to the live debate stage.  And while we heard the songs and pre-debate speakers, those down below watched repeated commercials for Sleep Number Beds!

The first debate was introduced and someone in the crowd near us whispered that the lead in sounded like a reality show introduction with several outrageous Trump quotes and pulsating music.  The four candidates were lined up by height.  Senator Lindsey Graham started out with a humorous note and thanked CNN for having people at the debate, referring to the first debate in which there was no audience for the second tier candidates.

The buzz at the first break was that Lindsey Graham was ahead in the first round and by the conclusion, he seemed to have the most favorable response amongst those around us. Meanwhile, Governor Pataki could hardly get a word in the debate. I spoke briefly to Pataki after the debate and asked if it was nerve wracking being at the podium. He said it was more nerve wracking that he did not get to speak; clearly a frustrated candidate.

There was a twenty or so minute break between the first and second debates, not nearly enough time for everyone to stretch, use the facilities and make all their calls.  Many of the audience were still lined up outside, held up by the personnel.  The second debate began as the audience scrambled, trying to get to their seats.

The eleven top candidates were at their clear podiums and the excitement in the room was palpable.  Trump dominated the beginning.  The audience was listening intently to each response by the candidates and applauding often.  At each 3 minute break, people jumped out of their chairs and went to the floor to talk to the candidates and others in the audience.  The candidate family members joined their candidate for those few moments.  Candidates rushed off to the side of the stage  to get a touch up on their camera makeup or to talk to one another. Jeb embraced Mrs. Huckabee, Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced Donald Trump. Ivanka Trump was right at her father’s side.  There was a constant dance of people moving and rushing back to their seats and podiums at the breaks.

There were aghast murmurs across the room when Trump made some of his jabs, as well as bursts of applause or laughter.  The loudest applause erupted when Jeb said that at least his brother kept us safe while he was president.  The loudest laughter was when Jeb said his secret service code name would be Ever-ready and Trump immediately replied that his would be Humble.

The mountains outside the windows were bright with sunshine when the day began and by the end of the debate they were dark.  All in all, all the candidates seemed good in one way or another.  Each clearly with special gifts to lead. The surprise was Lindsey Graham from the first debate with his humor and steadfast talking points.  Everyone wanted to know what the next person thought of the candidates after the debate.  At the conclusion, everyone dined outside around a fragment of the Berlin Wall and near President Reagan’s final resting place.

It was an exceptional day, one that none of us will ever forget.

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