Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean spoke yesterday afternoon to students at Washington University in St. Louis, site of last night's vice presidential debate, at an event publicized as "Lunch With Howard Dean." The event was held in the Edison Theater after the originally scheduled space - a concert venue known as The Gargoyle - was deemed too small to hold the growing number of students eager to speak with Dean. About 450 students attended.
News of Dean's talk was posted on Facebook by the Washington University College Democrats and quickly spread by word of mouth, drawing students such as Elliott Heigert who found out about Dean's talk in an American politics class and decided to attend the event instead of class. "I'm actually supposed to be in class right now, but that's not as important as this," said Heigert.
The event was billed as an informal meet-and-greet with a question and answer session between students and Dean. Perhaps it was the unexpected number of attendees, or the move into the larger, less intimate venue, but for whatever reason, the event morphed into a campaign rally and call to action.
Dean focused on the issues separating candidates Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama as well as what he sees as a generational divide, comparing this year's election to the election of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. He called it a choice between the past and the future, and charged the under-35 generation with the responsibility to become and remain active in politics.
"I think that if my generation had stayed active, Bush and Cheney wouldn't have happened," Dean said. Dean made it clear that he was asking the students in attendance to do more than just vote. "If you vote, you get a D, you pass," he said, "you have to stay involved and set something aside for your community."
Included in Dean's recommendations for what students could do was community organizing. He praised community organizers as "the glue that holds America together" and criticized Republicans" remarks at the Republican National Convention regarding community organizers.
Students wearing all kinds of political gear from stickers to hats cheered as Dean spoke about the policies of Obama and McCain. The big applause-winners were universal healthcare and tax cuts for the middle class.
Dean also gave the young crowd credit for their idealism. "You expect better from us and that way we can expect more from each other...America is a nation of great people, the only thing we lack is a president as great as the people," Dean said.
Arian H, a sophomore at Washington University, said he was pleased with Dean's talk. "He addressed a lot more issues than I thought he would; he made a lot of good points. Basically it was a politically rally more than anything. It's good to get big-name people here and get students excited."
Student Ceisha Ukatu was also looking forward to the energy she hoped Dean would bring to the students. "I just want him to get us all excited about tonight and for the rest of the campaign," she said prior to the event.
After Dean spoke, Jeff Smith, a Democratic member of the Missouri Senate and a professor of political science at Washington University expressed his satisfaction with the event. The goal was "just to fire people up, get people to go register other folks, make sure all the people in this room drag a few people to the polls with them," Smith said.
Smith, who is well known for his grassroots campaign strategies, echoed Dean's urgency in getting young adults involved in the political process one by one.
"You know, the people in this room could make the difference between 49.7 [percent] and 50.2 [percent] in the state of Missouri if they all get out and work hard," Smith said, "Missouri is going to be as close as any state, it always is. It could well decide this election."