While some students were curled up in their beds last Thursday morning, I was up bright and early, armed with a strawberry Arnold Palmer, a couple of doughnuts and a suitcase to keep me company on a bus trip to Washington, D.C.
As part of its inaugural “Hill to Hill” program, the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) offered 51 students the opportunity to spend three days in the nation’s capital during October Break. Co-sponsored by the D.C.-Area Regional Alumni Association, the trip included a tour of the Capitol, three political panels, a keynote address by a four-star general and an alumni networking reception. One month before the presidential election, the event enabled members of the larger Kenyon community to reflect on the modern-day role of politics and the presidency, while building personal and professional relationships.
Preparations for “Hill to Hill” began this summer, as CSAD staff, D.C.-area alumni and staffers from the Office of Alumni Affairs contacted panel participants and planned the schedule. Professors of Political Science Pamela Camerra-Rowe, David Rowe and Fred Baumann, Assistant Professor of Political Science Kurt Pyle and Assistant Director of CSAD Nancy Powers volunteered to tag along for the three-day conference.
Powers called the event “a high-impact experience for students with an interest in politics” and “a chance for out-of-the-classroom interactions among students and faculty.”
Almost crammed to capacity, our bus journeyed about 400 miles to D.C. We passed the time with sour Skittles, fruit punch Capri Sun and the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We completed political crosswords (“What was Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton’s first alma mater?”) and crafted limericks inspired by current events (cue Donald Trump’s leaked tape).
Once we arrived in D.C., we discussed the latest political developments and our expectations of the trip over steaming helpings of Thai food. Then, after driving to the Lincoln Memorial and walking through the D.C. streets, we tucked in for the night. The next day began with a tour of the Capitol, followed by a trip to the Library of Congress and lunch with alumni. We journeyed from hall to hall of the nation’s legislative branch, eyeing the paintings in the Capitol Rotunda and snapping photos of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s door. Clutching guest passes signed by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, we stole a peek at the Congressional chambers.
Our next stop was the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a political think tank and public policy research institution, where CSAD Director Tom Karako serves as a senior fellow.
Over the next seven hours, we heard speeches from President Sean Decatur, Karako and Tommy Brown ’13 of the D.C.-Area Regional Alumni Association, as well as three political panels of professors and alumni.
In the first panel, “President Obama’s Legacy,” Camerra-Rowe, Baumann, lobbyist Paul Brown ’86 and former Congressional staffer Jack Pratt ’98 considered whether Obama’s presidency has been successful.
Camerra-Rowe, Brown and Pratt praised Obama’s two terms. “Obama will be the Democratic Reagan,” Pratt said. “He has a coalition that will define the Democratic Party.”
“This presidency has been one of unrivaled integrity, lack of scandal and lack of drama,” added Brown, who met Obama in 2004. “He will be held in high standing for a long time.”
Baumann took a different view. Prefacing his statements with, “I often play the role of the troll under the bridge,” he said Obama’s legacy has fed on people’s discomfort and includes “tasks neglected.”
“The cult of Obama and the cult of Trump have more in common than people would like to admit,” Baumann said.
The next panel, “The Presidential Election and the Media,” focused on the challenges reporters might face when covering politics. The panelists — Pyle, Congressional staffer Ben Fritsch ’13 and former Collegian editors-in-chief Paul Singer ’88 of USA Today and David McCabe ’14 of The Hill and — discussed topics from fact-checking to whether the media is responsible for the rise of Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“The media panel was a great opportunity to talk with practicing journalists about how they experience the pressures and choices involved in reporting this election,” Pyle said. “This election has raised important issues about how candidates should be covered and how new media has shifted the news environment. I felt our discussion did a good job of laying out how we as citizens should think about the media’s important, but changing, role in the electoral process.”
In the last panel, “America’s Security: 2016 and Beyond,” Rowe, former Congressional staffer Chris Brose ’02 and Defense News reporter Jen Judson ’04 spoke about the changing role of the American military.
Judson remarked that the biggest threats currently facing national security relate to budgeting and administration, and Brose highlighted overextension of resources and increased international conflicts as key issues.
“We’ve always had problems and adversaries, but what’s different now is we just have a multiplicity of them, and any one of them could be a dramatic problem or crisis,” Brose said.
Toward the evening’s end, we heard from General Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. Though the majority of Hayden’s speech focused on how Trump and Clinton differ in foreign policy, he also elaborated on why this election is so significant.
“The American foreign policy consensus is eroding,” he said. “We are challenging things we haven’t challenged in 75 years.”
After the day’s festivities, we gathered together to sip wine, eat empanadas and exchange contacts. The following day, it was back on the bus.
Overall, my peers reflected positively on the trip. “I thought the D.C. trip was a great opportunity,” Callan Schackor ’17 said. “I got to meet a lot of people I wouldn’t have otherwise met — both Kenyon alums and Kenyon students with similar interests to mine whom I simply hadn’t had classes with or who were in different years. The panels were especially interesting leading up to the first presidential election that I’ll be able to vote in.”
Trudy Wrona ’20 said “Hill to Hill” was helpful personally and professionally. “As a potential pre-health student, as well as a citizen, it’s … important to understand legislation and the critical nature of every president in America’s future in terms of how I will live my life in the future, hopefully creating meaningful change in medicine,” she said. “After ‘Hill to Hill,’ I feel more prepared to make the right decision come November.”
CSAD’s next event will be a viewing party for the third (and final) presidential debate on Wednesday, Oct. 19.