Feb. 11, 2008 — Maybe one day, after all the votes are counted, the oaths sworn and the stories filed, 1,000 people will remember witnessing a uniquely University of Virginia moment in the carefully scripted world of presidential politics: Hillary Clinton and U.Va. politics professor Larry Sabato swaying arm-in-arm onstage as the University Singers led an Old Cabell Hall audience in a rousing rendition of "The Good Ol' Song."
The musical finale to Clinton's visit signaled an end to five days of frantic activity that brought the Democratic presidential candidate to Grounds to visit Sabato's popular "PLAP 101: An Introduction to American Politics" on the eve of the Virginia primary. Clinton remained well beyond the normal 60-minute class period, fielding sometimes-pointed questions from Sabato's students, who filled the orchestra section in the jammed auditorium.
They asked issues-oriented queries on biofuels, spending cuts, religion and politics, stem cell research, the United States' involvement in the United Nations, designating English as the official language, tax policy and college costs. They also had more philosophical queries: Has Sen. Clinton ever changed her opinion based on things she's heard on the campaign trail? Who is her favorite Republican? Does she believe that she has made it so far politically in spite of, or because, of her gender?
Clinton fielded each question with poise and aplomb, outlining her positions in detail and winning frequent applause. She appeared to speak with candor and thoughtfulness, only occasionally switching into what sounded like a rehearsed stump speech.
Clinton's appearance was another coup for Sabato, who has developed a reputation for attracting big names to address his class. Former Presidents Reagan, Ford and Carter have all spoken to his students as has an array of governors, senators, congressman and other public officials.
"I took [this class] because I was hoping something like this would happen during the primaries," said Henry Ponton, a third-year sociology major from South Boston, Va., as he waited in the lobby for the auditorium doors to open.
Ponton described himself as a Republican, but said, "I'm definitely interested in what she has to say. I'm glad to see someone influential take the time to come and talk to us."
Weeks earlier, Sabato's staff at the Center for Politics invited all of the presidential candidates to the class. The Clinton campaign — perhaps sensitive to Democratic rival Barack Obama's polling advantage among young voters — was the first to respond, and committed to appearing last Wednesday, leaving only five days to nail down the myriad details.
"My staff deserves 100 percent of the credit," Sabato said. "They spent every single hour of the weekend working on it."
Actually, it was more like three days of intense preparation, said Ken Stroupe, director of the Center for Politics' Youth Leadership Initiative. Thanks to weekend caucuses and primaries elsewhere, it wasn't until Saturday that Clinton's advance team arrived on Grounds to jump into the planning. "It's been a great deal of 'hurry up and wait,'" he said.
Before then, though, it was decided to move the event from Wilson Hall Auditorium, where Sabato's class usually meets, to the larger Old Cabell Hall Auditorium. Tickets were printed and issued on Sunday – first to Sabato's students, who got the choice seats nearest the stage, and to the University Singers, whose regular rehearsal time was pre-empted. In the end, students dominated the audience.
Sophia Brumby, a fourth-year foreign affairs major from Washington, D.C., got her tickets directly from the Clinton campaign. As the leader of U.Va.'s "'Hoos for Hillary" group, she had worked for Clinton in New Hampshire.
Clinton's U.Va. appearance "is incredibly exciting," she said before the event. "It shows that Virginia will play an important role in selecting the next president, and that students will play an important role in selecting the next president."
Brumby led a few dozen Clinton supporters in a pre-class rally on the lower Lawn before the doors opened.
Inside, staffers from the Center for Politics and the Clinton campaign scurried about the stage, which was set with two leather armchairs and a small table atop an Oriental rug, in front of a blue Center for Politics backdrop. Potted plants lined the front and sides of the stage. A man in a dark suit carefully peeled the "Deer Park" label off of Clinton's water bottle.
The auditorium filled slowly as the crowd made its way through an extremely vigilant metal detector manned by Secret Service. The traveling press corps made its way in about 45 minutes before the scheduled 3 p.m. start time; Sabato and Clinton made their entrance about 14 minutes late.
"I have to say more students showed up for you than they do for me," Sabato quipped.
"It is quite a famous class," Clinton said, later paraphrasing Sabato's signature line, "Politics is good!"
"Politics, as far as I'm concerned, is not a game," she said. "It's how we make decisions."
The event ended with the displaced University Singers serenading the stage from the balcony, first with "Virginia Hail, All Hail" as Clinton shook hands with the front row. Then the Singers kicked into "The Good Ol' Song," with the rest of the crowd eagerly joining, Sabato threw his arm around his guest and appeared to be explaining the tradition as she beamed.
Even before the echo of the last "Hoo-rah-ray!" died out, Clinton was off to her next stop, a TV appearance in Northern Virginia.
"I was really impressed," said Marcy Coburn, a first-year student from Ellicott City, Md. "I'm really glad I got the opportunity to see her speak."
Gabriel Hankins, a graduate student in English who said he was still undecided, said he, too, was glad to get the chance to take in part of the campaign. "It was a good impression," he said.
"But I still don't know what I'm going to do."