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MSNBC’s ‘Hardball’ Comes to North Carolina Central University

MSNBC’s ‘Hardball’ Comes to North Carolina Central University
HBCU serves as backdrop, as presidential contender faces tough questions


North Carolina Central University basked in the national limelight earlier this month when political talk show host Chris Matthews brought his MSNBC’s “Hardball College Tour” to the campus. The live broadcast featured fast-talking Matthews’ tough questions to presidential contender Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., on war with Iraq, affirmative action, gun control and more.

NCCU Chancellor James Ammons said the entire campus was excited about the live national broadcast. He was delighted that NCCU was the first historically Black college or university to be chosen on the “Hardball College Tour.”

“This helps everyone know the significant role of historically Black colleges and universities in higher education,” Ammons said.

Some of the colleges and universities visited by the “Hardball College Tour” have included Georgetown, Seton Hall, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago.

When there are several guests on a show, Matthews usually picks the host college.

“But when we have just one guest, we let the guest pick the location. Sen. Edwards wanted NCCU,” said Paulette Song, MSNBC’s media relations director.

The selection was especially sweet for faculty and students after ABC’s “Good Morning America” visited the region last year and ignored NCCU. The show instead visited the area’s three large campuses — University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University.

Some said the choice was political, that Edwards was reaching out to Black voters. Nevertheless, administrators, faculty and students warmly welcomed the “Hardball” crew.

“The campus has been buzzing for weeks,” said Dr. Louise Maynor, chair of the English department. Many of the broadcast students got to help the “Hardball” crew during their stay on campus.

“The staff explained the electronic operations to the students. Their truck is like being in a fully equipped studio in New York,” Maynor said. This visit to NCCU may mean summer internships for some communications students.

Early in the afternoon on the day of the broadcast, Matthews signed copies of his latest book, American, Beyond Our Grandest Notions, at NCCU’s Elder Student Union.

Matthews breezed into the chancellor’s reception before the broadcast and chatted easily with university and community leaders. As the university’s famous jazz ensemble entertained, guests sampled sushi, shrimp, cheeses, fruit, sandwiches, eclairs and other desserts. Durham Mayor Bill Bell awarded Matthews a key to the city. Later in the evening Matthews received a golden eagle statue — the eagle is the school mascot — and a NCCU maroon and gray jacket.

“I’ve never had a warmer reception,” Matthews said. He told the crowd the show would be a contest of ideas and could get heated. He said Bill Clinton had been the presidential hopeful who had handled the “Hardball” questions with the most success. “We’ll see if John Edwards has got what it takes to be president,” Matthews said.

Matthews warned the crowd that he would be tough on Edwards like he was on Clinton.

NCCU only had weeks to prepare for Matthews and his crew.

“The day after we got the call the vice chancellors met to discuss security and all the details,” said Sharon Saunders, special assistant to the chancellor for public relations. “We planned to have 1,200 people. Then the fire marshal said 800. Then it went back to 1,200.” She said one of her challenges was getting the word out to students and alumni.

Damien Ruffin, NCCU’s student body president, said students were excited about having “Hardball” on campus and were eager to hear Edwards’ answers. A few students would get the chance to ask Edwards questions themselves.

Lights, Camera, Action

Thirty minutes before the 9 p.m. taping and Matthews tells the audience what to expect.

“This isn’t a set up. It’s not like wrestling. I’ll ask tough questions. It’s going to be a lot of fun, except for him,” he says.

A producer gives the audience instructions. No getting up from your seats during the taping. No standing up. No photos during the taping. And spit that gum out.

“Three minutes.” The gym gets quieter. It’s dark except for the lighted stage in the center of the room.

“90 seconds.”

“We’re live from North Carolina Central University in Durham. Let’s play hardball,” Matthews barks.

There’s thunderous applause as the show opens. Minutes later, Matthews introduces Edwards to loud applause. On the way up to the stage Edwards stops constantly to shake hands. He is poised with an easy smile. Matthews starts by asking Edwards how he would be a better commander in chief than Bush.

“My view is different and better,” Edwards says. “I’d lead in a way that others come to us. Not in a way that drives others away.” Edwards, however, supports Bush’s position in Iraq.

“I think we’re doing the right thing. The evidence is overwhelming. Hussein has to be disarmed,” Edwards says.

Several times Edwards, interrupted by Matthews, protests, “If you’ll let me finish…”

It’s time for a break. Aids rush in to mop up perspiration and touch up make-up on Matthews’ and Edwards’ faces. The show resumes.

“Let me ask you about the people you’ve voted for,” Matthews says.

Edwards ticks them off: McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore …

“All Democrats,” notes Matthews. He drills Edwards on Clinton. “Do you think he was a good president?”

“I think he helped moved the country forward. I didn’t approve of many personal things he did,” Edwards says.

Matthews asks him should the Confederate flag be removed from the South Carolina capitol.

“Yes, it ought to be taken down.”

Another break. The NCCU band plays a rousing “Rock the House” and the cheerleaders dance. Minutes later, the producer quiets the gym down as the show continues.

Matthews asks about gun control.

“I grew up in a small town. People hunted. I’m for the Second Amendment but we’ve got to get guns out of the hands of criminals and of kids,” Edwards says.

Edwards weighs in against gay marriages and school vouchers, in favor of affirmative action and against caps on jury awards in medical malpractice cases. Edwards is a former trial lawyer.

Matthews says his college tour is meant to stir young people who may be apathetic toward politics. By the end of the evening the young audience knew more about Edwards, and perhaps more students were interested in politics.

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