Road to the White House: Dr. Fisher’s path to 2020
Curtains peeled back in the Vince Gill Room, revealing a banner hanging above Dr. Bob Fisher’s head,“Once again, the road to the White House runs through Belmont University.” The Belmont Vision plans to help guide students along that road as we look at every aspect of the debate, from the cost to the planning to the politics. Join us on our “Road to the White House.”
Only a year after his inauguration, Belmont President Dr. Bob Fisher pitched a lofty idea to record company executive Mike Curb.
“Imagine, Mike. You go home, turn on your television just three years from now, and Jim Lehrer comes on and says, ‘Live from the Curb Event at Belmont University bringing you the third and pivotal presidential debate.’”
It’s been 18 years since that conversation, and there’s no need to imagine anymore, as Belmont will host its second presidential debate on Oct. 22, 2020.
But all Fisher could do in 2001 was imagine. There was no Curb Event Center at the time, just a filled-in swimming pool and parking lot across from where the two men stood by the Bell Tower.
Fisher’s idea was financially ambitious as well. Hosting a debate would require an arena or a large-scale event space, and the university didn’t have either at the time. The arena would be costly, and the largest individual gift Belmont had ever received at that point was $3 million.
“How much would that cost me?” Curb asked Fisher.
$10 million, Fisher answered, settling on a number on the spot.
Curb asked if the money could be brought in over five years, and Fisher accepted, making sure that Curb understood nothing was guaranteed.
“I cannot promise you a presidential debate,” Fisher said. “I promise you I’ll try.”
Fisher worked to keep his promise by applying for the debate in 2004, unconcerned about what the outcome would be, his wife Judy Fisher said.
“He always says, ‘You just apply for things. You don’t know what you’re going to get. You just go for it.’”
Belmont’s decision to apply shouldn’t have surprised anybody, Bob said.
“I mean, we’re going to be somebody, and everybody needs to get used to that,” he said of his application 15 years ago.
Although Fisher decided to “go for it” in 2004, the university wasn’t selected.
Fisher wasn’t disheartened though, because by applying Belmont placed itself in a pool alongside larger more distinguished schools including Vanderbilt University and Arizona State University.
Four years later, he applied again, and Judy remembered hearing the news over the phone as her husband victoriously exclaimed, “We got it!”
Dr. Fisher, Chairman Marty Dickens and former Governor Phil Bredesen celebrate the 2008 debate announcement.
It was seven years after he first pitched his idea to Curb.
Belmont would host the 2008 Town Hall Debate, a first for the university, the state and Fisher.
The debate fulfilled the promise to Curb, but instead of Jim Lehrer broadcasting from Belmont, it was Tom Brokaw.
“Good evening from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m Tom Brokaw of NBC News and welcome to the second presidential debate,” said Brokaw. His words were heard across the country as Belmont welcomed two of the most influential elected officials of all time, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.
For the event, Belmont erected a 25,000-square-foot media tent to accomodate 800 media stations and nearly 3,000 media representatives.
Red, white and blue banners were hung around the school and students were treated to debate-related programming all semester, including a concert with the Eli Young Band and the Randy Rogers Band titled “Your Voice, Your Choice” in August.
During the week of the debate, students watched MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and “The Early Show” broadcast directly from Belmont’s quad.
While Fisher shook the hands of Obama and McCain alongside the representatives from student political groups, his wife Judy hosted the debate livestream at the Ryman Auditorium.
Dr. Fisher with then Senator Barack Obama.
Dr. Fisher and SGA President Eric Deens with then Senator John McCain.
The 2008 debate was hosted on a very different campus than 2019, photographs and videos show. Most of the buildings around the main lawn — McWhorter Hall, Patton Hall, Janet Ayers Academic Center, Randall and Sadie Baskin Center, R. Milton and Denice Johnson Center — hadn’t been constructed, and Belmont only had 5,000 students.
In 2008 International Market was a vibrant hangout for students, a Big Mac cost $3.57 and Steve Jobs was CEO of Apple, Inc.
The 2008 debate was for Curb the full realization of Fisher’s idea from 2001, and with it came unprecedented praise and recognition.
“It was Bob Fisher’s vision. I realized I wasn’t as smart as Bob and I didn’t have as big of a vision as Bob, but I was very happy I could provide the initial funding.” – Mike Curb
“He has great energy and vision, and he went after it with a fantastic team on campus.” – Chairman of the Board Marty Dickens
“Belmont served as a perfect venue for the 2008 Town Hall Presidential Debate, and the university’s army of volunteers gave the candidates, campaign guests and visiting media a glimpse into the best of what Tennessee has to offer.” – Former Governor Phil Bredesen
“The debate… gave us an opportunity to send a letter to the rest of the world about how Nashville is a vibrant, diverse city. I think I can speak for all of Nashville in expressing gratitude to Belmont University for doing such an excellent job in hosting this event and bringing so much positive attention to Nashville.” – Former Mayor Karl Dean
“Belmont University in Nashville proved that small places with big ambitions could be world-class stages.” – USA Today political writer Chuck Raasch
(From left to right) Congressman Jim Cooper, Mike Curb, former Mayor Karl Dean, Bredesen and Dickens at Fisher’s 2008 debate announcement.
Today, Fisher looks back at 2008 as a turning point for the university, placing Belmont’s name front and center in national and international headlines, from USA Today to The Times of India.
“I really believe 2008 ignited an explosion here on campus,” Fisher said. “It changed our image of ourselves as an organization.”
All this media recognition morphed Belmont from Nashville’s university to a national university.
Raasch’s quote is a little outdated, Fisher flexed, because Belmont is no longer small and “used to doing big things.”
“You walk across campus, you see people from everywhere,” Judy said. “The minority is from Tennessee.”
Belmont today is in part a by-product of that first debate.
And the second debate will only further the image of this private Christian school.
“Once you’ve done it, it’s like you’ve written a paper,” Judy said. “The next becomes a lot easier, you know more about what you’re doing.”
“This time I’m going to be more invested in what you get out of it — what the students get out of it,” Bob said.
“I really want them to own this.”
Just as he can reflect on his first debate, he hopes students will reflect on the second when they are his age.
“I want it to be when they’re my age and somebody says, ‘What was one of the best experiences of your life?’ ‘Oh, it was when my school hosted the presidential debate.’ I want it to be that.”
Once the debate is over and the banners have come down, what’s next for Fisher?
Even Judy doesn’t know what’s in her husband’s head.
“I have no idea what the future holds,” she said. “He’s got enough on his plate right now.”
But she assures that for her husband the “sky’s the limit.”
Fisher with his wife Judy.
Mike Curb would agree. In 2008, an off-the-cuff conversation in the shadow of the Bell Tower led to a multimillion dollar gift, a presidential debate and a national platform.
“He’s crazy, you know,” said Judy. “There’s no limits to what he thinks about.”
Photos courtesy of Belmont Office of Communications.