Barack Obama, John McCain Agree On Importance Of Community Service At Columbia University Forum

Both candidates criticize Bush's failure to encourage volunteer involvement.

NEW YORK — Columbia University students had it tough on Thursday, duking it out over seating arrangements and enduring intense security measures, as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama arrived on campus for their first televised appearances since their parties’ national conventions. On the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the candidates tried to put politics aside to discuss their views on community service at the nonpartisan ServiceNation summit.

(Watch the entire ServiceNation presidential candidate forum here.)

The presidential forum, moderated by PBS’ Judy Woodruff and Time managing editor Rick Stengel, drew an estimated 7,500 students and area residents who lined the steps of the library to watch on a JumboTron screen. The actual event took place in Roone Arledge Auditorium, where only 100 students were allowed (via a ticket lottery) to sit in the audience that also included families of September 11 victims, veterans, politicians and celebrities such as Tobey Maguire, Usher and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“We weren’t Republicans on September 11. We weren’t Democrats. We were Americans,” said McCain, who was the first to appear. “This is an opportunity to lead the nation and talk to the American people and reform our government and ask for more service.”

The Arizona senator criticized President Bush for not asking Americans to come together as volunteers after the attacks. While praising programs such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, McCain also said the government should be careful not to interfere with volunteer organizations. He also praised Obama’s service as a community organizer early in his career, claiming that when Sarah Palin seemed to denigrate the job she was merely defending her own experience.

Michael Hennessy, 29, clapped enthusiastically during McCain’s speech. “I appreciate that he’s a big proponent of service. His personal history is a testament to government service and to the service of America,” he said.

“I felt like he was just saying everything he knew that everyone wants to hear,” Sharay Hale, a 19-year-old freshman, offered.

When Obama shook McCain’s hand before his turn on the stage, the crowd inside and outside the auditorium erupted in applause. The Illinois senator, an alumnus of Columbia, joked that he had a home-court advantage.

Obama agreed with much of what McCain had said, but but he emphasized the important role the government plays in encouraging change and reiterated his campaign promise to institute an annual $4,000 college-tuition credit for students in exchange for community service.

“We’ve got to transform Washington, and we’ve got to do some housecleaning,” Obama said. “But what we also want to do is to remind young people that if it weren’t for government, then we wouldn’t have a Civil Rights Act. If it weren’t for government, we would not have the interstate highway system. If it weren’t for government, we would not have some of our parks and natural wilderness areas that are so precious to America. And so part of my job, I think, as president, is to make government cool again.”

Lisa Michl, a 23-year-old graduate student, said she was excited to see the candidates on campus. “Actually coming to a campus and doing this talk is a great way to get people more involved and inspire people to actually get out there and do something, because it’s not a part of your daily conversation.”

Not all of the action of the evening went down inside the auditorium. Three students were asked to leave the campus after donning boxing gloves and wearing homemade Obama and McCain cardboard boxes on their heads. Elliot D. (who would only give his last intial), a 21-year-old senior, was “Obama”; Gabe Espinal, a 21-year-old senior, was “McCain,” and Jesse Waldman, also a 21-year-old senior, was a character on roller skates labeled “Spectacle.” Waldman said that the three of them came to campus early and felt “uncomfortable with the lead-up to the event,” so they decided to liven things up.

“We just wanted to get people to think about the political system itself, instead of ‘Who are you voting for?’ ” Elliot D. said.

Thursday’s presidential forum kicked off the two-day ServiceNation summit, where hundreds of students, businesses, universities, politicians and foundations will come together to expand national and community service opportunities.

Check out all of MTV Street Team ’08 member Sia Nyorkor’s reports here.