Oxford Debate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Well-wishers gathered in front of Harry B’s on Highway 6 East to wave to the bus carrying Republican presidential nominee John McCain to Oxford for the debate at Ole Miss last Friday. The Panolian photo by Rita Howell

Secret Service agents, CNN reporters lodged in Batesville for Oxford debate

By Billy Davis

Now that the Oxford presidential debate has come and gone, hotel employees in Batesville can collectively catch their breath.  

“I’m glad it’s over. It’s been crazy,” said Vijay Vaghela, whose family owns Comfort Inn, Days Inn, and the new Holiday Inn.  

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

In the days leading up to the debate, Vaghela could only confirm that the national media had booked rooms at the three hotels. With the debate now over, he spilled the beans Monday about his well-armed, no-nonsense guests.

“The Secret Service booked every room on all three floors,” he said Monday, which led Vaghela to think – erroneously – that perhaps Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain would be a Holiday Inn guest.

No such luck.

In addition to the presence of Secret Service, Batesville became ground zero for national and international news media.

At the Ramada Limited, the British Broadcasting Corporation booked as many as 30 rooms for a Friday night stay, said receptionist Tracy Patel.

At Baymont Inn and Suites, employees of Miss. Public Broadcasting booked 39 rooms, said a hotel spokesman.

CNN booked all the rooms at Comfort Inn and half the rooms at Days Inn, Veghela said.

“They were appreciative and thanked us for our hospitality. They were delightful,” Comfort Inn general manager Ruth Schiele-Moore said of her guests.

The presence of the CNN reporters also gave Schiele-Moore, an Obama supporter, an eyewitness account of the behind-the-scenes political banter.

“They (BBC) thought that Obama did a better job in the debate and that McCain was rather evasive,” she recalled.

Readers of The Panolian have read accounts of Batesville visitors Bob Greene of CNN and Mike Littwin, a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News.

In Oxford, Batesville police officers Jamie Tedford and Jeremiah Brown worked with the Secret Service and other authorities on the University of Mississippi campus.

Tedford said he and Brown were assigned to a “sweep lot,” a heavily guarded entrance where vehicles were inspected before they were allowed into a fenced compound.

The Batesville Police Department loaned Tedford and Brown, and a Mule utility vehicle, to the Secret Service, said BPD Deputy Chief Don Province.

The presence of the Mule caused some confusion at the site, Tedford recalled, since some authorities hailed from north of the Mason-Dixon line.

“When we mentioned getting the Mule, they thought it was tied to the fence,” said Tedford.

Panolian managing editor Rupert Howell and staff writer Billy Davis received press credentials to the debate.

The credentials did not allow entrance to the Gertrude Ford Center, where the debate was held, but The Panolian was allowed entry into the guarded compound.

Various sightings included NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, CBS New anchor Katie Couric, and Fox News personalities Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Major Garrett, and Carl Cameron.

Well-known pols who were spotted included Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, former U.S. Senator Trent Lott, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president.

Howell and Davis also enjoyed a chance sighting of Obama and wife Michelle as their caravan arrived at the Gertrude Ford Center.