Ralph says Ne-vaa-duh, Newt says Ne-vah-duh

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Pacific University is a small, liberal arts school tucked away on a beautiful campus in Forest Grove, Ore. There are about 1,800 students and the ratio appears to be seven females for every three males which is good news if you are A) a boy, or B) the mother of a female student which I am.

That also helps explain why there is no football team and the women wrestlers are ranked seventh in the nation.

Pacific also sponsors the Tom McCall forum, an annual debate between two of the country's chief movers and shakers. This year, it was Ralph Nader and Newt Gingrich in their first public debate.

Ralph Nader evokes strong reactions in my family of traditional Irish Catholic Democrats. My sister Ellen aligns herself with the group who blames Nader for George Bush's White House victory. My daughter Kate is a fervent Nader supporter and cast an absentee ballot from Spain so she could vote for him in her first presidential election. If the Green Party has cards, she's carrying one.

Last Thursday, I found myself sitting in the performing arts center at Pacific, just a few feet away from Nader and Gingrich for the campus question-and-answer period that preceded a more formal debate that night in Portland.

The auditorium was packed with students and a few faculty and staff and me, second row, center, hoping to get up the nerve to ask a question that would be intelligent and not embarrass my daughter in front of her friends.

I wanted to know what Nader and Gingrich thought about President Bush's support of the Yucca Mountain site for the nuclear waste dump.

Right away I was in trouble when the moderator announced that only students would be allowed to ask questions. I wrote my question on a slip of paper and handed it to my daughter. She didn't want to climb over about 20 people on either side to get to one of two microphones. My little piece of paper was passed down the row to Eleanor who said no, Megan, ditto, Angie, sorry. What about that boy in front of us? He turned out to be a professor.

I felt like a teenager outside a convenience store trying to talk someone into buying me a six-pack.

Meanwhile Gingrich and Nader were peppered with great questions. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, these students sought guidance. It was invigorating to hear 20-somethings refer to the veteran political architects as "you guys."

For more than an hour, the students asked about patriotism, civil liberties, terrorism, endangered species, campaign finance reform.

As you might expect, Nader and Gingrich were polar opposites on many subjects, but agreed on campaign finance reform, what ought to happen to those responsible for the Enron mess, and the erosion of civil liberties in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Sept. 11 makes me urge students to speak up and speak out," Nader said. "I don't like to see the government use a bundled flag to gag anybody. How we respond can't be more dangerous than the terrorism. "

Gingrich dropped the dilemma in the laps of his young audience.

"Your generation will have to come to grips with this. You can't afford just to manage the consequences," he said

He and Nader criticized the tax cuts and the dwindling surplus, Gingrich lamenting the erosion of the balanced budget and surplus that he and President Clinton formulated.

The moderator called for a final question and a young woman stepped up to the microphone with my little piece of paper in her hand.

"What is your opinion of President Bush's support of YEW-ca Mountain for the nation's nuclear waste?" she read as I mouthed the words. "Do you see any alternatives?"

Gingrich told the audience he had been studying the issue for 10 years and he was satisfied that the site in Ne-vah'-duh was safe or "the least damaging."

He said nuclear power has "an extraordinarily safe record."

"It was a relatively rational decision," he said. "You may disagree, however, if you live in Ne-vah'-duh, but those are political and cultural objections, not scientific. "

Nader preached to the choir.

"The alternative is to just stop producing radioactive waste and make products that are more energy efficient," he said to enthusiastic applause. "A megawatt you don't have to reproduce is a megawatt saved. "

In addition to pronouncing Nevada correctly, he also ticked off concerns over transportation, storage and security.

What really brought down the house was his final comment.

"We ought to be thinking about the Native Americans as well," he said. "This is in their backyard. "

I came away pretty pleased with myself and impressed at the intelligence and passion of the students and the speakers. My opinions didn't change, but my perspective shifted a little. I also experienced what under the circumstances can only be described as a budding and inexplicable schoolgirl crush on Newt Gingrich. Please don't tell my sister.

Sheila Gardner is the night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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