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When College of William & Mary President Taylor Reveley III asked Chancellor Robert Gates what happened in last November’s election, the crowd grew silent in the packed Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall on Thursday night.
Gates, the former U.S. secretary of defense, was on hand for a discussion, moderated by Reveley, about the November election, President Donald J. Trump, and the state of the world. Hundreds of students, faculty, and area residents were in attendance.
The audience waited for his answer.
“I have a sense that there are a lot of Americans in November that said, how did we end up with this choice?” Gates said. “And, my answer is that none of you showed up in February. One of the reasons our politics have become so polarized is because moderates only show up in November. The truth is that none of us show up in February or March.”
Gates was referring to generally low turnout during primary elections. He suggested that an open primary system, similar to those used in Washington state and California, could reduce political tensions because it could force party politics to be more centrist.
“It took us a long time to get into this fix,” Gates said about political divisions throughout the United States. “It’ll take us a long time to get out of it.”
Reveley also asked Gates about the relationship between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gates said Russians still haven’t forgotten the humiliation of the downfall of the Soviet Union, adding that he had no idea what was driving President Trump’s push for better relations with Russia.
“I absolutely do not understand his, I don’t know the right word, I don’t think it’s admiration for Putin,” Gates said to laughter in the audience. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe behind all of this there’s a strategic mind at work. I’m really hoping there’s a strategic mind behind all of this and it’s not all random.”
Two William & Mary students who attended said they were looking for insights and guidance about the future of the country.
One hoped Gates would have something encouraging to say to young people in the audience.
“In this time I know there’s a lot of fear and confusion and a feeling of being lost in terms of our futures,” said Marissa Kleinman.
Another wanted to hear what Gates, a Washington insider, had to say about the election.
“He [Gates] is the Chancellor here, so we wanted to come and check out what he has to say about the current political climate because obviously it’s a very tumultuous time,” Ryan Derisio said. “I think it might be really interesting to have a perspective from somebody who has been labeled a Washington insider, having his type of perspective would really aid to the conversation to me and my peers.”