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Chaotic Campaign Tests Presidential Debate Director Janet Brown, Who Has Mass. Roots03:54
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President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participated in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on Sept. 29 in Cleveland. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participated in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on Sept. 29 in Cleveland. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In the early 1980s, the British author Jeffrey Archer set out to write a novel imagining America's first female president. He enlisted a young woman who worked in the Reagan White House to help make every detail feel authentic and eventually "realized that, in many ways, she was a role model to be president, herself."

The assistant who so deeply impressed Archer was Janet Brown, who has Massachusetts roots and is now executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Brown has led the commission since its inception, in 1987, and this year may be her toughest test yet. First, there was the challenge of staging live events amid a pandemic. Then came public pressure to restore order, after the first forum was plagued by interruptions. Finally, President Trump forced the cancellation of last week's scheduled town hall when he refused to participate in a new, virtual format.

That means the stakes are high for this week's debate, not only for Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. It is the last chance for the commission to salvage a chaotic debate season.

People who have known Brown for decades believe she is up to the task.

"You couldn't have anyone better than Janet Brown to do what I call the logistics, the running of it," said Archer. "She is so demanding, so careful."

Brown grew up summering in the Buzzards Bay community of Nonquitt, where her family has vacationed for generations. She co-captained the field hockey team at Williams College, and that wasn't even her best sport. According to her 1973 yearbook, Brown hoped to play professional tennis in Europe after graduation.

"She was a great tennis player," said Carmany Thorp, a former teammate. "Fast, athletic, powerful. All business when she was on the court."

Thorp was a freshman when Brown was a senior, and she admired more than the upperclasswoman's forehand. Brown had transferred from Wellesley and was among the first women to make Williams co-ed.

"It would have taken a great deal of courage for a woman, back then, to leave the comforts of a Smith or a Wellesley or a Vassar," Thorp said.

After Brown helped integrate the previously all-male campus at Williams, she went on to a career in the male-dominated world of Washington politics, adding a graduate degree from Harvard along the way.

She worked for Republicans but doesn't express political opinions publicly these days and rarely gives interviews. She didn't respond to an interview request for this story.

Brown did deliver a commencement address at Centre College in Kentucky in 2012 and spoke with pride about how the debates she organizes have earned an international reputation for impartiality.

"People in other countries, particularly emerging democracies, see our debates as a model," she said. "They believe that the tradition of having political opponents discuss major issues in a fair and neutral forum is central to democracy."

Such debates were not always guaranteed; there were none in the presidential elections of 1964, '68 or '72.

Since its creation, the Commission on Presidential Debates has brought many years of stability, but 2020 has been anything but stable.

And to think: At 69, Brown could be retired to the oceanside house she bought from her mother's estate last year.

Patricia Deneroff, a friend and Williams classmate, said Nonquitt is "a very important part of her life" and has a special pull on Brown and her family.

"They were the kind of family that would only buy with the local farmers and make their own preserves in the summertime," Deneroff said. "It remains incredibly dear to Janet."

But, apparently, debates remain dear to her, too, so the homemade jams and jellies may have to wait.

The final meeting between Trump and Biden is set for Thursday in Nashville. For now.

This segment aired on October 19, 2020.

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