George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium bustled with activity yesterday afternoon, but it wasn't the kind to warm the hearts of the people who had invited Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) to address students as part of Ground Zero Week observance.
The senator had just finished a speech arguing for an immediate freeze by this nation and Russia on the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and a program eventually to reduce the stores of such arms.
There was more to come in the program--about three hours worth, as a matter of fact--but the audience quickly fell from the 1,100 who had heard Kennedy to about 300 who remained for the rest of the program.
The reaction, program planners conceded ruefully, was a reflection of the lack of interest shown generally this week in the area at meetings designed to emphasize the danger of nuclear war.
But as the crowd filed out, Paul Yu appeared frustrated. The GWU fine arts senior said he was troubled by the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but said he did not trust the Soviet Union. He had wanted to ask a question, to join the debate. And debate is one of the week's stated goals.
Fred Krimgold, Ground Zero Week's town meetings coordinator, said attendance at the programs, particularly in the suburbs, has been light. However, he added, campus participation generally has been good.
Of GWU's dwindling audience yesterday, Krimgold explained: "A lot of people feel unable to give a lot of time because they are not aware of a specific crisis, so they tend to blend us into their daily routines." He said another incident like the Cuban missile crisis would rekindle the public's interest in talking about the dangers of nuclear arms.
Paul Yu was interested, but there was no one to field his questions after Kennedy left. The podium was abandoned and a film called "Survival or Suicide" had taken over the stage.
Minutes earlier, Yu had sat on the edge of his chair, raising his hand to be recognized. But no one on the panel noticed him in the glare of television lights, neither the silver-templed Democratic senator from Massachusetts nor Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
"I thought this was supposed to be an orderly discussion. It was supposed to be a forum of ideas on nuclear war because this is an important issue," said Yu, 22. The politicians, he said, had been guilty of what sounded like campaign rhetoric.
Kennedy and Markey told how precariously civilization teeters on the brink of disaster and how their nuclear freeze resolutions, introduced in the Senate and House, could halt the "doomsday clock."
Lauren Schoemann said she was dismayed at the apathy her fellow students seemed to show. A 20-year-old political science major from Hazlet, N.J., Schoemann said she came to the school's observance of Ground Zero Week because she is very interested in the threat posed by nuclear weapons. But she wondered if the day's speeches, films, pamphlets and films would get students involved.
On a campus just up Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, a campus whose students have never been known for political activism, "it's going to take more than a senator and a congressman" to get people involved, she said.
Kennedy's presence was the attraction for freshman Rick Galtman. "I like Ted Kennedy. I have a lot of respect for the man, and I like to see what he has to say," said Galtman, a business administration major and a GWU wrestler.
Kennedy attacked the Reagan administration by saying that while the president was not in favor of nuclear war, his policies were leading the world toward World War III.
He said he rejected the concept of limited nuclear war, Secretary of State Alexander Haig's "loose talk about a nuclear warning shot," and civil defense plans that call for the evacuation of American cities at the threat of a nuclear exchange. An evacuation, he said, would surely tempt the Soviets to strike.
"What are the Russians supposed to think when their spy satellites see the streams of cars crawling across the 14th Street bridge, heading for rural Virginia?" Kennedy asked to chuckles from the audience. "I wish the administration would spend less time preparing for nuclear war and more time preventing one."
Rick Galtman said he was impressed, but was sorry Kennedy didn't say more about how defense dollars could be used to help students like himself manage the cost of getting an education, which he said is a strain on his middle-class family in Abington, Pa.
Regarding nuclear war, Galtman said: "Nobody's gonna win. I'd rather die."