im Lehrer: The master of moderation
By: Dylan Byers
September 29, 2012 07:05 AM EDT
On Oct. 3, for the first time in the 2012 campaign, President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney will face each other in what many consider the most important event between now and the Nov. 6 election: the first presidential debate. After months of surrogate-led proxy wars and brutal attack ads, the Democratic and Republican nominees will finally stand alone — without communications directors or campaign aides — as they fight for the confidence of the American people.
Alone, that is, save for the company of a 78-year-old man named Jim Lehrer.
For the 12th time in the history of the televised presidential debates, Lehrer, the executive editor of PBS Newshour, has been asked to serve as moderator, making him by far the most experienced such moderator in modern history — a task for which Lehrer, more than any other journalist, is uniquely suited, according to his contemporaries.
“Jim’s reputation is unassailable. He reeks integrity,” Tom Brokaw, the veteran “NBC Nightly News” anchor, told POLITICO. “He knows that his role there is to make this about the two canidates, not about him.”
“Jim is the best person for the job, the straightest guy in this profession, and absolutely trustworthy,” said Robert MacNeil, Lehrer’s longtime co-host on the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” “His idea of fairness is fiercer than anyone’s — he has an almost religious respect for being fair. He stays so far out of the political swamps that he doesn’t even vote.”
But at a time when the electorate is as divided as ever, and when media scrutiny is more intense than ever, his is a task that carries unprecedented responsibility. Lehrer, colleagues and campaign strategists say, must ask tough, substantive questions and yet maintain total impartiality. He must shepherd the candidates through a range of topics while allowing them to drive the debate. And he must push Obama and Romney for genuine responses without injecting himself into the conversation.
If anyone can walk that tightrope, it’s Lehrer, whose commitment to fairness, sense of modesty and professional experience — developed over more than five decades in newspaper then television journalism — have earned him the respect of political strategists across the ideological spectrum.
“I do not think you can do better than Jim Lehrer to moderate a debate,” Charlie Black, who worked on the Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and John McCain campaigns, told POLITICO. “Jim handles the job the way it needs to be done. He asks the tough questions that keep the candidates debating, he keeps them on the issues.”
“He’s the Ed Hochuli,” Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton administration and served as Al Gore’s campaign press secretary, said, comparing Lehrer to the respected NFL referee. “He really is the ultimate referee, the ultimate umpire: someone who is perceived by the public as being genuinely objective.”
Lehrer’s reputation is why the Commission on Presidential Debates invited him to moderate this year’s debate at the University of Denver, Colorado — even after he swore six ways to Sunday that he would never moderate a presidential debate again.
Last year, Lehrer published a book about the debates called “Tension City,” which was meant to close the door on his two decades as the most trusted moderator on TV.
“There’s no way I’m going to do another debate,” he told C-SPAN weeks after the book’s publication. “I wouldn’t have written the book if I was going to do another debate… The decision to write the book was also the same decision that I’m not going to do any more debates.”
When the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that Lehrer would be among this year’s moderators, he acknowledged he was breaking his promise, but likened the reversal to a soldier’s loyalty to his country.
“I did say that and I meant that, with every bit of firmness I could muster. But I also have said that people who are invited to moderate these events — you have to do it. It’s almost like getting a draft notice,” he told POLITICO at the time.
(Lehrer, who is refusing all interview requests until after the debate, declined to talk for this article.)
The Commission reached out to Lehrer because it needed an experienced hand to launch the new debate format, which for the first time will divide the 90-minute debate into six, 15-minute segments focused on different policy issues.
“The new format is going to require a lot of experience and a lot [of] skill,” Janet Brown, the Commission’s executive director, explained to POLITICO. “The moderator will open the first segment, Gov. Romney and President Obama will each have two minutes to answer, and the remaining 11 minutes will be an open conversation.”
Many of Lehrer’s colleagues noted that the moderator’s job is to keep himself out of the conversation — to punch the clock or, as Brokaw put it, “to fire the gun to start off the race” — but because of the new format, Lehrer will actually play a more active role than ever.
“Those remaining 11 minutes are not timed, and that means the moderator has to pursue the topic at hand for an extended amount of time,” Brown explained. “That requires a lot of skill under pressure, it requires an understanding of how live television works, and it requires an ability to focus on the candidates without inserting one’s self into the conversation.”
For all the talent on television today, few besides Lehrer meet those qualifications. Indeed, colleagues say, moderators of Lehrer’s ilk are severely lacking in today’s media landscape, where partisanship and showmanship trump once-sacred notions of fairness and balance.
“Jim represents a version of American political journalism that is much less prominent now,” Melissa Harris-Perry, the MSNBC host and academic, told POLITICO. “I have my own viewpoints, I regulary insert and assert — as much as I love what I do, that’s insufficient for a presidential debate.”
“Jim knows as well as anyone that this is not show-business; this is an important night for America and Jim is someone who won’t be over-dazzled by himself,” said Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren. “I would not expect perfection out of him or anybody else, but he will do his best to be fair.”
Many television journalists fought tooth-and-nail for the opportunity to stand in the spotlight this year, and when the Commission announced this year’s selections, spurned egos were quick to complain behind the scenes. For there is no greater honor in political journalism than moderating a presidential debate — and no greater boon to one’s career.
The risk for the Commission was that an inexperienced hand might insert him or herself too far into the debate. In 1988, ex-CNN anchor Bernard Shaw became famous for starting one debate by asking Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis if he would support the death penalty against a man who had theoretically raped and killed his wife. Dukakis’s unemotional answer may have contributed to his loss in the general election, but many thought Shaw’s question had gone too far.
Similarly, during this year’s Republican primary in South Carolina, CNN’s John King asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich if he wanted to comment on his ex-wife’s claims about Gingrich’s desire for an “open marriage.” Gingrich returned fire with an aggressive attack on King and the media that instantly became the most memorable moment of the night.
Such controversies are rare in the presidential debates, but that is due in part to the Commission’s reliance on veterans like Lehrer and CBS’s Bob Schieffer, who will moderate the third and final debate on Oct. 22. (CNN’s Candy Crowley will host a town-hall style debate on Oct. 16; ABC’s Martha Raddatz will host the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11.)
“Moderators can be more concerned with inserting themselves into the debate than with focusing on the candidates. But beyond asking good questions, what is required of a moderator is that he keep time,” Ted Koppel, the veteran “Nightline” anchor, told POLITICO. “Jim is modest. For him, it’s about being smart, experienced and able to ask good questions without overpowering the candidates.”
“There’s an awful lot of TV interviewing today that is more than half-designed to show off the interviewer, not the interviewee, and one of the ways you show off is by asking theatrically tough questions,” said MacNeil, who has worked with Lehrer since 1973. “The prosecutorial question — that is not Jim’s style.”
If there is a concern in regard to Lehrer’s style, it is that his fairness might make him cautious. By wanting to avoid any appearance of partisanship, he might avoid asking the hard-hitting questions that would yield genuine responses from two of the most scripted debaters in the history of modern politics.
MacNeil called that notion “nonsense.”
Koppel challenged the notion that it was even incumbent upon Lehrer to ask adversarial questions.
“The pressing in a debate needs to come from the adversary: It’s up to the candidates to say to one another, ‘I heard Jim’s question and you’re not answering it,’” he said. “This is not about whether we want Jim Lehrer to be president.”
Given the new debate format, and that Obama and Romney are polling somewhat closely, many anticipate Oct. 3 will be more slugfest than civil debate, forcing Lehrer to be quick on his feet.
“I’ve been comparing this to the rope-a-dope time: These guys are coming to throw big punches, to aim for where they think they see weakness in their opponent,” Brokaw said.
“Lehrer’s role is actually less umpire, and more the role of a boxing referee: He’s there to make sure that people don’t throw cheap shots,” Lehane said. “Because of the more open-ended debate format, one candidate will emerge as aggressor and one as counter-puncher. The moderator’s role is not to make sure they get to throw the same amount of punches; his job is to make sure they’re able to engage one another.”
The first debate, which focuses exclusively on domestic issues, is also widely believed to be the most important, in part because it marks the first time that the candidates go head-to-head in front of such a wide audience. The 2008 debates between then-Sen. Obama and Sen. John McCain each drew between 52.4 to 63.2 million viewers, a median between the record high (Carter-Reagan) and the record-low (Clinton-Dole), according to Nielsen. Brokaw said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Oct. 3 debate in Denver broke 70 million.
“This is the first time they’ve been seen together, which is the remarkable thing about the debates,” MacNeil said. “These two men, who have spent months demonizing one another, can no longer cast the other out to the farthest reaches of evil. They have to talk to one another as groomed, civilized men in front of the American people.”
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” said Lehane. “The first debate is the single best opportunity to close the deal. It sets the tone for debates two and three.”
Given all that is at stake on Oct. 3, the entire political-media industry seems secure in knowing that Lehrer will serve as moderator. Even younger generations of television journalists, who noted a lack of demographic diversity or new-media savvy among this year’s moderators, feel comforted by Lehrer’s presence.
“Speed has not particularly been of service to American political landscape: Voters get little chance to sit back, soak in and really breathe deeply as far as where these guys stand,” Alex Wagner, the 34-year-old MSNBC host, told POLITICO. “The campaign feels like a washing machine… so I like the idea that Jim, who has so much experience in politics and understands the nuances of these issues, will be moderating.”
“Jim Lehrer moderating a debate is like Dick Clark hosting New Year’s Eve,” said the 38-year-old Harris-Perry. “It just seems right.”