The experience of moderating presidential debates, Jim Lehrer wrote in his 2011 book Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain, is something he’s sometimes compared “to walking down the blade of a knife.”
He should know: For the twelfth time in the history of televised presidential debates, Lehrer, 78, the veteran PBS newsman, will moderate what is being billed as the debate that could swing the election. President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will square off tomorrow night at the University of Denver in front of an estimated TV audience of 200 million people worldwide.
Pre-debate anxieties, Lehrer wrote, “have been with me in every one of the presidential and vice presidential debates I have moderated… I soon learned that dealing with nerves is the key to being able to function effectively as a moderator. My guess is that there are surgeons, classroom teachers, and short-order cooks among the huge crowds of other people who know exactly what I’m talking about. Possibilities of pleasure and satisfaction, horror and failure, await everyone who performs.”
Lehrer, of course, had previously said he’d never moderate another debate. That was after he moderated the first debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain on September 26, 2008, at the University of Mississippi, Oxford. But then came a fresh request, a major format change, and the seasoned journalist’s belief that, as he articulated in Tension City, “anyone asked to contribute his or her skills to an exercise as important to the country as a presidential or vice presidential debate has a duty to do so or have a very good reason for not doing so.”
The format change is significant. For this year’s debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is using a six-question format, allowing for 15 minutes of discussion about each of the individual topics.
Within those time blocks, the candidates will each have two minutes to answer the question, followed by discussion. Lehrer, as moderator on Wednesday night, will have considerable leeway to direct that discussion.
Lehrer first served as moderator back in 1988, immersing himself in what he describes as “the terrors and triumphs” of the process while on a panel during a debate between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis in Winston-Salem, N.C. On the night of that debate, as he was leaving his hotel to head out to the event, Lehrer says he turned to his wife, Kate, and “whined about how terrible the pressure was on me,” he relates in Tension City.
Lehrer says his wife calmly replied, “If it’s bad for you, think what it must be like for those two candidates – one bad move and they lose the presidency of the United States.” True, thought Lehrer.
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Ahead of the Oct. 3 debate, President Obama is said to be mulling ways to “explain why a second term will revive the economy when his first term did not.” Gov. Romney, who arrived in Denver Monday night, said briefly during a rally in front of more than 5,000 people, “These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe the pathway forward for America that we could choose.”
Of course, whoever wins in November will need to grapple instantly with the pending fiscal crisis – something that, at least up until this week, neither candidate has specifically or fully addressed.
Both campaigns have sought to play down expectations for Wednesday night’s mega-event. According to a memo from the Obama campaign, “[We] expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater,” while a Republican National Committee memo says, “President Obama is undoubtedly a gifted political orator, whose eloquence can obscure his lack of substance.”
“There are serious issues facing this country and the public has the right to expect a serious examination of those issues during this fall’s debate,” the commission’s co-chairmen, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., and Michael D. McCurry said in an earlier statement. “The CPD believes this can be accomplished best by focusing big time blocks on major domestic and foreign topics.”
Each of the debates will last an hour and a half and begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time; the first debate will focus on domestic policy. Two other presidential debates will occur, on October 16 (a town-hall style meeting at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., to be moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley) and October 22 (at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., to be moderated by CBS’s Bob Schieffer), while the sole vice-presidential debate will be held on October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky (moderated by ABC’s Martha Raddatz).
In his book, Lehrer wrote that “the incredibly high stakes are what magnify it all in presidential debates. Candidates and their attendants have only one overriding purpose – to win the election to be the most powerful person in the world. But others, including most of the serious press and political science worlds, see debates as decisive opportunities to perform and educate voters about whom to grant such power.”
“The critical space between those two very different purposes,” Lehrer wrote, “is the battleground on which all combat occurs.”
That battleground can ultimately be a proving ground. Bill Clinton, in an interview with Lehrer for Tension City, said the debates – pressure and all – actually served him well in retrospect: “Normally both sides do well enough so they can avoid any lasting damage – but having to do them and knowing that if you blow it, they will change a lot of votes, forces people who wish to be president to do things that they should do,” said Clinton. “And I am convinced that the debates I went through, especially those three [against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot] in 1992, actually helped me to be a better president.”
George H. W. Bush categorized his debate experience quite differently, says Lehrer. “Ugly, I don’t like ‘em,” he said.
Lehrer asked him why not.
“Well, partially I wasn’t too good at ‘em,” replied the former president. “Secondly, there’s some of it contrived. Show business. You prompt to get the answers ahead of time… There’s a certain artificiality to it, lack of spontaneity to it. And, I don’t know, I just felt uncomfortable about it.”