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Moderator Lehrer: the more debates the merrier

Jim Lehrer says keep the presidential debates coming, just don't ask him to moderate any more.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jim Lehrer says keep the presidential debates coming, just don't ask him to moderate any more.

The veteran PBS anchor, now in semi-retirement at 77, says he's through after moderating 11 presidential debates between 1988 and 2008. That's one of the reasons he wrote the new book, "Tension City: My View From the Middle Seat" (Random House), an account of the debates with which he's been involved that gives both his perspective and that of the candidates.

Television networks have announced plans for at least 12 more debates in the coming months. Some viewers and participants, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, may think there are too many debates. Not Lehrer.

"We're probably going to have a debate with everybody underwater hanging by their thumbs," Lehrer says. "They've tried everything. I think that's great."

The events have been potent programming for TV networks this fall. Four of the seven Republican candidates' forums this year have attracted more than 5 million viewers, the Nielsen Co. said. By contrast, of the 16 Republican and Democratic debates before November 2007, only one had more than 3 million viewers.

The current campaign also illustrates how influential they are. Perry, for example, sank like a stone in opinion polls following a series of lackluster showings.

The first nationally televised presidential debate was between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and immediately proved how the medium changed the game. Many who listened on the radio believed Nixon won the face-off, but people who saw pictures of a sweating Nixon and a more self-assured Kennedy had a different opinion.

There were no general election debates again until 1976, and they have happened every presidential election year since. Debates have become so established, and voters have such an expectation of them, that Lehrer believes future candidates wouldn't be able to get away with refusing to participate.

By the time of the fall debates, most voters know which candidate they prefer on the issues, he says. These events often have more to do with impressions, with voters deciding who they would feel most comfortable with in the White House over the next four years. Small things make a difference, such as Al Gore's sighs and exasperated expressions during his 2000 debate with George W. Bush — something that Lehrer, intent on his job as moderator, never noticed live.

The "Tension City" title comes from a quote by President George H.W. Bush, no fan of the format. Bush's quick check of his watch during one 1992 debate with Bill Clinton is remembered nearly as much as anything he said.

Besides Lehrer's own experiences, the book includes interviews with all but one president and general election candidate since 1976. Lehrer did the interviews as an oral history project for the Commission on Presidential Debates, enabling him to capture President Ronald Reagan's thoughts before the onset of Alzheimer's. Gore is the lone exception; Lehrer figures the 2000 disputed election is still too raw for him.

One interesting passage discusses the 1988 debate when CNN's Bernard Shaw asked whether Democrat Michael Dukakis would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis' flat, unemotional response proved damaging to his campaign. In "Tension City," Shaw recounts being introduced to Kitty Dukakis 10 years later when she told him it was a fair question that her husband didn't handle well.

Lehrer doesn't criticize Shaw, but it's clear it's not the kind of question he would ask. For one thing, he avoids hypothetical situations because they're too easy to duck. He also doesn't like "gotcha" questions, such as testing a candidate on the name of some obscure nation's leader, and doesn't believe in interjecting himself to point out a candidate's inconsistencies. "I'm a big believer of, 'if I can see something, so can the voters,'" he said. Instead, he prefers questions that probe a candidate's thinking process. In 2004, two years after the start of the Iraq war, he asked George W. Bush and John Kerry the criteria they used in determining whether to put American forces in harm's way.

The moderator is similar to a baseball umpire, whose job is to keep things running and stay in the background, he says. Lehrer feels his best job as a moderator came in a 2004 debate between Bush and Kerry because both candidates were able to state their positions clearly.

"I didn't get in the way," he recalls. "Nobody was talking about what I did as a moderator. I didn't become part of the story or any of that."

His advice to future moderators is to "spend a lot of time in front of the mirror saying, 'This is not about me, this is not about the moderator, this is about the candidates,'" he said. "Get out of the way whenever you possibly can. Facilitate the debate. That's what you're there to do."

He's not interested in any more debate invitations for himself.

"Enough is enough, you know?"