If rhetorical fireworks light up Thursday’s foreign policy debate between President Bush and John Kerry, don’t expect moderator Jim Lehrer to ignite them.
The longtime PBS anchor, making his 10th appearance as a presidential debate moderator, likely will toe the line he’s drawn for himself before: Asking measured questions and avoiding provocative gotchas.
“For me to be aggressive and beat up on these guys, I’m not going to do that. That’s not what I signed on to do and I don’t think any moderator should,” Lehrer told CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 2000 after Bush and Al Gore faced off.
He would rather be criticized for overly bland questions than for showing “how tough I was,” he told King.
Lehrer, who PBS said was declining all pre-debate interviews this week, has drawn both praise and criticism for his style.
Former CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw said Lehrer’s track record makes him “the dean of moderators.”
“I think Jim Lehrer is always a good choice,” said Shaw. “He’s basic journalism. He’s fair. He’s balanced. He’s accurate.”
Said Judy Woodruff, the CNN anchor and former Lehrer colleague at PBS: “Jim Lehrer proves time and again he puts himself in the shoes of the voter ... and asks questions that are going to draw out these candidates, rather than trip them up.”
But Lehrer has drawn heat for what some contend is a gloves-on style that fails to sufficiently challenge candidates on their positions.
In 2000, one critic said Lehrer was running the debates like “some kind of sherry hour” at Harvard. Jack Shafer, an editor-at-large for Slate magazine, dismissed Lehrer in 1996 as too plugged into a “civil, placid, friendly, unaggressive Washington.”
The debates moderated by Lehrer haven’t yielded the kind of memorable moments that others have teased — or forced — out.
In a 1988 matchup between Michael Dukakis and Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, who was then vice president, CNN’s Shaw asked the Massachusetts governor a hypothetical question: If Dukakis’ wife were raped and murdered, might it affect his anti-death penalty stance?
The dry, unemotional answer given by the Democratic candidate was seen as a costly stumble.
Still, it’s questionable whether anyone could create spontaneity in this year’s trio of debates, which have strict rules and largely exclude interplay between candidates and moderator.
As mandated by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, moderators are responsible for the questions and for keeping the candidates to answers of up to 2 minutes. Moderators have the discretion of opening “extended discussion” on a question for one more minute.
This format is more of an issue than Lehrer’s approach, said Alex Jones, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Jones praised Lehrer as a “superb” and responsible journalist who’s willing to take a tough stand: “Jim Lehrer was the most outspoken voice in television denouncing the networks’ decision not to carry the conventions more fully.”
He said the debates themselves scarcely deserve the name, given the lack of give-and-take, scripted responses and moderator’s weak role.
“The way they have stripped the role of the ability to challenge, follow or engage beyond simply asking questions, I think the moderator’s role is almost one you could phone in,” he said.
That’s a shame, Jones said, because Lehrer “is a good interrogator when he’s allowed to be an interrogator, and I think that’s what these debates ought to be about.”
Handled all three debates in '96 and '00
In 1996 and 2000, Lehrer handled all three presidential debates (he moderated one in 1988 and two in ’92). This time around he’s sharing the job with ABC’s Charles Gibson and CBS’ Bob Schieffer, who will conduct the second and third debates, respectively.
But Lehrer’s foreign-policy assignment is arguably the most crucial. The Iraq war and terrorism are the hot issues and the first debate is likely to draw the biggest audience.
Despite his many turns as moderator, Lehrer, normally watched by about 3 million people nightly on “NewsHour,” appears to have retained an enthusiasm — and even awe — for the debate work he does in front of tens of millions of Americans.
When the debate commission called on him in 2000, he told Larry King, “I was exhilarated by it, the fact that they would select me ... There’s no need in playing games about it — it made me feel good.”
Shaw understands Lehrer’s emphasis on serving the event rather than reveling in his role or its power.
“If your head is in the clouds you don’t belong in the moderator’s chair,” he said.
“You should be the coolest you’ve ever been and the most sober in realizing this is historical and important for the democratic process and the American voters, and you are the least important part.”