Jim Lehrer on his debate performance: "the whole point...was to get these candidates to challenge each other"
Semi-retired PBS anchor Jim Lehrer has one message for those who criticized his handling of last week's debate between Democratic President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
You didn't get it.
Lehrer insisted in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Monday that the Commission on Presidential Debates crafted the rules for last Wednesday's event specifically to push Obama and Romney into directly debating each other in ways candidates often resist in such settings.
So for the former NewsHour anchor, a scenario where participants talked over his questions, ran over time limits and resisted efforts to redirect the conversation was no problem at all.
"The whole point of the exercise from Day One was to get these candidates to address each other and challenge each other," he said, speaking by telephone from New York City. "For the first time in the history of American politics, an American president and challenger went head to head...Before this, (debates) were very structured things, The debate commission had wanted to open things up and asked me if I would implement it. Now, they realize this was tremendous thing."
The rules, as stated by commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf before the event began, split the 90-minute debate into six, 15-minute segments; each candidate got 2 minutes for answers to the first question and then open discussion ensued. But, as Lehrer discovered, the candidates increasingly began turning every segment into an open discussion, taking longer to answer the opening question and resisting Lehrer's attempts to interject.
President Obama even sternly insisted he had 5 second left to finish an answer when Lehrer broke into one answer, then proceeded to talk for much longer. "At first, it was a little disconcerting," he said of the candidates' tendency to interrupt him (this study found that the candidates interrupted Lehrer three times as often as Obama and John McCain did during the first 2008 presidential debate, which he also moderated.
"Usually, when I talk to a candidate, they hush," he added, laughing. "They decided they would do it their own way. There's no doubt in my mind that I could have big-footed it...played big shot anchor man; I know how to shut people up. But I realized, 'My God, they're talking to each other...People may say it went off track, but I loved where that track was going."
Fahrenkopf also told the audience that Lehrer would "have the power to follow up, and hopefully drill down" to really explore the views of the candidates, according to this transcript from POLITICO. But the anchor says he didn't see his job that way at all.
"What I felt was the responsibility to give an opportunity to the other candidate to challenge what was said," he noted. "I was not there to drill down. I was not there to do individual, simultaneous interviews, which is what these debates can be. This is a whole different game we were playing."
As he did during this interview Monday with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, Lehrer said last week's format was a evolution from his informal attempts in 2008 to get McCain and Obama to engage each other; the anchor said Obama was game, but McCain avoided engaging his rival directly, perhaps wary of giving him status as an equal.
"I made a fool of myself trying to get McCain to talk to Obama," he said. "It ended up hurting McCain in some ways. People thought he was a little agitated and Obama came off as the cool guy. Bill Clinton once said these things only matter if they're confirming something already in the air...it may not seem like much, but in terms of moving voters, it can be enough."
Lehrer won't say how he thought Romney and Obama performed during the debate, and won't offer any advice to moderators Candy Crowley, Martha Raddatz (doing the VP debate Thursday) or Bob Schieffer, except to say "remember it isn't about you -- it's about the candidates." Click here to see the schedule for the remaining debates.
His only regrets: he and the commission didn't adequately explain the purpose of the debate rules, he didn't have much chance to explain complex stuff like the Dodd/Frank legislation for political newbie viewers and they didn't get to a host of issues, from immigration to social issues.
And, wary of the fact that he has already gone back on one prediction that he'd never moderate another debate, the 78-year-old anchor would only allow that, after hosting 12 debates, "never could I imagine doing another one of these. I've learned now to never say never...but if I ever do another debate, I'll have to get a new wife and new children and grandchildren. I think this a just terrific one to go out on. Presidential debates will never be the same."