KCTS 9 Connects/Jim Lehrer Inside Presidential Debates - April 27, 2012

CNX: Jim Lehrer 4/27/12
  • KCTS 9 Connects

Jim Lehrer Inside Presidential Debates

A special edition of Connects with PBS Newshour anchor and author Jim Lehrer as we go behind the scenes of televised Presidential debates. We get his insights on the high stakes involved in the debates for the candidates and the moderator.

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About the Episode

We go behind the scenes of televised Presidential debates with PBS Newshour anchor and author Jim Lehrer in this special edition of Connects. Lehrer has moderated eleven Presidential and Vice Presidential debates and has written a fascinating book about it called Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates. We discuss his insights on the high stakes involved in the debates for both the candidates and the moderator.

Enrique Cerna:
When it comes to televised presidential and vice presidential debates, Jim Lehrer is the dean of moderators. The veteran broadcast journalist has moderated 11 of those debates, along with the candidates, he knows all about the high stakes and the high anxiety that the debates always produce. Now, besides moderating debates and serving as executive anchor and editor of the PBS NewsHour, he's written 20 books, two memoirs, and three plays. His latest book takes readers inside the presidential debates. And it's entitled "Tension City: My View from the Middle Seat." Please welcome Jim Lehrer. [APPLAUSE]

Jim Lehrer:
Thank you.

Enrique:
Well, Jim, "Tension City." That title, it really is something that George H.W. Bush said.

Lehrer:
Absolutely right. I started working on this about 2 1/2, 3 years ago. And when I started with the blank computer screen, the first thing I wrote was the title. And the title was "Moderator, by Billy-Bob Wawa," whatever. And I went through the whole process, and we got down to the final finished manuscript, it was in New York on my editor's desk, et cetera, ready to go, they used to call go to lead, meaning get it print, they don't do that anymore, of course. But anyhow, my editor called me and said, ah, Jim, we've been talking. And I thought, oh, no. Because you know, talking about his random house, who was the publisher. And I said, what is it? And I was very, very defensive. And he said, well, we're not sure moderator is a very good title. And I said, well, that's just too bad because moderator is the title of this book. And he said, back off, back off, just let me ask you one question. Jim, would you buy a book with a title "Moderator" on it? I thought about it. Oh, well, let me think about this back. Because one of the nifty things as you know, Enrique, I was privileged to do, moderating these debates is a privilege, no question about it, hairy, but a privilege to hairiness. But I also, over a period of 20 years, was able to sit down one on one with just about all of the people who were presidential or vice presidential nominees who participated in debates, not just the ones I did, but all of them. And I was able to sit down with TV cameras on tape, and have them talk about their specific experiences with specific debates, et cetera. And also generally what they thought about the debates. And one of the persons that I interviewed, of course, was former president George H.W. Bush. And when I talked to him about seven, eight years after he left the White House, at his presidential library in Texas, and I asked him some hard hitting questions, you know, like what were they like, Mr. President? Something like that. And he said something like that, oh, Jim, those high visibility things, those are tension city! It was in the book. And I immediately called my editor and said, how about "Tension City?" He said sold! So that's how it got to be. And I'm actually glad it is, because tension city, I mean it's a, you know, kind of weird phrase but tension, every person, every move, every word, every thought, of everybody involved in these debates, is filled with tension. For the obvious reason that the stakes are so high. One false move and we can talk about that, one false move, used to be a gesture can affect or the way somebody looks at the camera can affect the way people see a candidate, or a false word, or wrong word. And so that tension goes from the candidate, you know, to his or her handlers, down to the president who's doing the audio, and the moderator, and the people doing the teleprompter, whatever it is. Everybody connect realizes that one false move or word can affect the presidency of the United States. And nobody who's got any sense who's involved in any part of that ever loses sight of that.

Enrique:
You've done 11 of these.

Lehrer:
Yep. I have scars inside me to prove it too, yep.

Enrique:
But as you said, I would imagine that the tension part of it for the candidates is just incredibly high.

Lehrer:
Yeah.

Enrique:
If anything, I would think that that would be the one thing I would be most afraid of having to do, particularly on a national level and all of that. But for the moderator...

Lehrer:
Well, let me tell you a story. You met my wife when she was, we were here on book tour when she had a novel out, we both had books out.

Enrique:
Your significant other who really has helped you through a lot of these.

Lehrer:
Actually through this whole thing. My first debate I did was in '88, between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. And we were in a hotel in Winston Salem, wake forest university. And we were in a downtown hotel about to take us to the hall. And I just came down with a serious case of the jitters. I had all the questions, because I had worked them out with, we at that time had the format where there was a moderator and three journalist panelists, and we had talked about it, and I had them in a binder like this. And we were about ready to go, and I was just nervous. And so I start whining. It was just a mistake, oh, I'm just, it's awful, Waahhh! And she didn't literally throw me against the wall, but figuratively, she did. She said just hold on for a minute, buddy. You think you got problems. You think of those two men down the road here who one little thing they do wrong could affect whether they're going to be president of the united states. All you've got to do is ask them a few questions and moderate the thing. So just relax, you know, don't lose sight of what's going on here.

Enrique:
Buck up.

Lehrer:
Yeah, buck up, exactly. And I said, thank you so much, dear. [LAUGHTER] And of course, it did help a bit, it did help a bit.

Enrique:
But the fact is that you often used her for a sounding board.

Lehrer:
Absolutely.

Enrique:
She was like right in there with you at times when things were really shaky.

Lehrer:
Yeah. One of the things I was always very conscious of, because the moderator, particularly now that you have sole moderator debates, all the questions are formulated, written, decided upon, and then asked by the moderator alone. There's no committee, the debate commission has no involvement in selecting questions or knowing what the questions are. And obviously, the candidates do not know that, know anything either. But there is a built in thing. Wouldn't that be terrific if you were working for Same sue candidate if you know in advance that billy bob moderator was going to ask this or whatever. So I got to be very almost paranoid about making sure that nobody had any way to know what I was thinking, what I was going to ask, and whatever, what subjects even. And the way I stopped, the way I did it was, I'm sure I had a lot of help from the staff of the NewsHour during the buildup phase. And then about five, six days before a debate, quit talking to anybody. And I never, ever discussed a question before that. And then I would write the questions, whatever. And then literally, at the last moment, the last day, sometimes the last two or three hours before, I would go into a closed room, I did this every time with Kate, my wife, who was with me, and I would just read them to her. And she had, always had suggestions, and of course I always took every single one of them. [LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
You were annoyed some of the time, weren't you?

Lehrer:
Oh, God. But see, the point there, it wasn't so much she was helping me editorially, she's certainly qualified to do that.

Enrique:
She's an author.

Lehrer:
But I felt I needed an outside person to hear me, the prepared questions. 90% of the questions are not prepared anyhow because you've got to be prepared to go with the flow and you've got to listen and react and all of that. But I wanted to make sure I didn't have an apple and an orange and a pear, and that I didn't have some huge gap or that I'd miss something huge that she could do. And she's terrific, she's really terrific at that.

Enrique:
The presidential debate, the importance that they have in our democracy, but also in helping us make a decision about who to vote for.

Lehrer:
Well, I think they're critical. I went back and looked at the polls on this, just to make sure my gut was, there were some facts to back up my gut, is that more than 90% of the people, by the time you get to that stage in a general election campaign, more than 90% of the people have either already made up for their mind who they're going to vote or are leaning very strongly. So what the debate is about is really not separating what does Billy Bob think about lock boxes for social security, and what does Sammy Sue think about it. It's taking the measure of the individual. Can you imagine that person sitting behind a desk in the oval office, making a decision about sending Americans into harm's way, reacting to another Katrina, reacting to another 9/11? And it applies to both candidates. Even if you've already decided you're going to vote for one, you're still are going to take the measure of the other because he or she might win.

Enrique:
Every debate seems to have a major moment where it is either a gaff, like Gerald Ford made in talking about the Helsinki agreement and eastern Europe, you know, Jimmy Carter and then the Ronald Reagan line of "there you go again." And Al Gore, making faces.

Lehrer:
When George Bush was speaking, yeah. The split screen, I'll tell you the story about that. I moderated that debate. And the setup is a lot like this. The candidates would be standing this, you know, some distance, a little more distance between them, the moderator would sit like right in the middle of the thing, and the candidate would be over there, and the other candidate here. And I had a rule that I never, ever looked at the candidate who was listening. I always kept my eyes on the candidate who was speaking. Because I didn't want to have eye contact with the person who was listening and thus influence the reaction, you know, I didn't want to do that. So anyhow, when the debate was over, that particular debate was over, some of my kids were with me in Boston, with us in Boston. And I was walking out of the hall with my youngest daughter. And she said, boy, dad, that was really something that Gore did. And I stopped and said, what did Gore do, what are you talking about, kiddo? And she said, oh, that sighing and grimacing. And I did not know about it. And I was the closest person to those two candidates. I didn't see it. And my daughter said, smart kid, good training, good genes, she said that's going to be the story of that debate. And I said, I doubt that. And she said, well, she point out to me the next day who was right and who was wrong. But anyhow, you think, why does this matter? And there's a famous case, it's even more trivial in a way. When George H.W. Bush looked at his watch, remember? And it was Perot, Clinton, yeah, and Bush looked at his watch, and he looked at his watch six or seven times. And he was seen in the background shot looking at his watch. When I did my interview with him did the debates, here again, I asked him a hard hitting question like, what was the watch thing all about, Mr. President? And he kind of, we were sitting, not like we are, but this close, facing each other with a camera behind us, we were taping it. And he kind of leaned over at me and he said, yeah! He said, yeah, I looked at my watch, I looked at my watch during a presidential debate. How in the world could anybody who looked at his watch during a presidential debate be qualified to be president of the United States? That's what they said about that. And I said, yeah, yeah. [LAUGHTER] And after he calmed down, I said, Mr. President, there was a suggestion, I kind of made light of it, I said, there was a suggestion, Mr. President, that you were looking at your watch because you want this thing to be over with. He said, you're damn right! That's exactly why I was looking at my watch. And he said, and I wanted to know when this crap was gonna be over? And then he looked, now, we're talking like this, and cameras are running, you see, taped cameras, not live. And he leans over and he says, and Jim, you can put that in your documentary! And I said, Mr. President, we just did. [LAUGHTER] But Bill Clinton laid this out perfectly when I interviewed him about these debates. He said that the reason, he said if he had looked at his watch, or Ross Perot had looked at his watch, nobody would have paid any attention at all. If Al Gore, somebody besides Al Gore had frowned or whatever, it's the perception that it's already there, in other words, in George W. Bush's case, because he couldn't look at a grocery store scanner or whatever, he was disconnected. He was not that likable. And those kinds of things. Clinton's point was those things only matter, those little moments, when somebody does something, it only matters if it fulfills an expectation. And if it seems, yeah, I knew he was that way, and I think Clinton's absolutely right.

Enrique:
Al Gore was one of three people that you have not been able to talk to about this.

Lehrer:
That's right.

Enrique:
The fact, you had a brief conversation with Ross Perot, I understand.

Lehrer:
Very brief.

Enrique:
Who passed away. Although he want to talk to you.

Lehrer:
That's right.

Enrique:
And actually, somehow, I can hear Ross Perot talking to you very short and brief.

Lehrer:
It was very brief, yeah.

Enrique:
But Gore has not wanted to talk about this.

Lehrer:
Yeah. You know, and Enrique, my theory, we did everything, tried to get him, and I knew him, but he just, it just never happened. And I have my own theory, which I tell it in the book, that the wounds from 2000, the election, forget the debates, the wounds from 2000 for him are still alive and unwell. And I think someday, he will write his own book about that election. And that he just said it was impossible for him to talk about the debates without talking about the election itself. And I think he just chose, hey, I will do it my way on my time, and that's my reading of it. And I couldn't prove that if my life depended on it, because he never gave me any real reason, he just never got around to doing it.

Enrique:
The debates have been very formal in the sense of the podiums and you as the individual moderator or others, there has been the town hall type of format, where you're really playing traffic cop to get the audience to ask questions. What format did you like? Would you rather have been just the lone guy asking the questions?

Lehrer:
Well, the argument for having, and the reason it's evolved into a single moderator format, the journalists, I know this is hard to believe, but journalists, some journalists have really huge egos.

Enrique:
Oh, no!

Lehrer:
I don't want that to go outside of the studio.

Enrique:
No.

Lehrer:
Don't tell anybody.

Enrique:
We will not tell a soul.

Lehrer:
Okay. But they won't follow up each other's questions. In other words, they would work hard and write a question, and then the next person would ask a question entirely different, and would act like they had not even heard a answer. So it kind of evolved if you had a single moderator, you could have a discussion and keep it going and all of that. The down side of all of that is that you put an awful lot of dynamite in the hands of one person. And the homework issue, which I think is critical, I mean for a moderator, is to do just to know everything possible you could know about the candidate and what his or her views are, et cetera. Not so you can write fancy questions. But so you'll be relaxed enough to listen. And be able to make a judgment. Oh, what he said is really important. Or I can skip over there. Or he said something different, you know, 15 days ago, or whatever. Because you know, you're not going to have anybody in your ear helping you, you can't. In fact, there's no help that can come that way. So you have to make all these decisions. And as the formats have evolved, and my favorite format was that one, I won't say my favorite, I think the best format, it's kind of a middle ground here, the first one, the first debate in 2008, Obama McCain, which I moderated. I didn't have anything to do with selecting the format, that was done by the debate commission and negotiation with the candidates. But I could ask a question and you'd get a minute, I think it was a two minute answer, and then a minute response. And then at the discretion of the moderator, you could have a back and forth between the candidates from five to nine minutes at the discretion of the moderator. It didn't work very well.

Enrique:
You were trying to get them to interact.

Lehrer:
Yeah. McCain wouldn't do it.

Enrique:
McCain would not look at Obama.

Lehrer:
He just would sit there. And here again, that hurt him, that hurt him. Because he came over as testy and a little bit angry. And here again, it wasn't what he was saying. Neither one of them, it was right the financial crisis had just hit, and neither one of them knew what to say, so they didn't say anything. So it wasn't a substance debate. And I finally made a complete fool of myself in front of 100 or so million people trying to get McCain to look at Obama.

Enrique:
He never did.

Lehrer:
He never did. And he answered one question. I asked a question, he answered it. And then I said, looking right at him, just to senator McCain, well, say that to senator Obama. And finally, and I did it two or three times. And finally, McCain would say, here in front of everybody, what's matter, Jim? You don't think they can hear me? So I decided, forget it.

Enrique:
That made him a little more testy.

Lehrer:
So much for that experiment, yeah.

Enrique:
I want to get your reaction, a question from one of our audience members here today. Your reaction to Newt Gingrich's suggestion that working journalists should be barred from moderating this fall's presidential debates.

Lehrer:
That's absolute nonsense.

Enrique:
That's it, okay.

Lehrer:
Oh, let me put it differently. I disagree with speaker Gingrich on that. No. I'm not saying only journalists should do it, I mean journalists have done it, and the single moderator problem that's create is that there are some skills involved beyond the journalism skills. In other words, you need to know the subject and all that, but you need to know, there's just some skills that anybody can learn. This is not, trust me, it's not brain surgery, but if you haven't done it, you can get in a state of panic if something, some light goes out or something happens and all that stuff. And to exclude journalists, I'm not saying they should all be journalists, but what speaker Gingrich, former speaker Gingrich is suggesting, that working journalists should be excluded, I don't understand that. But as I say, I disagree with him.

Enrique:
You have done 11 of these. You say you don't want to do anymore?

Lehrer:
Not only do not want to, I will not do anymore.

Enrique:
Why?

Lehrer:
Well, because, when I decided to write this book, I decided that that was two decisions in one. I didn't want anybody to come along later and say I was going to moderate another debate. Well, you said on page 33, and I thought, no, when I decided that I had this experience, and that it was unique in terms of not my moderating but even more unique was being able to sit down with these candidates and talk about it, it was time to kind of, you know, close that chapter in my professional life. And I mean, it's kind of, I've given it the office kind of thing, it's time for somebody else to do it. And it's no big deal. I mean not only is it a big deal to anybody else, it's obviously a big deal to me, because I really feel honored to be asked to do them. I mean it's an exhilarating experience when they're over. Leading up to it is anxiety, more anxiety than I've ever had in my life, professionally, it's just incredible. Because of all the things that I talk about. In fact, in the book, I compare it to walking down the blade of a sharp knife. And that's hard.

Enrique:
And you get cut a few times.

Lehrer:
You bet, you bet. My first debate was the '88 Bush Dukakis, as I said. And I don't know what happened, I still don't know what happened. The TV lights, the TV cameras for each candidate, there are three colored lights, one green, one yellow, one red, and then there's a moderator has the same duplicate set. Green obviously means go, very clever. Green means go. Yellow means 30 seconds left, red means stop. Go, hush. Well, George H.W. Bush was in the middle of an answer, and I stopped him. He was vice president then. I said, Mr. Vice president, your time is up. And he points to the camera, pointing to the lights, and he says, no, no, hey, I still got some time. And then I hear, you know, from the producer in my ear saying very quietly, Jim, he's right. [LAUGHTER] And I quickly said, oh, Mr. Vice president, I'm sorry, you're right. Go ahead, go ahead. And he looked at me and he said, I forgot what I was saying. [LAUGHTER] And that's when I wanted that big hole to drop me down, you know, forever into that. But I can't explain that. I mean I'm not color blind. I hadn't had a mind freeze. Why in the hell I misread those colors, I do not know.

Enrique:
The importance of debate as we move ahead here. What do you think people need to do and be aware of as they watch these debates and what, why is it so important to us as Americans?

Lehrer:
The reason they're so important is it's the only opportunity during a presidential campaign where you get to see the candidates side by side, talking about the same things, at the same time. And you, to go back to my earlier point, you get an opportunity to take comparative measure of these two people, or in some cases, three people, as individuals, as a potential president of the United States. Look, most presidencies, and we can go through it. And everybody knows this. Most presidencies are about the unexpected, not the expected. I mean you can have debates about what you're going to do about this and this, we're going to revolutionize this and reform this and that, and then 9/11 happens, and that's what your presidency is about. Barack Obama did this and his presidency has been about the economy. That was not what the campaign was about. There was none of that whether we're going to do tarp or not or that sort of stuff, or Fannie Mae, they didn't even come up during the campaign. And so for the voter, you know that, you know it's about the unexpected. So how do you think this person is going to handle the unexpected? That's why these things are so important.

Enrique:
Jim Lehrer has written the book "Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates from Kennedy/Nixon to Obama/McCain." It's about his view from the middle seat. And thank you so much for taking the time, Jim. Really appreciate it. And you know, you've been a real treasure to us.

Lehrer:
Well, thank you, Enrique. You're the treasure. Thank you.

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