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The Commisssion on Presidential Debates is trying to liven things up with its choice of moderators -- but the new selections hardly inspire.

Mother Jones
Bradford Plumer
Friday, August 20, 2004

A scene from the 2000 presidential debates. Debate moderator Jim Lehrer asks George W. Bush, "Governor, are you opposed to affirmative action?" Having already given a long, wishy-washy answer, Bush tries once more to avoid taking a stand that might turn off moderate voters: "If affirmative action means quotas, I'm against it. If affirmative action means what I described what I'm for, then I'm for it." Lehrer accepts this lame evasion, but Al Gore, evidently exasperated, blurts out, "Are you for what the Supreme Court says is a constitutional way of having affirmative action?" Bush complains that Gore had broken the rules on candidates questioning each other, and Lehrer acquiesces, before moving on to the next question. The result? Bush gets away with hedging his position on a key election issue. Little wonder that former pollster Pat Caddell flatly told Lehrer after the debates, "You weren't aggressive enough."

This example goes to show that, in presidential debates, the moderator doesn't just referee the proceedings; he or she sets the agenda. "The moderator is absolutely crucial for setting the tone and determining the content of the debate," says Mitchell McKinney, a professor of communications at University of Missouri. He or she decides what issues will be discussed and what follow-up questions will be asked. And, as Lehrer did in 2000, the moderator can prove the difference between an informative debate and an infomercial debate.

So it was no small news when the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), bucking the tradition that dictates a single moderator for all of the presidential debates, recently announced three moderators -- tentatively scheduled to handle one debate each -- for the fall: Jim Lehrer of PBS, Bob Schieffer of CBS, and Charles Gibson of ABC. Gwen Ifill of PBS will host the vice-presidential debate.

The moderators have never been announced this early. Since 1988, the presidential candidates themselves have usually agreed on the moderators in private, leading to safe and predictable panelists; hence the selection of Lehrer for the past three election cycles. (And hence the reluctance of more aggressive journalists to take part in the process. "I just feel very uncomfortable with the candidates selecting the reporters," Tim Russert, the pugnacious host of Meet the Press, has said.) "The debate commissioners are trying to get ahead of the candidates this year," said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern professor and expert on presidential debates. "Although it's possible that the campaigns could give the thumbs-down to some of the moderators, they're now under pressure to accept these four journalists."

And yet Lehrer, who would have to be high on any candidate's list of preferred moderators, is back on the roster. The host of PBS's "Newshour" burnished his reputation as a soft touch in 1998, when he questioned Bill Clinton about Monica Lewinsky on national TV. Asked about his affair with the White House intern, Clinton replied with the carefully tensed -- and obviously misleading -- answer, "There is no relationship." At this, Lehrer nodded quietly and moved on. He proved no more probing in the 2000 debates. John Kerry himself told the New York Times , "You could have picked ten people off the street who didn't know Jerusalem from Georgia and they would have picked better questions [than Lehrer]."

Still, says Schroeder, having four different moderators will theoretically make the debates less predictable and more varied -- and, the CPD hopes, arrest the contests' chronic slide into irrelevance. In 1980, the lively joust between John Anderson and Ronald Reagan -- Jimmy Carter having refused to attend -- attracted 60 percent of American households. By 2000, only 30 percent of households tuned in to the love fest between Gore and Bush. George Farah, in his book on the dumbing down of presidential debates, No Debate, has offered some reasons for the decline: "Debate formats are stilted and unrevealing; candidates who the American people want to see are excluded; pressing national issues are ignored; and, ultimately, voter education is diminished."

But does that mean the new moderators are going to make things any better? Or is this just a case of the same boring old inquisitors dressed up in shiny new garb?

The commission certainly didn't go out on a limb in tapping Lehrer's PBS protege, Gwen Ifill, to moderate the vice-presidential debate. She tends to give easygoing interviews (admittedly of other journalists) on her talk show, "Washington Week," and abhors Russert-style interrogations. Indeed, in 1999, when reporter Andy Hiller tried to quiz then-candidate George Bush about foreign leaders -- a quiz Bush utterly bombed -- Ifill joined the round of pundits condeming the quiz as "gotcha" journalism. (Apparently, figuring out whether a presidential candidate has any knowledge of foreign affairs was a trivial exercise.) Ifill will likely set a mundane, entirely predictable agenda.

Charlie Gibson, who co-hosts "Good Morning America," is potentially the most interesting moderator. Most liberals know Gibson for his Queeg-like obsession with John Kerry's war medals. During an April 2004 show, Gibson badgered Kerry on the issue, at one point exclaiming, "I was there! I saw you throw medals over the fence!" One would expect a quality moderator to rise above trivial Republican talking points. But to his credit, Gibson has also consistently asked probing questions about the war in Iraq. In one famous exchange, during the opening stages of the invasion in 2003, Gibson grilled Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, on whether the U.S. had enough soldiers to fight the war. When Myers steered away from the question, Gibson asked him again and again. Unfortunately, Gibson will moderate the second "town hall" debate; his role will be limited to selecting questions from the audience for the candidates.

The worst of the bunch might be Bob Schieffer, who will moderate the third debate on foreign policy. Schieffer, it should be noted, struck up a golfing friendship with George W. Bush during the 1990s. Last year, the "Face the Nation" host told Howard Kurtz, "It's always difficult to cover someone you know personally." Indeed, it must be. This is the same Bob Schieffer who believed that the media had asked "tough questions" during the run-up to the Iraq war. The same Bob Schieffer who, after the 2000 debates, opined, "Clearly tonight, if anyone gained from this debate it was George Bush—he seemed to have as much of a grasp of the issues [as Gore]." The same Bob Schieffer who couldn't for the life of him figure out why Bush would visit the infamously racist Bob Jones University during the 2000 campaign, saying: "The notion that Bush is a Bible-thumping conservative Republican of that ilk is something that's sort of hard to believe." This is not to call Schieffer a partisan hack; just don't expect him to bring a critical persona to the debates.

To be sure, the moderators aren't the only ones responsible for the dreary debates. The very format of the event lends itself to superficiality. A 90 minute debate is hardly enough time to cover the breadth and depth of important issues. Responses are limited to a sound-bite sized two minutes (in 1980, candidates had twice that time). During the town hall debates, audience questions are all screened. The candidates usually agree beforehand not to question each other.

Still, if the rules hamper the debates, thee moderators can be faulted for adhering to the rules. Tom Shales, a Washington Post reporter, noted this habit with Lehrer: "Lehrer has, for the most part, done a good job moderating debates, but sometimes his slavish, fanatic deference to the rules becomes ludicrous and counterproductive." In 1988, Peter Jennings of ABC News tried to persuade his fellow debate panelists to ignore the rules and force the candidates to question each other. The sticking point, it turned out, was Lehrer, who refused to play along: "I kept saying we had made an agreement to come and do something. I felt it just as a matter of function." Fair enough, but that "matter of function" has led to starchy debates filled with tired soundbites and prepackaged responses.

It would be nice if Lehrer, Gibson, Schieffer, and Ifill decided to buck tradition and ask tough questions, widen the topics for debate, and aggressively follow-up on the candidates' replies. It's not hard to see how this might be done. "President Bush, if you had known back in 2001 that your administration would see the worst job record since Herbert Hoover, would you have crafted a different tax cut policy?" "Senator Kerry, if our allies refuse to send troops into Iraq, what do you propose to do about the occupation?" Alas, with these moderators, it's not likely.