Jim Lehrer, debate moderator of the minimalist school, answers your questions.
All answers are Jim Lehrer’s words quoted verbatim. Click on the A. for the source and to check up on my editing. I did the questions myself, FAQ style.
Q. It seemed to us, and a lot of other people, that you lost control of the debate. Did you?
A. “It’s not my job to control the conversation. If the candidates gave me resistance, and I let them talk, to me that’s being an active moderator, not a passive moderator.”
Q. So letting them talk was what you were trying to do?
A. “I thought the format accomplished its purpose, which was to facilitate direct, extended exchanges between the candidates about issues of substance. Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow and I had no problems with doing so.”
Q. How did this format come about?
A. “The Commission came to me with this idea… Let’s see if we can try to have a real debate–not a moderated, simultaneous one-on-one interviews with the candidates, which is what they’ve been for all practical purposes–and set up a situation where the challenging is done not by the moderator, but is done by the candidates. And the candidates are either up to it or they’re not up to it. They’re either ready to go or not ready to go.”
Q. And if they’re reluctant to engage on the harder issues, which has been known to happen in politics, it would not be your job to prod or challenge them?
A. “I was not there to do the challenging. I was there to facilitate the challenging. If they didn’t want to do it, then I wasn’t going to do that work for them.”
Q. Okay, but does this extend even to keeping time? At several points in the debate, both candidates just rolled right over when you tried to enforce time limits. Was that part of the plan too?
A. “The first few times I said ‘let’s move on’ and they wanted to keep talking, the inclination of course is to stop them so I could cover all the subjects I wanted to cover. But I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wait a minute, they’re talking to each other, leave ‘em alone.’ So I backed off.”
Q. And are you happy with how it turned out?
A. “Sitting here talking to you now, I have absolutely no second thoughts about it. I think it was a major development in the growth of presidential debates.”
Q. Major development: How so?
A. “This is the first time in the history of American political campaigning where an incumbent president of the United States stood eyeball to eyeball to a challenger and they talked at each other and they talked about things that mattered. That each was allowed to challenge the other and respond to that challenge.”
Q. If it’s candidate to candidate, eyeball to eyeball, then why have a moderator at all?
A. “I don’t know if I’d go that far. But I think we took a step in that direction on Wednesday night and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s not about a moderator following up and asking tough questions. You can do that in interviews.”
Q. Mitt’s Romney’s comments on the 47 percent of Americans who see themselves as victims and want the government to take care of them: do you think that should have been part of a debate on domestic policy? You could have asked about it, but you didn’t. Why?
A. “The reason I didn’t ask that is because I felt those were the questions the two candidates were to ask. I was not there to question people. I was there to allow the candidates to question each other. Certainly I could have brought up the 47 percent. All kinds of things I could have brought up.”
Q. Were you bothered at all by the way Governor Romney at times bullied and interrupted you?
A. “Everybody saw it. If somebody was turned off by the way Romney interrupted me, then they saw it… Judge it and react accordingly.”
Q. What about a situation where a candidate lies or distorts the record, and his opponent is reluctant to go after him for his own reasons? The American people in that situation won’t even get a shot at the truth. That’s a problem, isn’t it?
A. “No, I couldn’t disagree with you more. This is ninety minutes in a campaign that’s already been underway for a year… This was ninety minutes of the two candidates showing who they are and what they were willing– if Obama made a decision, he didn’t want to do that, alright, now we know that.”
Q. So you’re not moved by any of the criticism since the debate?
A. I’ve heard some of the criticism, but it’s not keeeping me awake at night. My conscience is clear.”
To read my analysis go to my site, PressThink: The Vanishing Moderator.