President George H.W. Bush once described debates to Jim Lehrer: “Those big-time things, it was tension city.” Lehrer has been in tension city 11 times as a presidential debate moderator. He talked with Diane about how he prepares for debates, comes up with questions, and values his wife Kate’s judgment about his work.
Acknowledging Mistakes in Debates
“One time in a debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, I literally mis-saw the cue. The cues were red, yellow and green lights and I – George H.W. Bush was giving an answer. He was right in the middle of the answer and I stopped him and said ‘Time’s up’ and he looks at me. This is 50, 60 million people were watching and he looks at me and says, ‘No, no, no, no, hey, yellow light’s on,’ and, of course, he was absolutely right. And I said, ‘Oh, Mr. President, I’m sorry and go ahead.’ And he said, ‘I forgot what I was going to say, ‘”Lehrer said.
“I Always Assumed the Audience is Just as Smart as I am”
A listener asked Mr. Lehrer how he, as a debate moderator, can press candidates to give real answers rather than to avoid the question altogether. “Interviewers and moderators are not in the demand business. They’re in the asking questions business. And you can ask a question and you can ask it a second time, you can ask it a third time…I always assumed that the audience is just as smart as I am,” Lehrer said.
“I always maintained absolutely security. I mean, five days before every debate that I was moderating, I quit talking about it, even to members of the news, our staff, and talked only to Kate about it. And because if you start talking and then somebody, well, hey, is Lehrer gonna ask such and such and such? Well, I don’t know. And before you know it, it gets back. And keeping in mind the intensity and the stakes it would be a godsend to a particular candidate to find out in advance that Billy Bob was gonna ask a certain question. And so you gotta make sure that that does not happen,” Lehrer said.
A caller wondered whether Mr. Lehrer has ever had thoughts about whether or not a particular candidate would be a better choice than the other while moderating a debate. “I’m so concentrated on what I’m there to do that things like that, those kinds of thoughts, I don’t even – I don’t have. My mind is not large enough to bring in any outside thing like that. I just don’t allow myself to make those kinds of judgments. ‘Cause once you sit there thinking, well, is this guy gonna really be a good president or he, blah, blah, blah, forget it. That’s not what I’m there to do. I’m there to make sure that people get the information so they can decide those kinds of things. And I don’t wanna clutter up my thought processes with that,” Lehrer said.
A Reliable Sounding Board
Lehrer always runs his questions by his wife, Kate, who has been unfailingly honest when she thinks he should tweak his questions for the candidates. He said that if anyone running a debate ever asked him for advice, he would tell them, “Hire Kate Lehrer.”
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