For the first time in 20 years, a woman — CNN anchor and Sunday talk show host Candy Crowley — will moderate a presidential debate.
The Oct. 16 event features a town hall format similar to the one that ABC’s Carole Simpson oversaw two decades ago, and Crowley couldn't be more pleased.
"As someone who is in awe and grateful every day to be in a country where freedom of the press, free speech and free elections are a way of life, I am wowed, amazed and excited by the opportunity to moderate a 2012 presidential debate," Crowley said in a statement released by CNN.
Simpson recently called her 1992 gig more logistics than moderating. "I was told in my earpiece by a producer, 'Go interview the lady in the green dress on the left, and now the man in the red sweater.' I had no control over the questions that were asked, or who asked, or in what order. I was like a traffic cop."
Martha Raddatz, ABC’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, will oversee the 2012 vice-presidential face-off, as Gwen Ifill of PBS did in 2004 and 2008.
The debate announcement came from the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan, non-profit, male-dominated institution that has chosen moderators, panelists, formats and venues since 1988, when it took over the quadrennial productions from the League of Women Voters.
And what about the other two 2012 forums, featuring a lone moderator trying to elicit meaty answers from candidates desperate to avoid gaffes, repeat campaign boilerplate, and spill a bit of their rivals’ blood?
Those two events — the first and last of the four-debate package — go to a pair of gents who are well-versed in the art of political cat herding: Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s “Face The Nation,” who did the job in 2004 and 2008, and Jim Lehrer, executive editor of the PBS “NewsHour,” who can easily claim the title, “moderator for life.” This will be his 11th presidential debate. In 2000, he also ran the vice-presidential debate, giving him a nice round dozen.
Never mind that Lehrer previously and publicly stated he’d never do another one. The former Marine compared a request to moderate by the commission to a draft notice from Uncle Sam, or as he put it, “sheer public service” not to be declined.
Among those reacting to the news of women occupying two of the four debate slots were three rising juniors at Montclair High School in New Jersey — Sami Siegel, Emma Axelrod and Elena Tsemberis — who doggedly pressed the commission on the gender-equity issue once they learned of the dearth of women moderators in a civics class.
“What a huge victory for women, for equal representation, and for the more than 180,000 people who stood with us and demanded a female presidential debate moderator,” Siegel said in a statement. She was referring to on-line petitions of support posted on Change.org, not to mention a string of testimonials from high-profile women and a slew of media stories about the students' exercise in advocacy.
“We are so proud to have helped educate Americans on this issue, and are extremely happy that women and girls watching the debates this year will see a potential role model up on the stage moderating,” noted Axelrod.
Commission co-chairs Frank Fahrenkopf, a former Republican National Committee chief, and Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton, said the four journalists “bring extensive experience to the job of moderating, and understand the importance of using the expanded time periods to maximum benefit. We are grateful for their willingness to moderate, and confident that the public will learn more about the candidates and the issues as a result.”
Both men told me in separate phone interviews that lobbying by the Jersey girls played virtually no part in commission deliberations, including the trio’s vain attempt to deliver several large cardboard boxes of petition printouts to the group's Washington office earlier this month.
“They had a nice effort, they did their thing. They did not impact our decision in any way other than the other 5,000 telegrams that we got supporting this person or that person,” Fahrenkopf said.
Indeed, among those lobbying for a coveted moderator slot were several journalists and network officials, he said. “Someone will come up to me at an event and say, ‘I would really like to moderate a debate, I do hope you will consider me.’ Or some executive will say, ‘Gee, if you can look our way, at our talent….’ I am sure they do the same with McCurry. This is nothing new.”
Indeed, the young women “can claim credit for actively representing their views, but in the end the commission chose the best four moderators,” McCurry told me. “We do consider diversity important. But because of the new format we have, the most important thing is that we get the four best moderators.”
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post staffer who has also written for PoliticsDaily.com, Town & Country, The New York Times and Washingtonian. She was a panelist in the first 1988 George Bush-Michael Dukakis presidential debate but did not lobby for an encore.