Jim Lehrer, the PBS newsman who’ll moderate his 12th presidential debate on Wednesday, compares the experience to “a walk down a knife blade.” He titled his memoir of moderating debates “Tension City” — not just because the candidates are nervous, but because he is, too.
CBS’s Bob Schieffer, who’ll moderate the third Obama-Romney debate later this month, remembers that his hands were trembling before he stepped out to moderate his first (Bush vs. Kerry) in 2004. “First time in 25 years that happened!” he recalled Tuesday. “I never get nervous on TV; I just don’t. But when you realize that something said on that stage may well determine who wins the presidency, well, it’s different, isn’t it?”
A hot seat, yes. The men (or women —two are involved this year) who moderate the major debates have to be part inquisitor, part referee, part timekeeper and part wallpaper.
Gwen Ifill, also of PBS, says the two vice-presidential debates she moderated in 2004 and 2008 were “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, probably.”
The odd thing is, once and future moderators agree, no one is supposed to remember you were there. If they’ve done their jobs right, they say, people will remember the candidates’ answers, not the questions.
As a measure of what can go wrong, there’s the continuing YouTube horror of CNN’s John King getting blown down by Newt Gingrich’s gale-force answer to a question about Gingrich’s marital troubles during a Republican primary debate in January. King was visibly rocked by Gingrich’s response — and the audience’s roaring approval of the response — and tried gamely to recover.
There have been no such moments of candidate-on-moderator verbal pyrotechnics in the presidential debates, in part because the stakes and the format ensure against it. Presidential candidates strive to seem presidential during their prime-time debates, and the two-man format provides adequate time for answers and follow-ups.
By contrast, the primary debates, with six or eight candidates grasping for airtime, are “cattle shows,” says Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Fahrenkopf suggests that a lack of ego is a huge plus in a moderator: “We’re looking for someone who knows the story is about the candidates and not about them,” he says. The job requires the ability to follow up, experience working on TV, deep knowledge of the campaign and the issues, and a reputation for neutrality and balance, he notes.
It also helps to have someone with enough confidence to tell the future president of the United States that it’s time for him to clam up and let the other guy talk.
Lehrer, the Cal Ripken of debate moderators, makes it look easy. But even he gets anxious.