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Washington Week With Gwen Ifill

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Gwen Ifill
Journalist, Moderator, "Washington Week With Gwen Ifill and National Journal"
Thursday, September 25, 2008; 12:00 PM

Each week, the country's top reporters join moderator Gwen Ifill for an in-depth discussion of the week's top news from Washington and around the world. The longest-running news and public affairs program on PBS, "Washington Week and National Journal" features journalists -- not pundits -- lending insight and perspective to the week's important news stories. Now, Ifill brings "Washington Week" online.

Ifill was online Thursday, Sept. 25 at noon ET to take questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

Ifill is moderator and managing editor of "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Ifill spent several years as a "Washington Week" panelist before taking over the moderator's chair in October 1999. Before coming to PBS, she spent five years at NBC News as chief congressional and political correspondent. Her reports appeared on "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," "Today," "Meet the Press" and MSNBC. Ifill joined NBC News from The New York Times where she covered the White House and politics. She also covered national and local affairs for The Washington Post, Baltimore Evening Sun, and Boston Herald American.

"Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal," airs on WETA/Channel 26, Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. (check local listings).

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Gwen Ifill: Hi everyone. Sorry I'm a few minutes late, but I'm anxious to answer your questions!

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Vice Presidential Debate: One thing I have noticed during the brief interviews I have seen Palin give is that she doesn't really answer the question. Does Biden do that too? I always think the person who clearly answers the question asked wins a point, even if I don't like their answer!

Gwen Ifill: I have discovered that really skilled politicians have a way of failing to answer a question in a way that most folks don't notice. If you are noticing, that means she is not doing it right.

I have discovered that careful listeners tend to notice. And they make their judgments based on that.

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Frivolous question: How do you decide what to wear (clothing, jewelry, hair/makeup) for a big event like moderating the vice presidential debate? Do you receive special assistance? How far ahead of time do you start planning? Do you wear comfy shoes if no one can see them under the desk?

Gwen Ifill: Special assistance? Like a yellow brick road to my closet?

Yes, you are right. That one was frivolous. (Not to say, y'understand, that fashion is not important.)

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Washington: Gwen, being totally honest, I'm totally for Obama, 100 percent -- but I also am always nervous heading into these debates, and have remained so about the Palin/Biden debate. I have anxiety about the ability of Palin to turn the tide during a debate, but now I hear that McCain is trying to postpone the vice presidential debate too. Is this true? Also, who ultimately has influence regarding this decision? It is outrageous to me that McCain/Palin would try to get out of the vice presidential debate. Can you tell us what you have heard and/or what your contingency plan is?

Gwen Ifill: Wow. You are nervous. Do as I am doing, and wait until everything shakes itself out. There are a lot of folks involved in these decisions, and they have not all weighed in yet.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Just curious if you have been to Alaska.

Gwen Ifill: Yes, I have. Beautiful state.

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Seattle: Gwen, if they switched Friday's presidential debate with the vice-presidential debate, would you be able to moderate them tomorrow night, or would Jim still moderate it?

Gwen Ifill: I am operating on the assumption that the debates will go on as scheduled. Unless, you know something I don't...

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Baltimore: How do you approach putting together a debate? Do you have a list of questions prepared, or are you going to cover several themes and leave room for follow-up?

Gwen Ifill: All of the above.

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Maple Grove, Minn.: This is for the vice presidential debate you are moderating: Gov. Palin, you have said you will advocate for kids with disabilities. What does this mean? Kids grow up; what about adults with disabilities? The Obama campaign has a comprehensive paper posted on its Web site on disability issues. Why is there nothing on the McCain site?

Gwen Ifill: And what, pray tell, would your question be for Sen. Biden on that same issue? Remember, this is a debate.

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Bremerton, Wash.: Gwen, help! Our local PBS Station KCTS has removed "Washington Week" after "NOW" expanded to one hour. What's the best way of asking them to restore sanity to Friday night television?

Gwen Ifill: It matters a lot more if you call/write and complain, rather than I. You are the ones who keep the station on the air.

Thanks for your support.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: Gwen, given the wide range of duties that have been performed by vice presidents (Harry Truman to Dick Cheney), I would like to suggest a topic for the debate: Besides breaking ties in the Senate and checking on the health of the president, what is the candidate's understanding of the duties for which they would be responsible? What areas of expertise do they offer to help the running mate govern? Thank you.

Gwen Ifill: Good question.

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Alhambra, Calif.: Why are the officers of the financial companies being allowed to walk away from their bankrupted business without being called to task and being required to relinquish their ill-gotten gains to the government? Instead we the taxpayers are pressed into paying for their crimes while they go home with a golden parachute. If a citizen did this, they would be charged with fraud. We have no say about where our tax dollars are going.

Gwen Ifill: I think your anger is exactly what is driving the discussions currently underway on Capitol Hill. At this point, it seems unlikely that lawmakers will agree to any bailout that does not take this point of view into account.

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Bermuda: Good afternoon. Is it possible that some of these companies are choosing to write off their bad debts and improve their overall outlook (especially for parts of their business that still apparently are profitable) while there is still an administration in office that will consider them positively? With a Republican maverick or a Democratic social reformer soon to be at the helm, have they chosen the last days of President Bush's time as the last possible opportunity to make this correction to their bottom line in an atmosphere that is more favorable to them? Thanks.

Gwen Ifill: It seems inconceivable to me that these companies are choosing to collapse because the leadership in Washington is about to change hands.

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Motor Mouth: Have you interviewed Biden before? How in the world has he survived as a national politician for three decades without censoring his mouth? He seems to spurt out whatever he's thinking at the moment without filtering it in any manner. Has there ever been a politician like this on the national stage?

Gwen Ifill: I have interviewed Sen. Biden, and I believe you overstate.

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Boston: What exactly is the format of the vice presidential debate? I think McCain wanted just straight two-minute answers, but I believe that was not the final agreement. Also, what is your favorite debate format? (And does that answer differ if you are moderating or just watching?)

Gwen Ifill: My favorite debate format is one in which I am in charge.

The current plan for the vice presidential debate is for each candidate to answer a question for 90 seconds, with an additional two minutes for follow-up/exchange. I think of it in five-minute chunks.

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Your debate: Will there be any back and forth between the candidates during your debate, or will all questions be asked by the moderator's?

Gwen Ifill: See above.

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Springfield, Mass.: On the Community Service Forum held Sept. 11 on PBS, McCain stated he would place Obama in his cabinet. No one seriously followed up on this. What's your take -- just rhetoric? It could have generated great press if journalists would have followed it.

Gwen Ifill: It may be worth reviewing the transcript, but I don't remember saying this in as unequivocal fashion as you describe. But even if he did, it reminds me of the time when Sen. Clinton suggested Obama might make a good running mate for her. For some reason, this seems to get said most often by the person lagging in the polls.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Gwen -- thanks for taking questions today. Assuming that the vice presidential debate happens next week (and I think it should), can you share a little bit about your prep process? Are you coming up with a list of questions as we speak?

Gwen Ifill: Yes, I am. Feel free to weigh in. But as you can tell, this campaign changes day by day, and my questions do too.

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Triangle, N.C.: Because you are uniquely positioned to answer this question, what do you think of Lindsey Graham's suggestion that the vice presidential debate be replaced by a presidential debate because of McCain's "suspended" campaign? It looks to me like McCain is trying desperately to avoid having Palin debate Biden.

Gwen Ifill: What Sen. Graham suggested is that tomorrow's presidential debate be shifted to Oct. 2, and that the vice presidential debate be rescheduled for some unnamed date.

I'll worry about it if/when it happens. I didn't notice Sen. Graham's counterpart, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, buying into this idea.

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Oak Park, Mich.: Good day, Ms. Ifill. Do you think we will witness a Financial Pearl Harbor/tsunami after Congress and the Senate is done with freaking out about this mortgage crisis?

Gwen Ifill: Isn't that what congressional action is supposed to fix?

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Debate Prep: I for one am glad a woman will be moderating, so that we don't have to hear the sexism bull from the campaign that is sequestering their female candidate. Are there any questions that you can share with us? How do you prepare?

Gwen Ifill: I am glad this woman is moderating. Beyond that, no, I am not going to tell you -- or the candidates, for that matter -- what I will ask. Not even a hint.

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Falls Church, Va.: Do you vote? Or do you abstain like some other journalists?

Gwen Ifill: Yes, I vote.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Given the current vice president's role, I would like to see a question about the limits of executive privilege asked during the vice presidential debate. Thanks Gwen -- looking forward to watching you and Jim moderate.

Gwen Ifill: Thanks for the question.

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New York: Gwen, first of all, congrats on moderating the vice presidential debate. I vividly remember Cheney/Edwards. One piece of "conventional wisdom" after the 2004 vice presidential debate that always bothered me was the dismissive way some people treated your question to the candidates about AIDS and women of color. That is a legitimate subject. I hope you again will stick to your own judgment about the variety of questions for this year's debaters. Thanks!

Gwen Ifill: Was it treated dismissively? I got a load of response to that question -- most from people who were surprised and enlightened that neither candidate seemed to know the answer to the question, or the premise.

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U.S.: Gwen, are there any ill-feelings among journalists that there are two moderators from PBS (woo-hoo!) for the presidential and vice presidential debates? Do you think the vice presidential debate is going to upstage the presidential ones given the Palin-mania?

Gwen Ifill: If there are ill feelings, I have not had them expressed to me. Then again, why would anyone tell me that?

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Anonymous: We know the candidates are practicing for the debates, but are you? This isn't your first time at the rodeo, I know, but I imagine you're doing some extra homework and crafting tight questions, no?

Gwen Ifill: Have no fear, I am doing my job.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: I ask this question out of curiosity and with utmost respect: Do the debate moderators like yourself get paid for the event?

Gwen Ifill: If they do, nobody told me.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why can't McCain come to Washington and work today and tomorrow, jump on a plane, fly to the debate, fly back and work all weekend? That would seem to make sense to me.

Gwen Ifill: I'm sure he could -- and he might. We'll see.

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Debates: One shows, the other doesn't: Is there a plan B for such a scenario? Has there ever been a plan B to your knowledge?

Gwen Ifill: Not to my knowledge.

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What it all means: I can think of only one devastating knockout blow in a debate, the "senator you're no Jack Kennedy" remark that put Quayle in his place, and he went on to win anyway with Bush in a landslide. So all the debates do, in my opinion, is to make people comfortable with decisions they've already made. In the case of Quayle, no one cared all that much who the veep was. I think the same thing will happen this time, and that independent voters ultimately will pick between Obama and McCain, with few swing voters caring about the undercard. I'll be watching anyway!

Gwen Ifill: Debates do not have to determine the outcome to serve a public purpose.

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Arizona: Gwen, I was struck with how subdued you looked at the Republican National Convention after Palin's speech -- then you spoke on Washington Week about people shaking their fists at you as the "liberal media." Were other journalists feeling the same way? Has that ever happened to you before? P.S. Love you show -- wish it was an hour!

Gwen Ifill: I don't know why people thought I looked subdued. I am puzzled. How was I supposed to look? Is it even slightly possibly you may have been overinterpreting?

As for the fist-shaking, I found it mostly amusing. The delegates certainly had no problems asking me to pose for pictures with them before and after.

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Pittsburgh: As far as I can determine, neither Sarah Palin nor Joe Biden has used professional child care for their children, but rather relatives. Also, neither seems to have taken much time off for the birth or subsequent care of their children. So, during the vice presidential debate, could you ask them both about their views on child-care and parental-leave policies?

Gwen Ifill: Thanks for the question.

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Bronx, N.Y.: Do you have a "point man" or "point woman" who keeps you advised as to whether your debate will be effected by the current McCain controversy? Have you checked with anybody today, or do you think concerns are trivial at this point?

Gwen Ifill: No point man, no point woman. I am watching it unfold just as you are.

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Bethesda, Md.: So, got any plans for, say, next Thursday?

Gwen Ifill: St. Louis is in my travel plans.

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Bethesda, Md.: Following up on Silver Spring's question about executive privilege and someone's earlier question about the role of the vice president, I'd like to see those tied together in a comprehensive and detailed discussion regarding the position of the vice president -- i.e. whether it's in the executive branch or legislative branch, what policy role the vice president should/will play in the next administrations, what the vice president's obligations to the public are (re: transparency/accountability), what each candidate expects his/her particular "portfolio" to be in the next administration, and so on.

Gwen Ifill: Oh, and I am certain that can be answered in 90 seconds. I'm not sure at all that can even be asked in 90 seconds. But I will take it all under advisement.

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Detroit: Hello Ms. Ifill. At the Auto Show we had a four-day conference, and it was evident the Big Three didn't have the money to refurbish their plants to keep up with E85, hybrids, electric vehicles, etc. This is precisely why so many are getting laid off. Michigan is at 6.9 percent unemployment. Michigan is clearly in transition industrywise. It clearly ill take more than four years for industries to reconstitute itself. Do you think either candidate is going to be proactive/sensitive to Michiganders' needs?

Gwen Ifill: I hate to respond in a purely political way to such a substantive question, but ... I think it is fair to say, based on the wildly variable Michigan polls I have seen, that you will have quite the chance to hear from the candidates on this issue this year.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hey Gwen, will you be able to ask for specifics if the candidates spout platitudes and bromides?

Gwen Ifill: "Spouting platitudes and bromides" sounds painful.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Gwen -- love your show. I expect you will have a question for the candidates as to whether they think the vice president is part of the executive branch, and whether they would endeavor to make their tenancy as transparent as possible, given what Vice President Cheney has "accomplished" during the past eight years. Yes?

Gwen Ifill: If I told you what I was going to ask, I will have told the campaigns too, no?

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Bethesda, Md.: You asked a Republican leader how Gov. Palin could be both vice president and a mother of a small child. Do you think a man could have asked that question without repercussions?

Gwen Ifill: I did not ask that question. And if I had asked it of a woman, I would have asked it of a man.

(By the way, the actual question and answer was more revealing than that. The person I was questioning responded as if I had asked the question, and before I finished my sentence, which I found interesting.)

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Oak Park, Mich.: Yes, Ms. Ifill, I agree Congress is supposed to fix the mortgage crisis. I have three degrees and have been unemployed for four years, and can only wait so long. Going without meals is difficult, but like everyone here I must drive to Cincinnati and seek opportunity and come home when I can. Do you suggest I vote angry or not at all, seeing as both candidates can't do anything immediately for Michigan?

Gwen Ifill: If you don't vote, that's a guarantee your voice will not be heard.

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Boston: Can you ask about the candidates thinking about the intersection of science and technology and U.S. policy? Statistically speaking, the U.S. has been trounced by competitor nations in this arena in the past eight years.

Gwen Ifill: Thanks for the question.

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Stamford, Conn.: Is there any way that the hoped-for debate tomorrow could be held in or near Washington? That way both Sens. Obama and McCain could be close to the bailout and still have the debate. I think it also would put much pressure on Sen. McCain to show up. I think you are wonderful and love your program.

Gwen Ifill: I only can tell you that the folks in Oxford, Miss., say they have spent $5 million preparing for this debate. Now, what do you think are the chances that kind of effort can be shifted within 24 hours?

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New York: Gwen, thanks for the chat today. Besides energizing the GOP base -- which probably was going to vote for him anyway -- has McCain's pick of Sarah Palin brought him any Democrats or independents? Do we have a way of knowing before the election?

Gwen Ifill: I have not seen a reliable measure yet of Gov. Palin's appeal across party lines.

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"Washington Week" on the road: When "Washington Week" goes on the road, it seems on TV like the same content as if it were done in your D.C. studio, except for the well-mannered audience. May I suggest that you include a local newspaper editor on the panel for each road show, to raise the issue of how Washington affects their region? Or how about audience questions (pre-screened, of course)? As Tip O'Neill said, "all politics is local."

Gwen Ifill: What you probably didn't see on your local station is the additional half-hour we do taking questions from our audiences about issues of concern to them. If your station didn't air the "Washington Week Extra," you can find it online at pbs.org/washingtonweek.

Thanks for watching.

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Redmond, Wash.: Good morning (well, still is morning over here). Will the candidates for vice president be seated or standing in the debate next week, and will they be around a table, or just out in front of an audience? I don't know why, but it always seems to me that we get more candid answers from a seated, round-table-type debate than a more formal, standing-at-the-podium type. Thanks

Gwen Ifill: The candidates at the vice presidential debate will be standing. I, thank goodness, will be sitting.

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A Prospective Question: I'm looking forward to the debates, and am glad you are moderating the vice presidential candidates. One question I'd love to see posed to the respective candidates: "In your role as an elected official, what is one decision or vote you have made you that you most wish you had done differently, and why?"

Gwen Ifill: Thanks for the question. You guys are really saving me a lot of time!

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Oak Park, Mich.: Ms. Ifill, can you give me some tips as to honing my political skills as a freelance reporter, both verbally and in debates? I joined Toastmasters International and received some really good training. You look so fearless on the TV and appear to enjoy your profession. I don't even know what style to adopt. How do I get the ball rolling?

Gwen Ifill: Fearlessness is helpful, but experience is best. Just keep plugging away at what you love, and the skills will come.

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Gwen Ifill: Thank you, everyone! This was an unusually enlightening chat! Assuming there is a debate tomorrow night, be sure to tune in for a "Washington Week" preview at 8 p.m., with Dan Balz in Oxford, Miss., Michael Duffy, David Wessel and Michele Norris with me ... and a post-debate update at 11 p.m., with John Harwood in Oxford. See you then!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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