It was a surreal moment in the middle of a surreal news cycle. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and his Republican challenger, Scott Wagner, sat on stage, their faces frozen and their hands clasped. And Alex Trebek, the “Jeopardy!” host and the moderator of Monday night’s debate, let loose, joking that the only thing with a lower approval rating than the Pennsylvania legislature was the Catholic Church.
Polite laughter from the audience quickly turned to boos. Trebek, dressed in a purple flowered tie with a matching pocket square, looked out at the crowd watching the two candidates face off at an upscale hotel in Hershey, Pa.
“Don’t go there,” the white-haired television host said, wagging a finger. “I was born and raised in the Catholic Church and I’m just as ticked off as everybody else is over what has happened with the church.”
He went on, unfazed by the ticking clock and the fact that the debate was nearly halfway over. “When I was a young teenager I attended a Catholic boarding school run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Two-hundred and fifty students, other boys and I, spent three years sharing the same accommodations 24/7 with 44 priests and not once in those three years was there any sexual misbehavior. Now boys are pretty sharp, we talk, we would have known. So I believe that there are Catholic priests out there who are able to minister to their congregations without preying — that’s P-R-E-Y — on the young people.”
The comments on WNEP-TV’s live feed were merciless. “Where is this going?” said one. “When do we get to hear from the candidates?” added another. A third viewer put it succinctly: “Alex, shut up.”
It wasn’t the only time that the beloved host of the long-running game show would be panned for his performance during Pennsylvania’s only gubernatorial debate. “Horrible gubernatorial debate moderators for $1,000,” Mike Barley, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania, joked to the Reading Eagle afterward. “Who is Alex Trebek?”
Trebek, who lives in California and is originally from Canada, wasn’t an obvious choice to moderate the forum. Initially joking that he had been drunk when he accepted the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s request, he later explained that he had agreed on the condition that he could do things his way — by having a “conversation,” not a traditional debate.
“What on earth was I thinking?” he said. “My god, I’m not as bright as some of you people in the audience think I am. This is not a game show tonight. This is serious stuff. And I can’t begin to tell you how much agony and stress I have experienced over these many months because I accepted that invitation.”
Trebek’s celebrity may have attracted some viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily spend their Monday night watching a political forum. But to the frustration of people who had tuned in to watch the candidates duke it out over key issues, his frequent soliloquies and long-winded questions took up a significant chunk of the 45-minute debate. Trebek prefaced one question by informing viewers that California has 40 state senators and 80 state assembly members, adding up to one legislator for every 325,000 citizens — a piece of trivia not particularly germane to the Pennsylvania governor’s race. He began another by describing a drive that he took from Lansdale, Pa. to Wilmington, Del. several years ago. He lectured the candidates about civility and the pitfalls of negative campaigning. And he counseled viewers to research the issues and vote accordingly.
What he didn’t do, John L. Micek, the opinion editor at the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, later wrote in an editorial, was give the candidates much of a chance to speak. Instead, Micek wrote, the television personality had “devoured most of the oxygen” in the room, jokingly starting off with a trivia question about the Philadelphia Eagles and later interrupting the debate to deliver his extemporaneous speech about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The game show host, who has donated to Republican candidates but was a critic of President Trump in 2016 and considers himself to be politically independent, also didn’t hesitate to share his own thoughts on Pennsylvania politics. He accused lawmakers of “shortchanging education in this state for decades,” and argued with Wagner, the Republican candidate, about the state’s pension obligations. With just minutes left on the clock, he began arguing with the audience about whether a severance tax on natural gas could benefit the state’s economy.
“The severance tax would bring in a lot of money,” Trebek said, over a chorus of disagreement. “No? No, it would not? Who says no, it would not? You have the impact fee now which has brought in $1.2 billion in the last seven years, and you’re telling me a 6 percent severance tax would not bring in money?”
Jill Greene, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, told the Reading Eagle that Trebek’s conversational tone was “problematic” and criticized his frequent interjections and asides.
“Mr. Trebek is to be commended for his obviously rigorous preparation for this event, but he is not running for Pennsylvania’s governor,” she added. “Mr. Trebek’s opinions and the opinions of the audience should have played no role in this debate, and Pennsylvanians have not gained anything through this exercise.”
On Twitter, the overwhelming consensus was that Trebek should stick to his day job. “Not really going out on a limb here, but this was a terrible debate,” concluded Ryan Deto of Pittsburgh City Paper. “Barely any policy, barely any description about what the state government does.”
“The problem with this
#PAGov debate is that Alex Trebek doesn’t seem to know how to form a direct, concise question,” commented Adam Bonin, an election attorney in Philadelphia who writes for the liberal Daily Kos blog. “Which is as ironic as anything I’ve ever seen.”
Trebek did have one fan in the local media: Steve Esack of the Morning Call, who wrote on Twitter, “Alex Trebek has done his homework. Wow! What questions and point-blank whacks on Wolf and Wagner. What a debate so far.”
And the reviews from viewers weren’t entirely negative. One Philadelphia resident called Trebek “basically the only reason to watch” the debate, while a Mechanicsburg viewer commented that it was “very cool to see him in a different role.”
But a larger — or at least more vocal — contingent walked away convinced that Trebek had achieved something rare: bipartisan consensus.
“Alex Trebek has done the impossible,” joked one anonymous Twitter user. “He’s brought together everyone in Pennsylvania to collectively agree he did a terrible job moderating this debate.”
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