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Jim Lehrer likens the job of moderating a presidential debate to “walking down the blade of a knife.” And he should know. Lehrer has moderated eleven presidential debates. It’s a distinction that’s earned him the nickname, the “dean of moderators.” In his new book, “Tension City,” Lehrer shares an insider’s account of the debate process. He draws on his own experience, and in-depth interviews with candidates and fellow moderators. His wife, Kate Lehrer, has been with him every step of the way. They take us inside the high-stakes world of presidential debates.
- Kate Lehrer author, most recently of "Confessions of a Bigamist."
- Jim Lehrer executive editor and anchor of PBS NewsHour; author of two memoirs, three plays, and twenty novels. He has moderated eleven presidential debates.
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.”
Read an Excerpt
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. President George H.W. Bush once described debates to Jim Lehrer this way, "those big-time things, it was tension city." Lehrer has been in tension city 11 times as a presidential debate moderator. His wife, novelist Kate Lehrer, has been there too, helping him craft questions and prepare. Now, the veteran PBS journalist takes us behind the scenes in his new book titled "Tension City."
MS. DIANE REHMJim and Kate Lehrer join me for an insider's account of presidential debates. I know many of you are fans of Jim Lehrer and Kate Lehrer and will join us 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Good morning and welcome to both of you.
MR. JIM LEHRERThank you, Diane.
MS. KATE LEHRERGood morning, Diane.
REHMNice to have you here.
LEHRERGood morning to you.
REHMJim Lehrer, why do you compare the experience of moderating a debate to walking down the blade of a knife?
LEHRERWell, it's a realistic analogy.
LEHRERI always felt that every time I did one of those that I was walking down that blade and any little gust of wind or gust of mistake, I could get cut. And so I always -- it grows out of the simple fact that so much is at stake not just for -- small for me, but very large for the candidates and for the country and so the knife works for me as an analogy.
REHMWell, you know, it's interesting because Kate Lehrer, you once said to Jim when he proclaimed how much of a burden this was and how nervous he was, what did you say to him?
LEHRERI said you -- just think if you think you're nervous, think about the poor candidates. Which is so -- yeah, because I was nervous enough just as his wife and I thought about the candidates, the candidates' families and thought they're going through the same thing only a zillion times worse.
REHMSo as each of the candidates gets criticism from on the other side of the television set, you too, Jim Lehrer, as a moderator, are getting lots of criticism.
LEHRERAbsolutely. It goes with the territory. There's no way to do that kind of thing and not subject yourself -- in other words, when you make the decision to accept an invitation to moderate a presidential debate, you're accepting all the baggage that goes with it, which is that there are going to be some people who are not going to like anything that you do because of their own -- what they bring to it.
LEHRERSome of the criticism is absolutely justified. I mean, there is no way to do -- I have done 11 of these and a lot of other kinds of debates. I have yet to moderate the perfect debate...
LEHRER...in terms of myself, being a perfect moderator.
LEHRERThere are always little things that are going to slip by, things that you wish you had said and you think of them 30 minutes after they've said cut and all that sort of stuff. So I'm very well aware. What carries me and haunts me and ignites me is the idea that is, am I perceived and am I, in fact, operating fairly?
LEHRERNot just to the candidates, but fairness to the ideas, to everything that's involved. And as long as somebody is not saying, oh, he's unfair -- well, they'll still say that, but if I feel myself that I was fair I can get through that and I have.
REHMNow, that's not to say that you don't look back and feel you have made mistakes.
LEHRERAbsolutely. I made several mistakes, many mistakes. 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.
REHMOh, oh, oh, oh.
LEHRERAnd he was so angry with me.
LEHRERAnd I don't blame him because it just -- it dropped his,-- it killed his rhythm and where he was and I felt like a fool.
REHMOf course, Kate, were you in the audience at that one?
LEHRERThat one I was not. I'm almost sure. I was just not there and...
REHMWere you watching it on television?
LEHREROh yes, oh yes. And they're horrible when something like that happens.
REHMOh my gosh.
LEHRERBut, of course, on something like that, I'm feeling sorry for Jim and thinking, oh, he's going -- nobody's tougher on Jim than he is on himself.
REHMExactly, he's going to beat up on himself for that.
LEHRERI was pretty sorry for the president, but I was even sorrier for Jim in that situation.
LEHRERBut the thing that Kate always reminded me that first time and just said it again that is always in my mind is that let's say I do foul up badly. The example I gave, Bush/Dukakis, it was a small foul up. But let us say I had done something huge. The worst thing that can happen to me is that I make a fool of myself and they write a story and they say, Jim Lehrer made a fool of himself and we'll never have him do any of that again. But if a candidate makes a mistake, the candidate, as Kate reminded me then and always, a candidate makes a mistake he or she loses the presidency of the United States.
LEHRERAnd the stakes are as high as they can possibly be.
REHMDo you recall the first time you were asked to moderate a debate and what your reaction was and Kate's reaction as well?
LEHRERI do remember. The call came from Edward Fouhy, who was then the executive producer. He had been a producer, an executive in television network news for years, but he was then the executive producer for the Commission for Presidential Debates.
LEHRERAnd he's the one who called me and I was stunned.
REHMYou didn't expect that?
LEHRERI did not expect it. I was honored. My first reaction was, oh, my God, I can't believe, you know, little Jimmy Lehrer, they want to do this and then I thought...
REHMWho rides buses, yeah.
LEHRERExactly. But then, of course, the reality, Diane, always sets in, oh, my God, I've got to do it.
LEHRERAnd all those things that are involved, it isn't just writing questions. It's all the many, many little pieces of it and I -- and it's scary.
REHMI want to get into the writing of those questions and the way you chart things, but Kate, do you remember that first time Jim was asked, too?
LEHRERAnd it is just as he said. I mean, he is upset about -- thinking about what he's got to do. I am upset thinking about what he's got to do and feel this need. At this point, you know, still almost like a mother, yes, well, can he get himself together? Can he get his act together to do this?
LEHRERGo to kindergarten.
LEHRERGo to kindergarten by himself.
REHMCan explain the collaboration that goes on between you? Kate, I know that Jim puts so much into it, but then he runs everything by you.
LEHRERWell, I serve as one thing, as just a sounding board out there.
LEHRERAnd I admit I am a pretty good sounding board and I can pick up the things. He is worried about getting everything in, everything right and I can take a step backwards because I'm not in the formation of everything as he's putting it together and think, oh, this doesn't quite sound right. This would be better. What if you said it? The tweaking, I'm good to catch all those things that might go by.
REHMThere was one point when you were not there at the debate and, Jim, you had put your thoughts together, your three questions, and you called Kate and what did she say?
LEHRERWell, I had a question for George H.W. Bush, a question for Bill Clinton and a question for Ross Perot and I thought they were apples questions, all three.
REHMAll three similar?
LEHRERAll three, fair to each one of them and I read them to Kate on the phone. She was in Washington. She had been on a book tour and so she couldn't go. I was in East Lansing, Mich. and I called Kate and I read the three questions. I said, here are my questions, boom, boom, and boom. And I got on the other end an absolute silence.
LEHRERAnd I thought, oh, my, I've been down this road before, but, you know, I said, you know, because I was ready to go. I was ready to go to the hall.
LEHRERAnd I said, okay, what is it, in my un-jolliest mode and she said, well, you've got two apples and one orange. And I said, all right tell me and, of course, she tells me what they were. And I said, well, great, I've got to go, and I got in the car. Fortunately, I got a break because I was in a, you know, Secret Service motorcade and the Secret Service guy took the wrong route and we ended up being stopped by a train, a freight train...
REHMOh, my God.
LEHRER...so I got to sit in the back of the car and I was thinking about what Kate had said.
LEHRERAnd I dismissed it then, but I sat in the car and I read it, oh, my God Almighty, she's right. And so I quickly -- I had time. I quickly wrote another apple, got to the hall, called Kate and told her and she -- there was no answer. She was out worrying about me.
REHMJim Lehrer, he's the author of a new book. It's titled "Tension City." Kate Lehrer's most recent novel is "Confessions of a Bigamist."
REHMJim Lehrer is here in the studio. He has just written his gazillionth book. It's titled "Tension City." It's all about his role as moderator of presidential debates. So far -- and I'm not implying anything. So far, he has moderated 11 of those presidential debates in preparation for which he is forever talking with, collaborating with, checking out his thoughts, his ideas, his questions with his beloved wife, novelist Kate Lehrer. And we are going to take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a Tweet.
REHMJim Lehrer, how did you do this book? It's rather different from the kinds of books you've been doing recently.
LEHRERWell, I've been doing -- as you know, I've been doing fiction.
REHMLots of novels.
LEHRERThe last 20 books have been fiction.
LEHRERAnd this is a whole new wrinkle. I couldn't make it up anymore. I had to be very careful with the facts and all of that. And I came -- I just decided to do it for two reasons. I had done 11 of the debates and I was pretty sure I was not going to do anymore. So why not talk about it? And I had that unique experience. Plus, I'd had this privilege of interviewing just about all of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates who had participated in these televised debates about their debate experiences.
LEHRERSo I thought the combination, this was the time to do it. And it was -- I had, you know, I had a lot of organizational problems and all of that that I was helped a lot by not only Kate, but by my fabulous editor at Random House Bob Loomis who, as I say at the end of the book, this book was a mess until Loomis got hold of it.
LEHRERAnd one thing about Kate, by the way, just let me say for the record, that yes she's my wife, but I should've put this in the book. But I've told other people this, if I'm ever asked by somebody who's going to moderate a presidential debate and say, you got any advice, Jim? And I'd say my number one advice is hire Kate Lehrer because -- as a professional 'cause her -- it was just -- you know I love you dear and let me tell you what I want to -- you know, let me help you, it just wouldn't work.
LEHRERI mean, her judgment and her professional attitude toward -- yes, it's colored by her caring for me, but it's her professional judgment that matters to me when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of these presidential debates. And so I listen to her as a professional, not just as somebody I love and has loved in return. It's isn't all of that, I'll tell you.
REHMKate, it's clear that your professional judgment has gone into what finally comes out in these debates. You know, I don't know how someone like you, married to the moderator, can sit back and not be part of what's going through his mind.
LEHRERI think part of it comes from actually both of our being novelists because there's a discipline. It doesn't do me any good, for instance, if he's going to read one of my books and just says, oh, I like it, you know...
LEHRER...or it's great. And you don't have much to do. And it actually makes me mad because I want a real critique. It's not worth it to -- it's a waste of our times and I do the same thing with him. I mean, we've had plenty of fights about it. We don't have that many fights over my helping him with debates, but I've been brain washed. I know what's the most important thing when he gets through with it is that it's a good product, that he has done a great job.
LEHRERSo I am looking at it the same way he does. And he has drilled into me, though I'm not a journalist, fairness, fairness, fairness.
LEHRERAnd that's what I look for to be sure he's got it. So in the end, he looks good. And that's all -- you know, that's what I care about.
REHMThat's what makes the difference.
REHMThere are some of the presidents and people who've been part of these debates who really enjoy the experience. There are others like George H. W. Bush who had this to say.
PRESIDENT GEORGE H. W. BUSH...well, are failing too good at them. Secondly, that some of it's contrived show business. You're prompt to get the answers ahead of time. Now, this guy -- you got Bernie Shaw on the panel and here's what he's probably going to ask you. And you got Lesley Stahl over here and she's known to go for this and that. And you got -- I'm gonna be sure I remember what Lesley's going to ask. And get this answer. No, that answer is not quite concise enough.
PRESIDENT GEORGE H. W. BUSHSo it's -- there's a certain artificiality to it, a lack of spontaneity to it. And, I don't know, I just felt uncomfortable about it.
REHMJim Lehrer, would you agree that there's certain artificiality, certain lack of spontaneity?
LEHRERWell, certainly, certainly. And that has to do with the stakes. The spontaneity can lead to a mistake and a mistake can lead to a loss. And as I said and make it very clear at the beginning of the book, the conflict on the stage is among those for whom winning is everything. And is not only everything, it is the only thing. That's the candidate and his or her handlers.
LEHREROn the other hand there's a moderator and there's the serious press. And in many respects the audience, they care -- they only want information.
LEHRERIt's a political science exercise. It's an informational exercise so the -- but the candidates are -- they will do anything and their advisors will advise them. And one of the things they're told, don't go too far. You know, be careful here. That's a third rail and they talk and talk and talk. And they avoid saying many direct things that they might say otherwise. But remember, these debates come in the last several weeks before the election. And if a guy makes a mistake and toward the end there's not enough time to correct it -- early on you can correct it, but with everybody watching, they're very, very careful. And it's carefulness that leads to the lack of spontaneity.
REHMNow, before we play our next clip, you said you talked to pretty much all the presidential, vice-presidential candidates. There were, I think, two or three...
REHM...you didn't talk to.
LEHRERYeah, Al Gore was just not interested and, for his own reasons, was very pleasant about it apparently, but was not interested in doing it. Ross Perrot was not interested in doing it. And I've even talked to him in the last couple of years about, you know, talking to him again -- talked to him again about talking. He wasn't interested in doing it. He said, no, I just don't have anything to say about it. Don't want to talk about it. He never asked.
LEHRERAnd the third was Lloyd Bentsen. By the time I got around to talking to him, he was ill. He had a stroke and he was -- he very much wanted to talk about it, but he couldn't. But those are the only -- everybody else, Clinton, all the Bushes, everybody else I talked to.
REHMAnd it's interesting that Lloyd Bentsen in his debate with Dan Quayle for the vice-presidential nomination really produced one of the most memorable exchanges.
MR. DAN QUAYLEIt is not just age. It's accomplishments, it's experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice-president of this country. I have as much experience in the congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush Administration if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
MR. LLOYD BENTSENSenator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
REHMAnd, Jim Lehrer, there is a question as to whether that response had been prepared for earlier.
LEHREROh, yeah. And I was not able to -- all I was able to do was to get two very different views of it. Some people said, oh yeah, well, they -- that Bentsen had -- the Bentsen people knew that Quayle was going to say that 'cause he'd said it many times...
REHM'Cause he had done it before.
LEHRER...he said it many times.
LEHRERAnd during the prep for the debate, one of Bentsen's guys said, well, you know, this -- and they worked on the line -- Bentsen himself -- not to me because I was not able to interview him, but in other interviews, no, no, no, he just made it up, he said. And it -- the record is a little squeamish there -- squishy there as to what actually happened.
LEHRERThe -- because Quayle himself said that he knew it was rehearsed. He said there's no question in his mind it was rehearsed and they were laying for me. And -- but it was -- it is a major moment in presidential debates, no question about it (unintelligible) .
REHMYou know, another certainly major moment was in the Nixon/Kennedy debates in 1960. Howard K. Smith. Did you watch that, Kate?
REHMI certainly did.
REHMAnd I remember this man Nixon who looked so dark and -- next to John F. Kennedy who looked so fresh and bright. And you just looked at the two of them and it was shocking in some ways.
LEHRERI agree. In fact, I remember when I watched I was fully -- I was an unformed political -- well, I wasn't even a junky yet. I had no politics one way or the other. I was just going to look and see who had the best arguments. Well, it seemed clear to me that John Kennedy just soared past him. I gather had I watched it on -- or listened on radio Nixon would have been the one...
REHMYou would have had a totally different impression.
LEHRER...yeah, totally different, totally different.
REHMWhy do you think that was, Jim?
LEHRERWell, I think it set the pattern that exists to this day, that people -- just ordinary people in any kind of conversation or presentation, they speak in two languages. They speak the language of the word and they speak the language of the body. And in presidential debates it can become huge.
LEHRERAnd the Kennedy Nixon example was one. There have been others since then where people -- because here's what happens with a presidential debate. People look at that and they want to take the measure of the candidates. Do I like this person? Can I imagine him or her sitting behind a desk at the oval office? What about if there's another Katrina? If there's -- you know, in other words, by the time you get to those debates the issues have been pretty well sorted through.
LEHRERAnd with their lockboxes on social security, all that's been resolved. Now you just want to take a measure. And the body language speaks as loudly and as clearly as do the words…
LEHRER...and that's why it's important.
REHM...even Nixon himself, as you write, said in his 1962 memoir, I paid too much attention to what I was going to say and too little to how I would look. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's open the phones, 800-433--8850. First to DeKalb, Ill. Good morning, Dennis.
REHMYou're on the air. Hi.
DENNISHi. I'm a great fan of Jim Lehrer and of you, too. I have a question regarding moderating these political debates and asking important and obvious questions even, and then insisting on getting an answer from candidates who really don't want to answer.
DENNISMy example is the Republican Debate on CNN last night. I watched it and all of the candidates ranted and railed against Obama Care and the individual insurance mandate. And then Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul whether a 30-year-old man who had chosen not to buy health insurance, but who later developed a serious life threatening medical problem should receive any sort of medical care, if that would mean that tax payers or other patients would wind up picking up the bill.
DENNISAnd Ron Paul was at least honest and forthright and he said no and said that in the old days, churches used to pay for such care. At least he didn't mention paying with chickens like Nevada did last year. And Blitzer then asked Michele Bachmann the same question. And she began by going on and on about getting rid of Obama Care and it's the first thing she'd do, et cetera, et cetera.
DENNISAnd Blitzer tried sort of a couple times to get her to answer his question, but she wouldn't even address it. And then he just dropped his attempt (unintelligible) completely to get an answer.
REHMOkay. So tell me your question.
DENNISWell, my question is, he asked this question of sort of fringe candidates and never posed that question to everyone, especially Romney and Perry. And didn't ask for any show of hands or just what they would do or ask, you know, would you deny this care and what's the reasons for (unintelligible) ...
REHMOkay. So what is...
DENNISHow do you get -- how can the press be encouraged to answer such a -- to post obvious questions such as this and demand real answers from the candidates?
LEHRERWell, it's almost impossible. If you -- 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. You -- then you have to decide when does -- I always assumed -- frankly to answer your question directly, Dennis, I always assumed that the audience is just as smart as I am.
LEHRERI ask a question the first time and the guy doesn't answer it. And then I ask it a second -- they know -- I don't have to yell, hey, you didn't answer the question. You know, I mean, it's there. It's there to be seen and you got to move on. You got to do other things. Now sometimes you move on too soon, sometimes you move on too late. But that's a fine line call.
LEHRERAnd I watched that debate last night. I saw what -- I thought Wolf Blitzer did a marvelous job. That is hard what he was doing last night. And he was basically fair to all eight of those people, which is not always the case when you have nine -- or eight or nine candidates like that. That was tough -- tough go. And I'm not saying that he handled that perfectly, but to go back to my earlier thing to Diane, nobody handles those things perfectly. There's always going to be a loose end and a little thing that could've been done.
LEHRERI think the fact that you told the story, Dennis, means you got the point. I mean, you got the point that they didn't -- that she did -- you know, in other words, you were a smart member of the audience. And that's why the Wolf Blitzers of this world and the Jimmy Charles Lehrers of this world have to count on the audience to bring their own good sense and judgment to it as much as the questioner.
REHMAnd, Kate, of course, you're always part of the audience in one way or another. How are you feeling as you're sitting there watching a debate?
LEHRERI am on the whole -- as I wait and be sure that Jim is going smoothly -- he is going smoothly. And then I start watching and listening to the candidates. And usually I know, you know, he will kick in pretty instantly.
REHMKate Lehrer. Jim Lehrer is the author of his -- what is it, Jim?
REHMTwenty-fourth book, "Tension City."
REHMAnd back to the phones, this time to Indianapolis. Good morning, Bill.
BILLGood morning. My question is about narrative. I was a debater in college and I've always taken a great interest in the presidential debate. And generally the narrative, so to speak, that comes out of the debates I generally agree with. But recently I went back and watched the 1980 debate, and there was only in that year, between President Carter and candidate Ronald Reagan. And that one really seems odd to me because when I watched it again after so many years, I thought clearly President Carter dominated the debate. As far as the two big criteria a debater would look at, presentation and knowledge, President Carter was really on top of his game, about as good of a performance as I've seen in a debate by a candidate.
BILLAnd I just wondered if after the debate, were there other factors in 1980 and do you go into that at all in your book about was it really the debate that hurt him amongst other things? Or was it simply the Iran hostage crisis that ended up doing him in? Because from everything I understand that he was very far behind coming out of the convention that year, but that the gap closed and closed and the last week or so it was neck and neck.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling.
LEHRERYeah, I don't have this in the book, but my reading of it at the time, if my recollection is correct, that there was very -- there was very little that Jimmy Carter could've done to overcome Reagan. I'm not sure the debate played a central role in that outcome, bottom line. In fact, my reading for the book pretty much said that, although I did not go into it in the book -- my book. It was -- there was so many things going against Carter already that there was -- he couldn't overcome it.
REHMBut there was that moment in the debate where the man who became President Reagan did seem to top Mr. Carter.
REHMAnd, Jim, it's that line.
REHMThere you go again.
LEHRERAnd it's a classic example of nobody listened to what he said about Medicare. The issue was Medicare and -- but it was, there you go again, it's become part of the literature of presidential debates. I mean, a good line rehearsed or otherwise makes a place and it stays that way and it made an impression that night. My only point is I'm not sure that -- I agree with the questioner from Indianapolis, that debate was probably not a deciding factor in terms of the -- 'cause Carter did just as well, except for that one line, but that got a lot of attention with what people were talking about when the debate was over.
REHMThe very first presidential debate you moderated was between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. First, what do you remember about it? And then, Kate, I wanna ask what you remember about it.
LEHRERThe thing I remember most about that debate is what remember about every debate since then is just how fast it all is. You think you got 90 minutes and you've got all things to do and you say, good evening from the Wawa, this and this and this, and then let's go. And then before you know it, it's 90 minutes. And they're saying two minutes. And it is such a concentrated thing. I have managed to, I use the term in the book, I mean, just absolutely zone out. And, I mean, the world could be coming to an end right before my very eyes and I don't see it. I'm paying -- I'm doing what I'm there to do.
LEHRERAnd because all you have to do is -- for instance, in another debate I did with Kerry and George W. -- John Kerry and George W. Bush, I lost sight in my mind. I lost track of whether it was a response or a first question. And I had to make -- I had all my notes and all my charges and I panicked 'cause I couldn't -- and I just had to guess. And it was just -- same with -- I mean, just I lost for a split second. I lost my attention. And I got away with it. I guessed right and I got away with it, but...
REHMAnd, Kate, what was it like for you?
LEHRERWell, it's that same thing. I'm just -- I am pretty much being sure he's being fair and everybody gets the right time. And then of course we don't -- that's not of course the Kitty Dukakis time, is it?
REHMYes, it is. And we're about to hear that.
REHMAnd, Kate, what was your reaction?
LEHRERWell, my reaction was -- Jim wasn't involved at that debate, but that's Bernie Shaw's debate...
LEHRER...set, but -- and question, I should say. But, in fact, I was watching that at home and I'm sure mine was just like yours. I couldn't believe he had done it.
REHMCouldn't believe it.
LEHRERJust couldn't believe it. It was shocking just hearing it.
REHMDo you think that that was an unfair question, Jim?
LEHRERYou know, I don't think it was an unfair question. I think there are a lot of people who do think so. I think that the problem was it was the mention of Kitty Dukakis as a person. And the -- but really in retrospect, it was the answer that did the harm to Michael Dukakis. It wasn't the question so much. If -- it's a double edge sword when you ask a, quote, "gotcha" type question. And that was a gotcha question. And Bernie Shaw, I've talked to Bernie Shaw about this. I talked to him about writing this book. He has no second thoughts about this at all.
LEHRERNone at all. And he just said -- as he said in the book, I don't have any first thoughts about it. I thought it was legit based on what was...
REHMA lot of people didn't want him to ask that question.
LEHRERI know. Well, there were three panelists in that debate, Margaret Warner, Anne Compton and Andrea Mitchell. And they tried to talk him out of it. And it was portrayed as, you know, the women against Bernie because they didn't want him -- they didn't want him to ask the question.
REHMBut there's a -- there was a whole back story to that that Bernie Shaw had been assured that nobody would leak that question.
LEHRERThat's right. That's right.
REHMAnd it got leaked.
LEHRERWell, he was afraid it got leaked and there was no evidence afterward that the campaign -- in other words, that the -- 'cause, in fact, I say this in the book. There's no evidence that the Dukakis campaign knew this was gonna be asked. And the best evidence is, is if he had known it was gonna be asked, why in the world would he have answered it that way.
REHMWould he have answered it that way?
LEHRERI mean, he would've prepared it. Because as George H. W. Bush said, my goodness, if he had been asked that question, he would've said I would've tried to find the guy and strangle him myself. You know, I mean, it was more the kind of dry answer with no emotion is what hurt Michael Dukakis more than the question itself.
REHMAll right. To San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, Claudia.
CLAUDIAGood morning, Diane. And I wanna thank you and Mr. Lehrer for wonderful programming which is becoming more and more rare nowadays, so thank you for that.
CLAUDIAMy question is in regards to your preparation, Mr. Lehrer, for your debates. So as I understand it you are fully in charge of choosing those questions. And do you have to submit those somewhere in advance to your network? And can you change them completely on the spot? And my other question would be is in your debates or any other presidential live televised debates that you are aware of, do candidates ever know any of those questions in advance?
LEHRERThe -- I mean, really glad you asked that. All of the questions that are asked by moderators, including mine of course, are all -- are the sole product of the moderator. They are not cleared with anybody. And, yes, you can change any -- whatever. Nobody knows what the questions are, so clearly you could change them, which I have done many, many times in the course of a debate, decided to ask something different than I had planned to ask based on an answer that had come. And so it is very important -- and also it's very important that a moderator understand that a leak of a question could be devastating.
LEHRERAnd so 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.
REHMWell, the other thing you gotta make sure that does not happen is that the technical part doesn't go down. But, in fact, on one occasion the audio and another occasion the video your opening statement, everything is blocked off.
REHMWhat did you do?
LEHRERWell, it requires the utmost of discipline not to start yelling at somebody on the air.
REHMTo stand up and say, what is the matter with you guys?
LEHRERUncover the teleprompter, for God's sake. The -- and the -- well, in each case, that's why you get -- that's why you're paid the big bucks. No, no, you're not paid any money at all to do that, but that's why...
REHMYeah, that's a good point.
LEHRER...is to be -- if you panic for something like that, then you shouldn't be a moderator.
LEHRERThat's why they want people who do that kinda thing to do that sorta work because you're used -- I have -- you know, I've been live television for many, many years and something always goes wrong. And if something -- if you go there, sit down to moderate a presidential debate and assume nothing's gonna go wrong, you're the wrong person to be sitting there. You have to assume things are gonna go wrong. And when they didn't put the opening up for the debate -- the Obama-McCain debate, I had that so cleanly in my head...
REHMDid you also have it on paper?
LEHRERI was -- I had the script. I had the script. And I was ready to look down, but I was able to go until somebody -- then suddenly somebody realized that they needed to open it up. But you could never tell that I was -- I didn't have that. But that's no big deal. That's what I do. That's what you do for a living.
LEHRERI was gonna say that. A lot of people though that watch the rehearsal, you know, I'd hear the whispering. Well, why does he have to have that up on a teleprompter, where he is and what the debate is? And I thought, don't you understand, these are the things that he shouldn’t be thinking about. And if you've got them there...
REHMYeah, of course.
LEHRER...then that's just one less thing. Why memorize those little things that can -- you know, when you've got the big things just before you?
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Burlington, N.C. Good morning, Reed.
REEDGood morning, Diane, and thank you. You always give us the best of the best.
REEDI was wondering if Mr. Lehrer -- and I'll put this in context. I remember the Democratic primary debate of 2008 and remember thinking to myself looking at the people on the dais there that, you know, while I have my preferences, I wouldn't be scared or uncomfortable with any of these people as President of the United States. I'm wondering if Mr. Lehrer, in any of the '11 debates that he's moderated, has sat down and as a citizen thought to himself, all these people could do the job or conversely, man, I don't think any of these people (unintelligible)
LEHRERReed, let me tell you the truth here. It actually goes back to Kate's point in a different context. 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.
REHMAll right. And to Durham, N.C. Good morning, Steven.
STEVENGood morning, Diane. How are you?
STEVENGood. I was calling because this morning I saw a clip on Hubski.com of Newt Gingrich kind of lashing out at a moderator. It was John Harris of Politico. I don't know if you saw that, Mr. Lehrer, but...
STEVEN...he sort of scolded the moderator for trying to get the GOP candidates to fight amongst themselves. I'm wondering if when debate -- when moderator if you've ever had one of the people on stage sort of scold you for the way you were conducting yourself and, if so, how you dealt with it.
LEHRERNobody has ever scolded me on the stage for moderating, but keep in mind on the Gingrich thing, Gingrich has made a career out of criticizing the press and he always gets -- particularly in Republican audiences, he always gets some applause and I think that's what that was about. But it's never happened to me that I -- Kate, do you remember? I don't remember anybody -- any candidate.
LEHRERNo, they didn't.
REHMThe only one would be George...
REHM...H. W. Bush saying...
LEHRERHey, hey, man, I got some more time.
REHMYeah, I still have some time. Jim, a last question for both you and Kate. Is there a different format that you think might work better for the American people?
LEHRERI think the format that was used in the first Obama-McCain debate is probably the best, where you ask a question and then you have a discussion for 9, 10 minutes about that question and then you move on. It's open. It's not restrictive in terms of 30 seconds, 1 minute or whatever. I think you need to have some guidelines, but the fewer the better, but you have to have some.
REHMKate, what do you think?
LEHRERI absolutely agree.
REHMAnd that debate you felt gave people the most that they could use.
LEHRERThe most that the candidates -- it gave the opportunity to the candidates to do what they wanted to do.
REHMJim Lehrer, we have decided that he's actually written 23 books, the latest of which is titled "Tension City." His wife, novelist Kate Lehrer, "Confessions of a Bigamist" is her most recent novel. Congratulations to both of you.
LEHRERThank you, Diane.
REHMThank you for being here. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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