Jim Lehrer on Hosting Debates

Monday, October 08, 2012

Jim Lehrer moderating the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Getty)

Jim Lehrer, former PBS News anchor and author of Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, reflects on the presidential debates he's hosted, including the first Romney-Obama debate last week.


Jim Lehrer

Comments [68]

Emil Scheller from Fort Lee, NJ

I did not expect Lehrer to challenge any statements. I did expect him to enforce the rules. When Romney insisted on extra time, Lehrer first said well, your time is up but then didn't have the courage to stick to it, invariably backing down with: "well, all right go ahead." We would have been better off without any moderator.
If a moderater has any function at all, it is to enforce the debate rules. Lehrer failed to do that. It was a disgraceful performance.

Oct. 11 2012 06:27 PM
Jeanette Spoor

I listened to the show and am quite disenchanted with Jim Lehrer's pontificating in regard to his moderation of the Romney-Obama debate or lack thereof! There is a reason answers should be limited to 2 minutes! You allowed Romney to go on and on and yet offer no substantive answers. Please, retire and let someone who has better skills do the moderating from now on! And I say this as a Jim Lehrer admirer! To say I was disappointed in his performance is an understatement!

Oct. 11 2012 01:04 PM
Harry from North Carolina

Jim was a poor reflection of his past. Very inept with the management
of this debate. It was so bad that I turned off after about 40 minutes.
It is time to call it a day and younger talent run these ever so important

Oct. 11 2012 04:54 AM
Dave Krueger from NYC

I too was bitterly disappointed to hear overpaid cerebrally edited pundits weigh in on Willard's winning 'style' 'crispness' and 'cool'.
Maintaining a pleasant surface for a public that looks no deeper is a breeze when you lie with impunity.
It's equally cruel to demand Lehrer's retirement with or without the snark. He's operating in a bygone world and god help us retain a vestige of it lest Willard's ilk obliterate all memory of integrity.

Oct. 10 2012 11:30 PM
norma fitzpatrick from milford ct

Dear Jim,
Your performance as moderator was dismal. It was weak and sad. If it hadn't been such an important event it wouldn't have mattered but much was riding on your performance or lack thereof. I was looking for you to be in control and you clearly were not.
If you will study your performance you looked like a lap dog constantly looking to the left as though enamoured of Mitt Romney's every word. You stumbled over the president's title as though he was a stranger in the room.
I will be honest, I am an Obama supporter, but had I supported Romney I would still have to say you threw Obama under the bus. I also admit Obama's performance was poor. Still you lacked control. I think a beginning high school moderater could have done a better job.
I was more than disappointed by your performance. As my mother would say, "Do the job right or don't do it at all"
Sometimes it's hard to know when it's time to retire gracefully. You did the American people a grave injustice you might want to consider working in the garden. Great is the man/woman who knows when to quit, and better still is the man/woman who takes responibility for their actions and admits perhaps they "messed" up.

Oct. 10 2012 07:48 PM
Harriet Rita Semegram- Barry from New York

No excuse or so called rational explanation can excuse the poor lousy job as mediator by Jim Lehrer. I suspect it is time for retirement or treatment for senility.

Oct. 10 2012 07:34 PM

Informative interview. Even I wasn't clear on the debate format change and the portent for the outcome. Neither apparently, was the Obama team. The difference is that I am not paid to be informed. They are.

The President was caught flat-footed because 1) his primary goal was not to be goaded into an angry or intemperate response which the FoxNews megaphone could play up as a reason to not vote for 'that angry black man' and 2) he thought that calling out Mitt on the majority of his BS would make him look nit-picky and trivial. Fact-checking and truth-busting aren't the President's job. News for Mr. Obama - They CERTAINLY ARE Candidate Obama's job! Start doing it or be prepared to not be President.

The fact that Candidate Whopper has been allowed to spread so much BS and get away with it for so long is what amazes me.

Oct. 09 2012 10:17 AM
Max from Northern NJ

Okay, if Obama wasn't assertive enough, and Romney steamrollered over everyone, why don't we hear from the OTHER Presidential candidates in these debates?

Oct. 09 2012 04:02 AM
scott from soho

It is truly amazing that a good portion of the Brian Lehrer audience continues to make excuses for Obama's pathetic debate performance. He did not lose the debate due to the moderator, optics, altitude, or Romney telling lies. Obama lost the debate because his opponent has a simple to grasp plan to drag this country out of the hole it is in. Hope is nice, but a business plan showing people how to achieve a little success is even better.

Oct. 08 2012 06:02 PM
rem from Albany, NY

Thank you for this interview. Upon reflection, I think Jim was exactly right in his theory of what the moderator's role in a debate ought to be, I just wish he'd made a brief statement to strategy at the beginning of the debate so that the viewers could have better appreciated what he was doing.

I watched the debate on PBS and thus wasn't distracted by split-screen camera angles, clocks and banners running across the screen, twitter or other opinions and was able to, in an old-fashioned way, form my own opinion during the debate. I felt during the debate that Obama did a much better job of explaining his ideas to the people while Romney horrified me with the way he was steamrolling over Jim and Obama. (Jim's strong statement of strategy today was not evident at the time when I saw frustration in his face as he closed in his eyes each time he was talked over.) I found Romney to be very rude, and cringed at the idea that he might talk to foreign leaders this way. Of course, I was shocked to hear the pundentry after the fact unanimously declaring that Romney had "won."

Jim was right in that he had no place to bring up the 47% or other dirt. In theory, he was also right to keep the format open. All we ever hear is soundbites from the candidates that come along with opinions from pundits - this is one of the very few opportunities to hear them talk uninterrupted without someone else whispering in our ears. Unfortunately, the lack of interruption lead to grandstanding (especially by Romney, in my opinion)rather than debate and actual discussion. In my mind, Obama did a better job at actually getting into the substance of the issues, which I think ought to count for something. Unfortunately, depth, substance and accuracy of facts do not seem to be valued by many who have commented on the debates.

Oct. 08 2012 04:30 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Obama was AWOL during the debate?
Didn't like the way JL moderated?
Romney rope a doped Obama?

Just blame Bush.

When Biden crashes and burns, blame Cheney remote mind control waves broadcast from his secret island.

Oct. 08 2012 02:11 PM
Max from Northern NJ

Sheldon from Brooklyn, you claim that I am wrong about the Electoral College.

I have never lived in an early primary state, I have never lived in a swing state. This is my eleventh United States Presidential election.

Parties' candidates have all been chosen before my states' primaries. I have never seen a television spot featuring a Presidential candidate, nor have I ever heard a radio commercial promoting a Presidential candidate. Always, the outcome in my state has been a foregone conclusion well before voting day, primary or general. No candidate need consider my opinion; my vote is meaningless.

Had the United States direct election of its President, candidates might display a modicum of interest in my values, vision, and hopes for this country. They don't. The primary calendar and Electoral College have disenfranchised me.

So tell me, please, again, that I wrong.

Finally, for what it's worth, no candidate for whom I have voted has ever won a Presidential election.

Oct. 08 2012 01:41 PM

Lehrer got rolled over, but who cares?

Now there's just further proof that Romney is the kind who rolls over people in his way - even the referees. It confirms that Romney's reflexive stance is for ruthlessness, half-truths, and self-aggrandizement.

If Lehrer and Obama's relative passiveness in the debate provide a foil to Romney's prdictable alpha-male aggression, then so be it. I trust Americans are smart and conscientious enough to figure that out.

But, it's the media punditocracy whom I doubt. They expect and even demand that candidates to be the outspoken, rabidly big-talkers that they are. They are mistaken in prioritizing that. Go ahead, ask a poll of people about "Minnesota nice" and see which set of traits - Romney's caustic aggressiveness or Obama's studied, conversational passivity - is more highly valued as an interpersonal trait.

Which is more trusted, valued, and respected - even among politicians who are "protecting" us?

I would suggest that Obama's casual demeanor is preferred over Romney's attack-mode. A President Romney could not get wizened counsel from his staff if he is as impatient as he showed himself to be. (Nor could he effectively work with the Legislature - just as this weekend's NY Times showed he could not in Massachusetts.)

And which would you prefer to have in command of the world's largest and more powerful military? The cool operator or the pushy hot-head?

Oct. 08 2012 12:32 PM
DJ Glass

Jim just explained that debates help the American people know who the candidates are because it gives the candidates an opportunity to show that they can clearly articulate their thinking. Unfortunately, debates have become a forum for speech writers and debate coaches. The answers given during the debates are a series of canned answers, given in response to broad topics. These are not opportunities to hear the candidates speak on their own and articulate their ideas. It's rehearsed, Pavolovian speechifying (I know that's not a word) in short bursts when a candidate hears key words or phrases. We really don't have a sense of either candidate's ability to think on his feet.

Oct. 08 2012 11:25 AM
fuva from harlemworld

NER from NJ, I hear you.

Oct. 08 2012 10:41 AM

Jim Leher was not the issue!!

Jim thanks for a great job

Oct. 08 2012 10:39 AM
NER from NJ

I noticed during the debate and here on the air that Jim Lehrer referred to President Obama as "Obama" and "he" (i.e., "Do you have any response to what 'he' said?" I was surprised and disappointed at what sounded like an unprofessional and disrespectful way to address a sitting president.

Jim Lehrer sounded very defensive in this interview. I thought his performance in the debate was stumbling and ineffective, no matter how he tried to justify it.

Oct. 08 2012 10:34 AM
Andrea from Rockland

The only comment that Romney made that wasn't scripted or rehearsed was the PBS remark. That was the foot in mouth Romney that we know and have experienced many times before.

Oct. 08 2012 10:32 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I think it was a GOOD debate and that Jim Lehrer did an excellent job moderating it.

Oct. 08 2012 10:32 AM
mercedes from cortlandt manor

I'm writing because the call-in line is consistently busy. One question to Jim Lehrer would be "Did Obama know that the format was so different?" And I get it, if he clearly understoon the new rules that he didn't match Romney. And I'm not saying that Romney was better. I was bothered by the interruptions. That does indicate how he would run our country! And more importantly, his fudging with the truth. If Obama had confronted him, it could have ended up in just a "He said-he said." situation that gets nowhere and wastes time. A bit more moderation and quite frankly, astute facilitation would have been more helpful. (and still using information acquired before the debate to ask pertinent questions). And, Obama did start the same way in his presidency->looking fir civilized discussion and compromise and was naive enough to believe that if he was just respectful and considerate that things would get done. And personally, taking my bias for Obama into consideration,I still think that he came out as more thoughtful and presidential. Romney changing his rhetoric for the moment (his usual) and yes, being disrespectful (his party's usual) was just obvious and didn't sway me a bit.

Oct. 08 2012 10:32 AM

Lots of great questions on this thread. Unfortunately, Brian Never uses anything for this comment section anymore. What a loss.

Oct. 08 2012 10:32 AM
Hoshiar Abdollah from Kingston Canada

I am a regular viewer of News Hour and admirer of Mr. Lehrer but I believe that his worst performance. He was bulled Romney and did call him on his blatant lies such pr-exsiting conditions and his record as a Governor among other. Mr. Lehrer did not touch on many issues such as women issues, gay rights, guns and immigration. The debate would have better without him.

Oct. 08 2012 10:31 AM
Pete from Brooklyn

Does Leher support making public the agreement between candidates regarding the debate. According to Open Debates, "Robert F. Bauer of the Obama campaign and Benjamin L. Ginsberg of the Romney campaign negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates, including how the format will be structured. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation created by and for the Republican and Democratic parties, agreed to implement the debate contract. In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates is concealing the contract from the public and the press."

Oct. 08 2012 10:30 AM
clark from NJ

I hated ALL the questions. Compare & contrast your view on X to your opponent's. They're not taking a bluebook exam.
I want hard questions on the candidate's view, not what they think their opponent thinks.

Oct. 08 2012 10:30 AM
james andrea from Brick, NJ

It's somewhat disingenuous to say he likes to let it be when he's already acknowledged that they were talking AT each other, and as for Romney's aggressiveness just being a display of verve edginess - even finally, belatedly, Lehrer had to stop Rohmney when he was going off with a phrase, "Let's look at this" and Lehrer countered "Let's not." Romney set the tone and the moderator should not let this occur, lest he wants to be seen as too passive.

Oct. 08 2012 10:29 AM
ethan from bk

wow -- jim lehrer is just as floppy and afraid to voice an opinion on this show as he was at the debates! nice. i'm sorry, but the man is too old to be presiding over presidential debates. if you're too tired and sad to enforce the actual rules of the debate (or, for that matter, to bring up *any* domestic issues other than the economy) then you should not be working in that capacity.

i'm sure once the presidency is decided, mr. lehrer will be more than willing to call the losing candidate disparaging names as he just did to mccain. all this evasion is just annoying to listen to.

Oct. 08 2012 10:29 AM

"I had to cut from the bottom." --- that's exactly why it was very poorly moderated. Instead we got 2 men repeating themselves. Jim knows what he did wrong!

Oct. 08 2012 10:29 AM
Xtina from E, Village

bcortez I am ignoring whatever you said since in your comment you got my name wrong, I don't have an @ in front of my name

Oct. 08 2012 10:28 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Did Mr. Lehrer take Romney's "PBS Big bird" comment personally?

Oct. 08 2012 10:28 AM
Cathy McConnell from West Islip

Can you ask Jim Lehrer how the press can help the public when candidates are clearly lying during debates? When so much of the public watches the debates while not really paying attention to the political news on a regular basis, if no one calls out the lies, they stand as if they are the truth, and low informations undecided will be making their decision based on lies. Clearly this is not in the interest of the country.

Oct. 08 2012 10:27 AM
Nancy from Brooklyn

Does Mr. Lehrer really believe last Wednesday's format allowed the voters to hear an unrehearsed debate? Mitt Romney did nothing but rehearse his fictions for weeks before the debate. The format enabled him to deliver those fictions unimpeded for 90 minutes. The format did not offer voters a clearer picture of either candidate's actual proposals or achievements, Mr. Lehrer's self-congratulatory claims notwithstanding.

Oct. 08 2012 10:27 AM
fuva from harlemworld

-- O may have also held back because he thought that Romney's obnoxiousness would backfire. Rope-a-dope, but it failed. UNLESS, this was just the first proverbial round and Romney will yet self-destruct by lying and contradicting himself out of any shred of credibility.

-- And, yes, since day one, as a black man, O has taken care to not come off too aggressive. And yet he's criticized for not being aggressive enough. As usual, a brother can't win. But he better.

Oct. 08 2012 10:26 AM
Robert Plautz from New York, N.Y.


On Sam Roberts' program on NY 1 last Saturday night, Clyde Haberman said that Jim Lehrer was "incredibly ineffectual" during the debate. I would suggest that you might want to have Haberman on and ask what he meant and to challenge some of the things that Jim Lehrer has said today.

Bud Plautz
New York, N.Y.

Oct. 08 2012 10:26 AM
Linda from Ardsley

I've always liked and respected Jim Leher, but if as he says he wanted all of the world to see what the 2 candidates were like,... why be there at all? I think he should have controlled Romney's excesses and prevented him from running over

Oct. 08 2012 10:26 AM

Don't go by the clock, Brian, go by the word count. Rommney got way more words.

Oct. 08 2012 10:25 AM

As of today., Obama's lead is gone....unless he and Biden kick butt in the remaining debates Romney will win and America will lose.

This was NOT "just 90 minutes" it was he first time over 60 million people could see the candidates together.......a passive inactive cowardly "moderator" isn't moderating anything.

JIm Leher is in utter denial. He screwed up.....he should have challenged Obama to respond and should have held the line with Romney and not allowed him to dominate. In other words...he should have moderated. Instead he played the role of a potted plant.

What's done is done....but it's truly a shame that the course of human history will be altered by the fact that Romney was allowed to lie without being called on it....and now millions of people are believeing the lies and buying the con job.

Oct. 08 2012 10:24 AM
Er-nay from UWS

Obama "lost" the debate in the split-screen. It's not so much of what he said, but rather what we saw of him while Romney was speaking. Any filmmaker could tell you this. - - - It's the cutaway that counts.

Oct. 08 2012 10:24 AM
Vicki from Brooklyn

Jim Lehrer is a grown-up, and he believes other voters should be capable of being grown-ups, too.

Oct. 08 2012 10:24 AM
niki from Brooklyn

Where does the impetus need to come from to include third party candidates in these debates?

Oct. 08 2012 10:24 AM
Francisco from LA

I thought Jim was brilliant. I agree with Jim 100%. This is about the candidates not about the moderator. I appreciate the format because it exposed each candidate at a very personal level, especially their character and where they are in regards to their campaigns.

Oct. 08 2012 10:24 AM

Jim, I had the greatest respect for you and your work. But you blew it. Romney walked all over you. Time to own up to it.

Oct. 08 2012 10:23 AM
DYV from Park Slope, Brooklyn

What is the point of a moderator if he/she isn't there to facilitate the conversation, ask questions, GET answers, keep time?
The point of a moderator should be to ask solid questions about the issues and demand cogent answers from the candidates and keep them to their allotted time and on the rails.

If the moderator isn't going to organize and guide the event, you might as well just throw them in a ring and let theme beat each other. Seriously.

Oct. 08 2012 10:23 AM

@Xtina as Lehrer said: by allowing Mittens to act as he did, Lehrer was allowing people to see what he is like and to judge him by that. You and I agree that Mitt was very rude, perhaps that Obama could have done better, and in this case, I think Lehrer is right. If people like rude people who flip-flop their opinions of everything, then Mitt is their guy; not me.

Oct. 08 2012 10:23 AM
Andrea from Rockland

The presidential debate was a media event which makes the format obsolete in our world today. People who have not followed the issues will decide to vote for a candidate solely based on an evenings' performance. Many people do not follow the entire campaign but are trained to enjoy reality show antics. Many folks think Romney won last weeks' reality show, called the presidential debate. Too bad!

Oct. 08 2012 10:23 AM
Jeff in Manhattan

The irony of Jim Lehrer's hands-off position in the debate -- that it's not his job to do the challenging -- is that it is the exact OPPOSITE of what made his News Hour valuable. The show takes issues and delves into them, while network news shows present competing sound bites from the two sides. And yet he chose to run the debate the way the networks show the news, instead of using the strengths that made him a possibly interesting choice to moderate in the first place. Really, really weird.

Oct. 08 2012 10:23 AM
Hell's Kitchen from Manhattan

I've watched PBS's "NewsHour" since I was a kid, and I lost a lot of respect for Mr. Lehrer during the debate, and am rapidly losing what's left of it during this interview. To call the "overwhelming response" to the debates "positive" is borderline delusional, not to mention a little shabby when it comes in the guise of hawking his book.

It's a very defensive interview--too bad Mr. Lehrer couldn't have been this animated last week in Denver.

Oct. 08 2012 10:22 AM
Xtina from E. Village

Mr. Lehrer this 'debate' was a FAILURE. It didn't give American voters any information they needed to cast their votes.

Oct. 08 2012 10:22 AM
Scott from South orange

Its interesting how much sharper he seems in this show than his. Like the debates format is everything.

Oct. 08 2012 10:22 AM

Why was every questions structured in such a way where each candidate had to compare and contrast each issue between the two debaters. Why should the president be responsible to clarify an opponents position while justifying his own.

Oct. 08 2012 10:21 AM

If Jim thinks his job is to stay out of they way, then please ask him why we needed him there at all?????

Oct. 08 2012 10:21 AM

@ Nick: I thought I was the only one that thought Obama attempted to avoid the "angry black man" label, ergo his passive posture in the first debate. Thanks for sharing.

Oct. 08 2012 10:21 AM

oh! I see, yeah I was pretty upset Mittens was being so rude to Lehrer, but I like what he said now: "judge it". Basically Mittens' behavior should let us all know what he is like. Well, I already knew much of him by watching his camping speeches and flip-flopping, but this was the icing on the cake.

Oct. 08 2012 10:20 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Max - you are wrong about the electoral college.

Oct. 08 2012 10:19 AM
Joe from nearby

Rmoney showed how rude he is.....& covered it up with that sneaky smile. He reminds me of Kaa in Jungle Book.

I just don't trust him.

Oct. 08 2012 10:18 AM
Xtina from E. Village

Jim Lehrer, make your excuses all you want, this was your WORST performance of your life. IRRESPONSIBLE.

Please ask Mr. Lehrer why he allowed Romney to ignore the time rules and walk all over you.

Oct. 08 2012 10:18 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Jim Lehrer lost control of the debate too quickly.

Oct. 08 2012 10:17 AM

Lehrer's debate problem is not that he allowed for a free flow of exchange. It was that he did not move the debate along onto other topics. He left the presidents just repeating themselves. Lehrer could easily have had the cover many other topics that matter to voters. The lack of issues covered is something that Jim should definitely apologize for.

Oct. 08 2012 10:16 AM

the 47% comment was not an issue...Jim Lehrer is NOT the problem

Oct. 08 2012 10:16 AM

I agree that Obama could have done a better job pointing out the lies and flip-flopping of Mittens, but I think the debate seems disorganized. At the beginning Lehrer said that many questions has been "received" and that he was chosen the questions to be asked, and that "the candidates" had not been informed of these questions. Yet, I think I heard two questions?!! Not sure what happened there, but beyond the country's debt, I was more concerned was related costs and how the country can use that on US not the war.

Anyways, not Lehrer is also changing his mind about what I thought he was going to do. For all I know, Obama was as confused as I was about this "debate".

Oct. 08 2012 10:16 AM

If, as Mr. Lehrer says, gaffes expose a weakness in a candidate, what weakness was exposed by Obama's poor performance in the debate?

Oct. 08 2012 10:16 AM
Max from Northern NJ

What can be done to open these debates to all candidates? Most Americans don't know that there are more than two candidates for President. (Not that it truly matters; given primary schedules and the Electoral College, most Americans are disenfranchised from Presidential elections, anyway.)

Oct. 08 2012 10:14 AM
Rachel from Sunset Park

Regarding the Perry gawf and Jim's comments, what about the Dean Scream?

Oct. 08 2012 10:13 AM

I appreciate the idea of communicating ideas to the public, but communication DOES NOT supplant creative ideas that translate into policy. Let's no go overboard on the importance of communication vis a vis policy.

Oct. 08 2012 10:13 AM

I was interested in knowing if Mr. Lehrer in any way felt hesitant about confronting Governor Romney after he said he would eliminate funding for PBS which has been the center of Mr. Lehrer's professional life for the past forty years.

Oct. 08 2012 10:12 AM
Nick Lento from NJ

Leher screwed up...but so did Obama...and Romney was allowed to totally change all his positions andlie his way to access 60 million people, most of whom haven't been following any deatils of he campaign. The etch a sketch was shaken and Obama's lead is gone. A perfect "poop storm" of mendacity, passivity and a shell shocked Obama unwilling to risk being labeled "the angry black man".

Shame on Jim Leher for not accepting his share of the responsibility for this fiasco.

Oct. 08 2012 10:12 AM
fuva from harlemworld

I had no problems with Jim Lehrer's moderation (white/male monopoly aside). Freeflowing debate has its merits. O just wasn't ready. His caution -- given that he had the most to lose with his lead in the polls -- was a reasonable calculation, but it failed.

Oct. 08 2012 10:07 AM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

Mr. Jim -

Thank you for your many years of fine work.

In your opionion, which candidate was less 'mindful' of the debate rules, format and moderation?

Also, from your seat did the President give as weak a performance as he has been criticized for?

Oct. 08 2012 09:56 AM
g from staten island

Jim Lehrer should have been more aggressive is shutting Romney up. He allowed Romney to "take over" when it was not his turn to speak. Microphone should be shut off when it not a candidate's turn. Next time the moderators should give speakers maybe 30 seconds over their time and then shut off the microphone. That will force the candidates to get to the point if they have one and not waste time on filler sentences/delay tactics.

Oct. 08 2012 09:54 AM

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