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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

Star of the candidate forum: the moderator

August 19, 2008|DANA PARSONS

Let me suggest the creation of a new governmental position: Moderator General.

And it just so happens I have a nominee: Rick Warren.

Yes, he already has a job as pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, but based on his performance Saturday in interviewing John McCain and Barack Obama, the young man has another talent that needs to be tapped.

Forty-eight hours after the event, I'm still overly bubbly because I feared that Warren's back-to-back interviews with the presidential aspirants would fall flat. I admired his intentions in injecting questions of faith into the presidential mix. I had wondered whether either McCain or Obama would open up in front of an evangelical pastor and his congregants. Not to mention a national TV audience. Another concern was whether Warren had the chops to nudge the two men to say more and dig deeper into their souls than we're used to hearing.

I wouldn't call it a virtuoso performance by Warren, but it was darn good. I made several notes at times that I wish he'd ask the tough follow-up question, but he didn't. He even said during the Obama hour that he could ask more about abortion but wanted to move on to other questions. I'd have preferred the added question or two, just to see how Obama would react.

Same with McCain. When Warren asked him what it meant on a daily basis to be a Christian, McCain gave the Sunday School response that it meant he was "saved and forgiven." But then he immediately switched tacks to tell an oft-told story about a prison guard who helped him when he was a captive in Vietnam.

Warren might well have asked McCain why he seemed so reluctant to elaborate on the here and now. McCain's brevity, in fact, contrasted with an extended answer to the same question from Obama.

And to continue with my nitpicking, Warren gave them some easy ones with questions about orphans or victims of human trafficking. No way to look bad in answering those questions, but they are subjects that matter to Warren, and who can blame him for giving them exposure?

So, what did Warren do well?

Just about everything else. For starters, he set the perfect tone. He was conversational, he was earnest, he was funny when appropriate, he was knowledgeable.

The idea wasn't to make anyone squirm; it was to ask questions they presumably couldn't rehearse for and to show us sides we don't see when they're talking about offshore drilling or tax increases.

Those questions are vital in an election season, but Warren's genius is to understand that more goes into presidential picking than position papers. In fact, he told each candidate that he didn't want to hear their standard stump speech on a given question.

Warren got them to be reflective, at times. If some questions were softballs, asking them to identify their greatest moral failures and America's greatest moral failure were not.

McCain said without elaboration that it was his first marriage (follow-up question, Pastor Warren!), and Obama said it was his teenage experimentation with drugs and alcohol that stemmed from his self-pity. That is good stuff.

Obama showed the "He's a closet Muslim" crowd that if he is, he sure knows his Christian catechism, too. He invoked the Book of Matthew and seemingly easy familiarity with expressions like "walking humbly with our God." Those kinds of answers, mixed in naturally during the hour, got much more to his core than if someone were to ask, "People have said you're a closet Muslim. Are you?"

McCain struck me as more austere during his hour but also showed his Main Street brand of humor when he was asked to name the three wisest people he knows. He gave a thoughtful reply and before the next question, quipped: "I hope they get easier."

But it came back to Warren. He created a mood in which both candidates opened up. In this context, nothing wrong with him high-fiving Obama after the senator deadpanned a reference to Warren's profits from his book sales.

Sure, the conversations could have been more enlightening, but this was far from an idle exercise. Warren showed it is possible to get candidates to move beyond sound bites and to reveal a bit of themselves. The best interviewers get people to say things we don't normally hear from them.

"These are the kinds of forums we need," Obama said at the end, "where we have a conversation." He went on to say, "I want people to know me well, and I'm sure John McCain feels the same way."

Rick Warren helped that cause. When you think how dull the evening could have been, you realize what a good job he did.

And although this was probably just a one-night stand, I found myself wanting a couple more hours with Obama, McCain and Warren.

On a Saturday night, they made for delightful company.

--

Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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