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Debate host Lehrer pushes gently for man-to-man exchanges

COMMENTARY

October 02, 2012|By James Rainey
  • Moderator Jim Lehrer stands outside the Magness Arena, site of Wednesday's presidential debate, at the University of Denver.
Moderator Jim Lehrer stands outside the Magness Arena, site of Wednesday's… (Eric Gay / Associated Press…)

Jim Lehrer will be perfectly happy, thank you, if viewers remember almost nothing about his appearance Wednesday night as moderator of the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

It’s a measure of the PBS anchor’s open-ended, nonconfrontational style that it’s hard to recall a single one of his questions, despite the fact that he has moderated more debates than any other news figure. This week’s will be his 12th, dating back to 1988.

When he moderated all three debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, Lehrer said he had no intention of stealing the limelight.  “For me to be aggressive and beat up on these guys, I’m not going to do that,” the 78-year-old newsman told Larry King on CNN at the time. “That’s not what I signed on to do and I don’t think any moderator should.”

Lehrer, longtime host of PBS’ nightly News Hour, moderated one debate in each of the last two presidential election cycles, including a 2008 debate between then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

PHOTOS: Memorable presidential debate moments

If Lehrer follows his pattern from four years ago, he will throw out broad topics for Obama and Republican opponent Romney to chew on. He will press a bit with follow-ups and, in particular, try to get the two men to talk to each other, rather than to him. But he won’t point out contradictions or imply criticism — leaving it to the candidates to do that.

Obama and McCain debated in September 2008, just as the contours of the nation’s financial meltdown began to come into full view. Lehrer began the debate by asking where Obama and McCain stood on a $700-million financial bailout plan then being talked up in Congress. Both ducked giving a straight answer, despite some modest pushing by the moderator. Obama said he would need to know more specifics; McCain said he hoped to eventually support some plan.

Despite a lack of “gotcha” queries, Lehrer still produced a few telling moments, like when he asked Obama to describe programs he would cut to make up for the money spent on the bailout.

Obama began by talking about a program he wanted to add. “We have to fix our healthcare system, which is putting an enormous burden on families,” the future president said, hinting at the importance of the issue that would come to dominate his first term. “Just, a report just came out that the average deductible went up 30% on American families.”

The 2008 candidates also punched away at themes that sound remarkably familiar four years later. Obama decried Republican plans to maintain Bush-era tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 a year. McCain talked about significant cuts in government and potentially a freeze in most federal spending.

DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?  

Lehrer’s effort in 2008 to get the two candidates to engage each other became almost comical. When Obama slapped McCain for saying that the “fundamentals” of the U.S. economy were “sound,” the veteran moderator urged the senator from Illinois: “Say it directly to him.” Obama again directed his response at Lehrer, who repeated: “Say it to him.” To which McCain quipped:  “Are you afraid I couldn't hear him?”

Lehrer knows that others will reach for more showmanship and confrontation. He doesn’t care.

"I think all kinds of discourse is good for our democratic society,” the moderator once said, according to TIME magazine, “civil discourse, uncivil discourse, screaming, hollering, poetry, however you want to have a discussion is fine with me. I'm in the civil discourse business."

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james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesrainey

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MORE COMMENTARY FROM JAMES RAINEY:

How Romney, Obama walk and what it means for America

Why Obama, Romney won't discuss huge issue for next president

Virginia GOP group chuckles over its caricature of thuggish Obama

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