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Lehrer shows why gentlemen make lousy moderators

October 04, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • PBS anchor Jim Lehrer lost control of Wednesday night's debate almost immediately, with neither candidate heeding his efforts to stick with the format.
PBS anchor Jim Lehrer lost control of Wednesday night's debate almost… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )

I'm not really sure who won Wednesday night's presidential debate, but I'm quite certain who lost: Jim Lehrer.

The venerable PBS anchor has hosted 12 presidential debates, so you'd think that by now he'd know what he was doing. Yet Lehrer lost all semblance of control over the 90-minute contest. After beginning the debate by laying out its organization into six 15-minute pods on specific topics, within minutes that scheme was in shambles as the candidates -- particularly a remarkably aggressive Mitt Romney -- ran over their allotted speaking time and completely ignored Lehrer's feeble attempts to impose order.

The result wasn't just a disorganized debate, it was a deeply boring one, even by the standards of past presidential snoozefests. Romney and President Obama retreated straight to their talking points with little regard for the actual questions they were asked to answer -- not that the questions, on wonky health and economic topics, were all that interesting anyway. We'll have to await poll results to show whether the debate shifted public opinion, but opinion can only shift if the public keeps watching long enough to hear what the candidates have to say. If watching debates weren't part of my job, I'd have switched to a rerun of "Storage Wars" after 15 minutes.

The only way to save these debates is by finding tougher moderators who'll ask tougher questions; Lehrer, to his credit, is a gentleman, a trait that should automatically disqualify him from ever moderating a debate again. What's needed is a moderator with the kind of raging ego that allows a person to say "shut up" to the president of the United States when necessary -- or to interrupt a candidate mid-sentence to tell him his answer is nonresponsive and ask him to please address the actual question. A few suggestions:

  • Donald Trump. This prince of bombast has exactly the right personality traits to be a knockout debate moderator. Unfortunately, he's such a partisan that he couldn't possibly be trusted to treat both candidates fairly. Too bad -- the Trump Presidential Rumble is a debate I'd want to watch.
  • Simon Cowell. The danger is that he'd want to give personal reviews of the candidates' responses, but there's no doubt he's got the chutzpah to put them in their place.
  • Betty White. If she could channel Sue Ann Nivens again for just one evening, she could have Romney and Obama sitting up straight and eating duck a l'orange out of her palm. Even if she couldn't, she's reached that age at which a person stops caring about what others think about what she says. Sign her up.
  • Mr. T. "Shut up, fool. I'm a' hit you so hard, your mama get a fat lip." 'Nuff said.

Obviously, none of these people -- in fact, no one who would actually be an effective moderator -- will ever be chosen to run a debate, because the campaigns choose debate formats and they don't want a strong figure who might interfere with a recitation of their man's pre-chewed fact-McNuggets. There still has to be a better way for Americans to vet their leaders.

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