IOWA CITY– This is not a defense of Jim Lehrer. OK, maybe it is a tiny defense, but well get to that in a bit.
Wednesdays debate marked the 12th time that Lehrer moderated a debate. But that quarter-century worth of experience was hardly on display during President Obama and Mitt Romneys back-and-forths.
The 78-year-old struggled to control the action nearly from the outset, repeatedly allowing both candidates to talk over him as he tried and failed to stick to a planned format that was more or less abandoned by the time both men had finished talking about the Obamas anniversary. As Lehrer made clear up front, he was the final arbiter, and so its fair to blame him for what proved a frustratingly disjointed affair.
The Internet responded with a collective head slap as exchanges such as this one played out: (transcript via the Washington Post):
Romney: Jim, let me just come back on that – on that point, which is these ...
Lehrer: Just for the – just for record ...
Romney: ... the small businesses were talking about...
Lehrer: Excuse me. Excuse me. Just so everybody understands, were way over our first 15 minutes.
Romney: Its fun, isnt it?
Lehrer: Its OK, its great. No problem. Well, you all dont have – you dont have a problem, I dont have a problem, because were still on the economy. Were going to come back to taxes. I want to move to on to the deficit and a lot of other things, too.
OK, but go ahead, sir.
Before the debate was over, Twitter was littered with re- tweets of mocking, ellipsis-filled comments from a gimmick handle named SilentJimLehrer. As things wrapped up in Denver, even the real Lehrer appeared to realize hed delivered a less-than-stellar performance. Im not going to grade the two of you and say your answers have been too long or Ive done a poor job, he said, not saying what the rest of us were thinking at that moment.
But did Lehrer really do that bad of a job?
OK, it clearly wasnt one for his highlight reel, but we feel compelled to offer something of a defense of Lehrer if for no other reason than were not sure how anyone without a mute button or buzzer would have been able to keep the two men within their recommended response times.
You can fault the debates structure for eschewing stricter time limits in the overly optimistic hopes of more detailed debate, and likewise Lehrer for his decision not to thrust himself into the middle of the conversation in an attempt to pull answers out of the mouths of candidates who were largely happy to stick to their talking points. But a closer look at the transcripts reveals that Lehrer wasnt necessarily as quiet as he may have seemed in the moment.
By our very unofficial count, the moderator asked plenty of questions – even if they werent answered – on topics ranging from the role of the federal government to the deficit-cutting proposal known as Simpson-Bowles.
And while many critics were quick to blast Lehrer for failing to push the candidates hard enough for better answers, the transcripts again show multiple attempts by Lehrer to keep the back-and-forth going that were quickly forgotten in the storm of criticism that followed. Mr. President, please respond directly to what the governor just said about trickle-down – his trick-down approach, as he said yours is, Lehrer said in an inelegantly phrased question to Obama.
Lehrer kept at it until the final buzzer, interrupting Romney during his final monologue before the closing remarks, asking the governor But what would you do as president? Of course, that interjection managed to draw only a platitude about how both parties love America. But is that really Lehrers fault?
Ultimately, as Ted Koppel explained to Politico ahead of the event, at some point the pressing needs to come from the men on stage. Its up to the candidates to say to one another, I heard Jims question and youre not answering it, the longtime journalist said. This is not about whether we want Jim Lehrer to be president.