Jim Lehrer: First Obama-Romney debate a breakthrough for the form


After an initial burst of criticism, Jim Lehrer said “everybody is pretty well chilled-out” now about his performance as moderator of the first presidential debate this fall, and he believes it will start a new era with less involvement by moderators and more direct interaction by candidates.

Lehrer made his remarks Monday night to Sean Hannity on “Fox News.” Hannity pronounced the PBS news veteran’s performance “great” and extremely fair.

The furor over last Wednesday’s debate between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney has created strange bedfellows. Liberals who usually are big fans of PBS criticized Lehrer for being too passive, while conservatives who often hammer the public network and call for its federal funding to be cut, defended the 78-year-old anchorman.


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Lehrer noted the barbs he endured for not following up more aggressively with the two candidates. But he said that was the goal of the new debate format established by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“The whole point was ... if there was going to be any challenging, the candidates were going to have to do it themselves,” Lehrer said. “I was going to facilitate the challenging, but I wasn’t going to do it myself.”

Lehrer had hoped to try the new format in the last presidential race, but he said Republican nominee John McCain “didn’t want to play, so it didn’t work” in his debate with then-Sen. Barack Obama. Last Wednesday’s face-off was a natural progression from the less-engaging encounter of four years ago, Lehrer said.

Lehrer quipped that he was “not really keen on criticism” aimed at him. But he said the attacks had dissipated because 67-million people watched at least part of the televised debate and “spin doesn’t work if everyone has seen the event.”

DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?

Hannity did not ask Lehrer to address some other critiques, including why Obama was allowed four more minutes to speak than Romney, and why Lehrer did not explain to viewers some arcane terms, such as “Simpson-Bowles” and “Dodd-Frank,” that the candidates used.

The former refers to a bipartisan commission, created by Obama in 2010, that sought solutions to the nation’s rising indebtedness. The latter is a law, passed by Congress in 2010 in response to the economic crisis, that increased regulation of Wall Street and financial institutions.

Lehrer, who has moderated a dozen presidential debates, said he never thinks about who is winning. To do so, he said, would distract him and isn’t his role.

“As a moderator, you really are committed to being fair, which I give you a lot of credit for,” said Hannity. “I obviously couldn’t do it.”

TRANSCRIPT: Read Obama, Romney’s arguments

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