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Jim Lehrer Will Moderate First of Four 2012 Election Debates

August 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced the line-up for the 2012 presidential debates, naming the PBS NewsHour's Jim Lehrer as the moderator of the first debate on Oct. 3, as well as Martha Raddatz, Candy Crowley and Bob Schieffer. Jim sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss his decision to take on another debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one more campaign story.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has selected moderators for three presidential debates and one between the vice presidential candidates this fall.

Our own Jim Lehrer will moderate the first on October 3 in Denver. It centers on domestic issues. The second will be a town meeting moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN on October 11 on Long Island. Bob Schieffer of CBS News will do the third forum on October 22 in Boca Raton, Fla., focused on foreign policy. The vice presidential debate will be moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News on October 16 in Danville, Ky.

Jim has presided over 11 presidential and vice presidential debates, beginning in 1988. And he authored a book about them last year titled “Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates From Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain.”

Jeff sat down with Jim earlier this afternoon.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Jim, the invitation comes to you. Were you surprised? And, you know, you have said in the past, no more. So, why did you agree this time?

JIM LEHRER: Well, I agreed because of the format.

The commission over a period of weeks worked on a format that is new and has the potential for being terrific, which is more open.


JIM LEHRER: And it’s going to be six segments, 15 minutes each. And there will be a question-and-answer at the beginning of each segment, but the rest of the time is open time.

And it will encourage the candidates to address each other and question each other. And it was an opportunity, something that I very much believed in, and was asked by the commission way back in the spring, as a person who was not going to be participating in the debates, just as a…

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, just to think about how to do it. Yes. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. There were several ideas. They had a meeting of the commission, not to make any decisions, but just to kind of gather information.

And I was asked to comment just as a resource. And one of the questions they asked me was about this idea of the 15-minute segments. And I thought — I said it was terrific.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, because we talked about this when your book came out.


JEFFREY BROWN: And I know that we talked about all the different formats there have been, frustrations with all of them. Right?


JEFFREY BROWN: And you said before that you like more freewheeling, open, when they can really engage with each other.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s what this has the potential.

In fact, it is ready-made. And the opportunity for me, to see if I can make this work, was too inviting. I said — as you know, I said, no more. I have done my 11. I have the psychic scars to show it. It’s hard. It’s hard work.


JEFFREY BROWN: What did you say before? It was walking the knife’s edge without — that was the expression.

JIM LEHRER: Exactly, walking on the blade of a sharp knife.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Right. Right.

JIM LEHRER: And I have done that.

And — but this one, it — I’m not acting — I’m not suggesting that it was all for goodness and mercy reasons. It was exciting to me to — when finally confronted with the invitation, confronted with the opportunity to do this was exciting. And I could not say no.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, of course, major news in the campaign, and we’re covering it throughout the show today, with the announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate.

And a lot of the early commentary is about this setting up more of a real debate about the role and size of government. Now, you’re looking at a debate that will be over domestic policy, right?

JIM LEHRER: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how do you — and I know it’s early.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are just starting to think about this. But mining for themes, mining for information, what will you be looking at, do you think?

JIM LEHRER: Well, most of it is pretty obvious.

One of the things that has already crystallized are some very, very stark differences between what these two sets of candidates have in mind for the country for the next four years, Obama-Biden, if they’re reelected, Romney-Ryan if they are elected.

And — but my job will be strictly is to engage on those stark differences. And so the — this is being done for the voters. This isn’t a television program. These are not people out there watching for ratings. These are people who are deciding for whom to vote for president of the United States.

And my job is strictly to — is to help the candidates, help the candidates explain in a way that the voters understand what the choices really are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Help the candidates do that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. The candidates need to be able to explain it, need to be able to explain their positions.

And — but it’s in a way that is understandable and that is — and that there’s enough time there for the moderator in my case, in the first — the case of the first debate, which I will be moderating, there’s time for me to kind of probe and ask follow-ups and try to get them to engage and all of that.

But, remember, it’s being done for the voters. That’s it. That’s what it’s all about.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we talk all the time these days about doing politics, doing the news media in the age of social media, right…


JEFFREY BROWN: … in the age of 24-hour cycle, instant everything. Right?

Do you think that the role of the debates changes at all in this era, either more or less important?

JIM LEHRER: I think — I don’t know whether it’s more or less important.

I know they’re extremely important, because one thing has not changed. All the social media stuff in the world, it’s going to be — use October 3, the first debate. In that 90 minutes, it will be the first time that these two candidates for president will be sitting or standing side by side talking about the same things.

And social media will play an input role going in and an output role coming out, no question about it, in terms of reaction and all of that. But what is going to be — what the people are going to see and hear are the real words of these two real men talking. And that has nothing to do with the social media.

It has a lot — the social media has a lot to do, as I say, with the buildup and how it plays, et cetera, and how — because these things tend to have an awful lot of life afterward. And social media will be part of the life afterward. But the event itself will be old-fashioned, in the best sense of the word.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s how you judge success, right, is by the degree to which they engage and people see them?

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely right.


JIM LEHRER: And do they see the differences?

OK, now I know what my choice is. Boom. He’s in favor of this. He’s not in favor of that. I — that’s what I feel, et cetera. Put your own views in the context of what these two men believe and say they will do, specifically what they will do, in one case if reelected, in the other case if elected.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, October 3 in Denver, the first presidential debate.

Jim, you’re looking forward to this?

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely, I am. I’m excited about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jim Lehrer, thanks.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff interviewed Jim last year about his book “Tension City.” Find that and a link to the documentary “Debating Our Destiny” on our website.