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PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer: Moderating Presidential Debate ‘Was an Offer I Could Not Refuse’

PBS NewsHour co-founder and executive editor Jim Lehrer will moderate the first national presidential debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, Colo.

“I believe an invitation from the Commission on Presidential Debates is similar to a draft notice — a civic responsibility,” he said. “Even so, it was a difficult decision, because I have previously said I would not do any more debates.”

Those earlier comments came last year after Lehrer, 78, released his book, “Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain.” He describes his role as moderator in this September 2011 NewsHour interview:

“What changed my mind was the new format that the debate commission has come up with — the six segments, 15 minutes each — to me was an offer I could not refuse. I think it’s an opportunity to open it up in a more free-flowing way,” Lehrer told us Monday morning.

“I had said that I was not going to do any more, but I also have said, my goodness, if you are asked to do one of these debates, you have to do it unless you’ve got a really good reason.”

“So anyway, I had a collision of rhetoric of my own,” he said, laughing, “and I just finally decided the opportunity to help fulfill what the commission is attempting to do, which is to open up the dialogue in a more freer, open way with the candidates, is something to which I could not in good conscience say no.”

The more free-flowing question-and-answer sessions will require just as much preparation for the moderator, Lehrer said.

“Preparation is based on one driving force for me and that is to be relaxed enough to be able to listen to what the candidates are saying and react appropriately. … Not necessarily drafting these incredible questions that will bring tears to people’s eyes.”

The first debate, on Oct. 3, focuses on domestic issues. Lehrer will select the six subjects within the domestic affairs umbrella in the next month or so, and those topics will be announced in advanced with the aim of giving the candidates a chance to give more substantive answers.

“This is not a game of one-upmanship,” said Lehrer. “It’s really aimed to get the candidates to talk about the things that really matter. We’re not going to play a game of gotcha. I don’t believe in that, we’ve never done that on the NewsHour and I certainly wouldn’t do that in this debate.”

The second presidential debate, in a town hall-style meeting, is Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley.

The third debate will be moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Martha Raddatz of ABC News will moderate the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.

On Monday’s NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown spoke with Jim Lehrer about the upcoming debates:

Related Resource: Take a look back at highlights of the last 48 years of presidential debates from those who were there in the Debating Our Destiny series.

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