Epilogue—By law, the gods can’t be wrong: Did Jim Lehrer do something wrong at last week’s debate?
He may have been following orders! After Lehrer was criticized for his performance, the guild did what it always will do:
It rose in defense of its gods.
In Politico, Dylan Byers quoted Lehrer defending his own performance. “I’ve always said this and finally I had a chance to demonstrate it,” Lehrer said. “The moderator should be seen little and heard even less.”
That was Lehrer on Lehrer. In a separate report, Byers quoted Janet Brown, boss of the debate commission. According to Brown, the criticism of Lehrer “misses the whole point of our July announcement about format.” Loftily sniffing at those who complained, she offered these further thoughts:
BROWN (10/5/12): The format for the first and fourth presidential debates calls for six 15-minute segments on topics selected and announced in advance by the moderators. After the moderator asks a question, the candidates each have two minutes to answer. After their answers, the moderator’s job is to facilitate a conversation on the topic for approximately 9 minutes before moving to the next topic. The Commission on Presidential Debates’ goal in selecting this format was to have a serious discussion of the major domestic and foreign policy issues with minimal interference by the moderator or timing signals. Jim Lehrer implemented the format exactly as it was designed by the CPD and announced in July.Lehrer got it "exactly" right! The guild's gods can’t be wrong!
Later, we’ll show you what Brown said before last week’s debate. But first, a few final thoughts about Lehrer’s work in debates through the years.
Did Lehrer do something wrong last week? Without any doubt, he could have brought clarity to the discussion with a few well-placed questions. But however imperfect his work may have been, it was nothing compared to his misconduct in Campaign 2000—conduct which was prefigured in 1996 and extended in 2004.
For our money, Lehrer misbehaved extremely badly in the first two Bush-Gore debates. And in the book he wrote last year, he describes very strange conduct on his own part in the Clinton-Dole debates of 1996.
We can draw some valuable lessons from Lehrer’s past conduct and from his book. Before we return to Janet Brown, let’s focus on four basic learnings:
Lehrer’s book is extremely strange: Jim Lehrer’s book about past debates is just extremely strange. He makes factual statements straight outta la-la land when he discusses the 1996 sessions. His account of the 2000 debates is, in a word, dishonest.
Make that baldly dishonest. Lehrer settles scores all through these chapters, even as he acknowledges that he deals with criticism poorly.
In our series of reports, we haven’t even begun to critique Lehrer’s deeply selective account of the 2000 debates. But the gods of the guild are often dishonest. So it seems to be with this god in his extremely strange book.
The adepts will always agree not to notice: Second lesson: When the gods of the guild misbehave, the minions will agree not to notice. Consider what happened when Gloria Borger interviewed Lehrer about his book in an hour-long session for C-Span. (To watch the full program, click here.)
Borger is a full-blown, high-ranking mainstream hack. But as a god, Lehrer stands above her in the guild’s order. This guaranteed that Borger would challenge nothing the master said in their interview, no matter how inaccurate, strange or bogus his various statements might be.
Consider one example, an example derived from Lehrer’s book. In the following passage, he describes the terrible way Gore sighed in his first debate with George Bush.
This account is odd all the way through. But before he’s done, Lehrer makes an extremely odd statement:
LEHRER (page 94): [D]espite being the closest person in the room, I ended up missing what turned out to be the most important story of that debate.Go ahead! Watch that full debate on C-Span! From this point in time, see if you can make any sense of the account Lehrer gives in that passage. Is it true? Does Gore “sigh heavily and repeatedly?” Do you see him “shaking his head, frowning, rolling his eyes and sneering” in such a way that this “body language” should have become “the most important story of that debate?”
Through the television device of a split screen, the world watched as Gore on that October 3 evening expressed disgust and displeasure with Bush’s answers.
Gore sighed heavily and repeatedly. He shook his head, frowned, rolled his eyes, and sneered. And—one thing I did know for sure—he also violated the time limits for questions and responses, violated the polite pleas of the moderator, and, generally, came across as overbearing—unlikable.
That, at least, was the consensus reaction from even his own supporters as well as much of the public. Gore was judged the clear loser in the debate, based almost entirely on his body language and not on what he actually said. As with the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, radio listeners came away with an almost entirely different impression than that of those who watched it on television.
That’s now The Official Guild Story, of course. But go ahead! Watch that debate! See if you understand why!
(As you watch, please understand one additional fact: In the actual word count for that debate, Candidate Bush spoke many more words than Candidate Gore. Try to reconcile that with Lehrer’s claim that “Gore violated the time limits for questions and responses, violated the polite pleas of the moderator.” If Gore was exceeding time limits so much, how the heck did Candidate Bush utter so many more words?)
By now, these are all parts of Official Guild Lore. That said, consider the ridiculous statement we have highlighted in that excerpt from Lehrer’s book.
According to Lehrer, “Gore was judged the clear loser in the debate, based almost entirely on his body language.” Lehrer then connects this claim to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. In 2000 as in 1960, Lehrer says, “radio listeners came away with an almost entirely different impression than that of those who watched it on television.”
Surely, Lehrer must have known that one part of this claim is baldly inaccurate. In the case of that first Bush-Gore debate, five news orgs took overnight or next-day surveys of people who watched the debate. Gore was judged the winner in all five surveys, by an average margin of ten points.
Surely, Lehrer knew that fact as he wrote that past of his book. Meanwhile, by what flight of fancy does he imply that data exist about people who listened to that Bush-Gore debate on the radio?
The claim that Nixon won on the radio in 1960 is a hoary old urban legend, backed by no serious data. But Lehrer says in his book that Gore won on the radio, just as Nixon did, while losing on TV!
He must have known that Gore won on TV—and that no radio data exist. To all appearances, Lehrer was simply making this bullshit up, as he routinely does in the parts of his book where he’s settling scores.
That highlighted passage is truly absurd. It’s baldly false in one respect, delusional in another. And good God! Speaking with Borger for C-Span, Lehrer repeated that nonsense.
Obedient adept that she is, Borger of course played right along! She actually raced ahead of Lehrer, helping him with his weird thought:
From the C-Span interview:How odd! Sitting a mere ten feet away, Lehrer didn’t see (or hear) any of the “heavy” sighing in which Gore “repeatedly” engaged! But please note: When Lehrer introduced his bogus claim that Gore won on the radio/lost on TV, Borger simply rushed ahead to help the nonsense along.
LEHRER: When [the first Bush-Gore debate] was all over, I’m walking out of the hall with my family and one of my daughters says, “Oh Dad, that was, that was incredible what Gore did!” And I just stopped and I said, “What did Gore do?” And she talked, mentioned about the sighing and the grimacing and all that. I didn’t see any of that.
But it was a perfect case. People who listened to that on the radio thought Gore won that debate hands on [sic]. People who watched it on television thought—
BORGER: Kennedy-Nixon? Didn’t that, didn’t that happen the same way?
LEHRER: Kennedy-Nixon. Exactly! Kennedy-Nixon, it’s exactly the same parallel!
Surely, Borger knows that Gore won all five overnight surveys. But Borger is an overpaid member of this truly horrible guild. And in this guild, the gods can’t be wrong! By law, the gods can't be crazy.
Borger understands how this game works. Lehrer, a god, can’t be wrong.
In that exchange on C-Span, Lehrer and Borger are almost surely lying or engaging in a near equivalent. This is the way these horrible people hand you the manufactured tales around which our political world is relentlessly forced to turn.
Lehrer’s book is a window into the world of the Clinton-Gore years: Lehrer’s account of the 1996 debates is a valuable historical document. The lunacy of some of his statements helps us see the way the guild had come to view President Clinton.
Lehrer makes many odd misstatements as he discusses the 1996 debates. But his desire to hear Gennifer Flowers discussed at those debates comes straight from the land of the lotus eaters.
Gennifer Flowers was out of the news by the time of the 1992 debates. It was crazy to think that Dole or Kemp would discuss her in 1996. But that’s what Lehrer says he wanted to hear, and he describes the ways he angled to get Dole and Kemp to go there.
The craziness of this obsession spilled over in the 2000 debates, when Lehrer kept instructing Bush to discuss Gore’s bad character problems.
Even in 2011, Jim Lehrer still had his head up his keister about the buxom Ms. Flowers. In 1999, the guild did attempt to rehabilitate Flowers in the wake of the Clinton impeachment. They brought her back for long stints on two major cable shows—first on Hardball, then on Hannity.
In those half-hour and hour-long efforts, she discussed a few of her favorite themes—the various murders the Clintons committed and the fact that Hillary Clinton is the world’s most gigantic lesbo.
That said, nothing will ever make people like Lehrer shrink from the tales of this major-league crackpot. Her story about her twelve-year affair had been shot full of holes in 1992. But so what? Four years later, Lehrer hoped that Dole would talk about Flowers in those debates! With respect, someone should lead this strange man away to a farm where his kind can be cared for.
Liberal stars will protect these tales too: American history bent, then broke, beneath the weight of these press corps obsessions. The turning-point was Campaign 2000, where Lehrer made sure that the first two Bush-Gore debates ended with long discussions of Al Gore’s supposed character problems.
People are dead all over the world because of the conduct of crackpots like Lehrer. But liberal stars still stand in line to tell us how brilliant he is.
We hope their money is spending real good. People have died for the obscenity of their magnificent pay-checks.
With those important lessons learned, let’s return to Janet Brown, discussing Lehrer's performance at last week’s debate.
In fairness, Lehrer did nothing at that debate which compared with his misconduct during the Clinton-Gore years. And not only that! As we showed you, Janet Brown said that Lehrer performed exactly as planned:
BROWN (10/5/12): The format for the first and fourth presidential debates calls for six 15-minute segments on topics selected and announced in advance by the moderators. After the moderator asks a question, the candidates each have two minutes to answer. After their answers, the moderator’s job is to facilitate a conversation on the topic for approximately 9 minutes before moving to the next topic. The Commission on Presidential Debates’ goal in selecting this format was to have a serious discussion of the major domestic and foreign policy issues with minimal interference by the moderator or timing signals. Jim Lehrer implemented the format exactly as it was designed by the CPD and announced in July.Within the guild, the gods must be right! At any rate, that’s what Janet Brown was saying after last week’s debate.
All along, the debate commission wanted to create “a serious discussion of the major domestic and foreign policy issues with minimal interference by the moderator.” That’s what Janet Brown was saying after last week's debate.
But uh-oh! According to Politico, here’s what she said before last week's debate:
BYERS (9/29/12): The Commission reached out to Lehrer because it needed an experienced hand to launch the new debate format, which for the first time will divide the 90-minute debate into six, 15-minute segments focused on different policy issues.Did Brown contradict herself after the criticism started? Not exactly, no! Before the debate, she did make that statement about not “inserting one’s self into the conversation.”
“The new format is going to require a lot of experience and a lot [of] skill,” Janet Brown, the Commission’s executive director, explained to POLITICO. “The moderator will open the first segment, Gov. Romney and President Obama will each have two minutes to answer, and the remaining 11 minutes will be an open conversation.”
Many of Lehrer’s colleagues noted that the moderator’s job is to keep himself out of the conversation—to punch the clock or, as Brokaw put it, “to fire the gun to start off the race”—but because of the new format, Lehrer will actually play a more active role than ever.
“Those remaining 11 minutes are not timed, and that means the moderator has to pursue the topic at hand for an extended amount of time,” Brown explained. “That requires a lot of skill under pressure, it requires an understanding of how live television works, and it requires an ability to focus on the candidates without inserting one’s self into the conversation.”
But somehow, Byers came away from his interview with the idea that Lehrer would “play a more active role than ever” because of the new format. Some of the quoted statements by Brown seem to show where he got that idea.
Did Brown contradict herself? In a sense, but not as such! But have no fear:
If Brown had needed to change her story, that’s likely what she would have done! In this guild, the gods can’t be wrong—and Lehrer, with his love for Flowers, has long been numbered among this guild’s borderline crazy gods.
Visit our incomparable archives: We discussed Borger’s session with Lehrer last fall. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/3/11.