Part 6—A prequel to Campaign 2000: Did Jim Lehrer do something wrong at last week’s debate?
That is a matter of judgment. Without question, the debate would have gained, at several points, if he had asked a few clarifying questions.
Lehrer didn’t ask those questions. In the aftermath of the debate, he took a lot of criticism.
That said, Lehrer was criticized once before for his conduct in presidential debates. In Campaign 2000, we think he did something very wrong, as described in yesterday’s post:
In each of the first two debates that year, Lehrer lobbed a softball to Candidate Bush, urging him to speak at length about Candidate Gore’s bad character problems.
He ended the first debate that way. Then, he did the same damn thing at the end of the second debate!
At best, he showed appalling bad judgment. And good God:
Four years earlier, when Clinton fought Dole, Lehrer had behaved in a similar fashion! In last year’s peculiar book, Tension City, he described his thinking—and his conduct—during those earlier debates.
Forgive us for coming away with this thought: Jim Lehrer seems to be very peculiar. And it seems that he was a genuine, full-bore Clinton-Gore hater.
As he starts chapter 4 in Tension City, Lehrer sets the scene for those 1996 debates. In this passage, he discusses the first Clinton-Dole debate, held in Hartford:
LEHRER (page 77): [T]he 1996 debates were remembered mostly for what did not happen. No one, including the Republican nominees Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, went after Clinton on the so-called character issue—a code phrase for the Woman Problem.Lehrer injects the word "neutral." History suggets something different.
As moderator, I did toss a few neutral opportunities that way, but no one caught them.
Are those debates “remembered mostly for what did not happen?” Are they mostly remembered for the fact that Dole and Kemp didn’t go after the Woman Problem?
Already, Lehrer is making things up. That said, did Lehrer “toss a few opportunities their way” in those 1996 debates? People! Did he ever!
In the following passage, Lehrer explains his own strange thinking before the first Clinton-Dole debate. In the process, he says one thing that’s just extremely strange:
LEHRER (page 78): As Hartford approached, Dole was down twenty points in the polls. It was now or never for the former World War II hero and U.S. Senate leader from Kansas. He either went for broke against Clinton in their first debate, or the 1996 presidential election was over.Did you know that moderators think that much about candidates’ strategies? In our view, it’s odd to hear Lehrer sharing his thoughts about the things Dole needed to do in this debate. But his remarks about Gennifer Flowers are 1) just extremely strange and 2) in our view, extremely unfortunate.
My own preparations centered on the belief that if Dole was going to do something that mattered it had to happen in the first twenty minutes to hold the big national television audience.
This was pre-Monica Lewinsky but there was already much in the public discourse about Clinton’s alleged womanizing, especially related to a twelve-year affair with a singer/actress named Gennifer Flowers.
I assumed that if Dole tried to break things open, he would try to use it.
We’re sorry to interrupt Lehrer’s reveries, but Gennifer Flowers was not in the news in 1996. She had burst on the scene in January 1992. Her fact-challenged story was largely spent by the time of that year’s debates.
The notion that Dole might have cited Flowers is pretty much batty. Beyond that, Lehrer should be ashamed of himself for the way he describes Flowers. He writes as if it has somehow been shown that she and Clinton actually did have “a twelve-year affair.”
Simply put, that hasn’t been shown; almost surely, the claim is false. As he strokes his thigh with anger at Clinton, Lehrer should be ashamed of himself for acting as if that extremely shaky claim has somehow been established.
It’s hard to believe that Lehrer thought that Dole would cite Gennifer Flowers. If Dole had actually done such a thing, he would have become a laughing-stock, despite the press corps' later attempts to restore Flowers’ reputation.
(Flowers became their hero again after the Lewinsky story broke. At that point, in 1999, they tried very hard to pretend they knew that Flowers had been "telling the truth all along.")
At any rate, Lehrer says he was expecting Dole to drop this October surprise. It’s one of the balmiest statements we’ve ever seen—but so what? Soon, Lehrer explains what he decided to do when Candidate Dole failed to go there:
LEHRER (page 79): Nothing happened. The debate proceeded quietly, routinely for the first twenty minutes and beyond about tort reform, Social Security, taxes, the deficit, drugs and guns. There were no fireworks, not even any sparklers.In our view, that’s an astonishing statement. Before we explain, let’s state an obvious point:
It was time for me as the moderator to shake things up.
In “the first twenty minutes and beyond,” that debate centered on “tort reform, Social Security, taxes, the deficit” because those were the topics Lehrer presented. Presumably, he asked about those topics (and others) because they’re important topics.
And yet, inside Jim Lehrer’s head, a familiar old drama was churning. Who gives a shit about Social Security, this multimillionaire's mind was saying. We want to get to the sex!
And so, sure enough, the moderator decided “to shake things up!” In a prelude to the softballs he would later lob at Candidate Bush, Lehrer tossed this question to Dole:
LEHRER (10/6/96): Senator Dole, we've talked mostly now about differences between the two of you that relate to policy issues and that sort of thing. Are there also significant differences in the more personal area that are relevant to this election?Candidate Dole wasn’t buying. “I'm not—I don't like to get into personal matters,” he said, part way through his response. “As far as I'm concerned, this is a campaign about issues.”
Under the rules, a discussion between Clinton and Dole ensued. To Lehrer, though, this wasn’t enough. Remarkably, this was his next question. Again, it went to Candidate Dole:
LEHRER (10/6/96): Senator Dole, if you could single out one thing that you would like for the voters to have in their mind about President Clinton on a policy matter or a personal matter, what would it be? Something to know about him, understand it and appreciate it?At the time, that question may have seemed a bit odd. Thanks to Lehrer’s peculiar book, we now know what he was angling for when he asked it.
Once again, Dole failed to discuss the luscious Ms. Flowers. (“I happen to like President Clinton personally,” he said as part of his answer.) In his strange and remarkable book, Lehrer explains where his frustration led him.
First, Lehrer notes a fact which came to light a bit later. At the time of that first debate, the Washington Post and other news orgs were working on a story about an alleged affair Dole allegedly had some 28 years before.
That is the story to which Lehrer refers as he explains where his frustrations led him:
LEHRER (page 80): That Dole story still had not been reported two days later when I gave the Dole campaign a second chance to engage the Clinton character issue.Actually, it was three days later. But why get bogged down in the math?
It occurred at the beginning of the October 9, 1996, vice presidential debate between the Democratic incumbent Al Gore and Jack Kemp, a former Republican congressman and pro football quarterback, at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, Florida.
How did Lehrer “give the Dole campaign a second chance to engage the Clinton character issue?” We think you can probably guess that by now. Incredibly, this was the very first question at the Gore-Kemp debate:
LEHRER (10/9/96): Welcome to the 1996 Vice Presidential Debate between Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, and Jack Kemp, the Republican nominee…Like Dole before him, Kemp refused. “Jim, Bob Dole and myself do not see Al Gore and Bill Clinton as our enemy, we see them as our opponents,” he said.
The order for everything was determined by a coin toss. There will be three-minute closing statements, but no opening statements
So we go now to the first question and to Mr. Kemp.
LEHRER: Some supporters of Senator Dole have expressed disappointment over his unwillingness—in Hartford Sunday night—to draw personal and ethical differences between him and President Clinton. How do you feel about it?
Poor Lehrer! In two consecutive questions, he tried to get Candidate Dole to discuss Ms. Flowers. When Dole wouldn’t take the bait, he opened the vice presidential debate by trying to get Kemp to go there! In his book, he offers a very strange thought about Kemp’s refusal:
“Kemp, inexplicably, seemed unprepared for what, according to every preview story in the press, would be a first question along those lines.”
So writes Lehrer, in delusional fashion, on page 81 of his book.
Did “some supporters of Senator Dole” express disappointment over his unwillingness to draw personal and ethical differences between him and President Clinton? More strikingly, did “every preview story in the press” assume there would be a first question for Kemp along these lines?
Last fall, a Nexis search found very few Dole supporters complaining along these lines. Having said that, let’s also say this:
On the morning of the Gore-Kemp debate, the preview stories did not suggest that Kemp would get such a first question. That includes a pair of preview stories in the conservative Washington Times.
Lehrer simply made that up in his very peculiar book.
Beyond those two points, let’s state the obvious: No one thought Candidates Dole and Kemp were going to wax about Gennifer Flowers! Her name barely appeared in the press in the week before these debates.
According to Nexis, her name wasn’t mentioned in the New York Times or the Washington Post—or in the Washington Times. Simply put, Flowers wasn’t part of the landscape at that point in time—except inside Jim Lehrer’s head, if he was remembering correctly when he wrote his book.
Lehrer’s book is very strange. That said, it gives us a glimpse into the heart and soul of the press corps elite during the Clinton-Gore years. And it shows us that Lehrer’s conduct in the Bush-Gore debates didn’t come out of thin air.
If Lehrer’s book can be believed, he still had Flowers on the brain as he approached the Clinton-Dole debates. Social Security? Who care about that! He wanted to hear about that torrid twelve-year affair! The affair Flowers seems to have imagined, earning big bucks in the process.
And so, in a very peculiar book, Jim Lehrer describes himself doing a very odd thing. As moderator, Lehrer of course had to decide what topics were worth discussing. But his book makes it seem that he was very much rooting for certain answers and certain outcomes—that he very much wanted Dole, then Kemp, to go after Bill Clinton’s character.
He threw two leading questions to Dole. When his advances were rebuffed, he opened the Gore-Kemp debate with a similar softball for Kemp. It was his very first question!
Four years later, he was still at it! He ended the first Bush-Gore debate by engineering a long discussion of Gore’s deeply troubling character problems. Incredibly, he then did the same thing as he ended the second debate.
Nor was Lehrer done at that point! In 2004, he moderated the first Bush-Kerry debate. Midway through, something inspired him to ask this question of Bush:
LEHRER (9/30/04): New question, President Bush.Why in the world did Lehrer ask that? We have no idea. That said, this was the fifth straight debate, in a span of eight years, where Lehrer asked the Republican candidate to discuss the character problems of his Democratic opponent! Except perhaps in one question to Kerry, he never posed a similar question to the Democratic contenders.
Clearly, as we have heard, major policy differences between the two of you. Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?
Lehrer’s book is extremely strange. His judgment in those 2000 debates was horrendous—and needless to say, it may have changed world history.
But so what? Just two weeks ago, Lehrer was being lionized in Politico, praised by one and all as our “master of moderation.”
Two pseudo-liberal TV stars added their voices to the praise being showered on this god’s head. Now that you know how strange Lehrer is, we want you to look, one more time, at what those TV stars said:
BYERS (9/27/12): For all the talent on television today, few besides Lehrer meet those qualifications. Indeed, colleagues say, moderators of Lehrer’s ilk are severely lacking in today’s media landscape, where partisanship and showmanship trump once-sacred notions of fairness and balance.That was the ened of the profile. According to Dylan Byers, “the entire industry” felt secure in knowing that Lehrer would be in that chair! That seemed to include a pair of “liberal” TV stars.
“Jim represents a version of American political journalism that is much less prominent now,” Melissa Harris-Perry, the MSNBC host and academic, told POLITICO. “I have my own viewpoints, I regularly insert and assert—as much as I love what I do, that’s insufficient for a presidential debate.”
Given all that is at stake on Oct. 3, the entire political-media industry seems secure in knowing that Lehrer will serve as moderator. Even younger generations of television journalists, who noted a lack of demographic diversity or new-media savvy among this year’s moderators, feel comforted by Lehrer’s presence.
“Speed has not particularly been of service to American political landscape: Voters get little chance to sit back, soak in and really breathe deeply as far as where these guys stand,” Alex Wagner, the 34-year-old MSNBC host, told POLITICO. “The campaign feels like a washing machine...so I like the idea that Jim, who has so much experience in politics and understands the nuances of these issues, will be moderating.”
“Jim Lehrer moderating a debate is like Dick Clark hosting New Year’s Eve,” said the 38-year-old Harris-Perry. “It just seems right.”
Let’s be fair! Given the way the liberal world has functioned in the past twenty years, Wagner and Harris-Perry probably had no idea what Lehrer had done in these past debates.
They were repeating a mandated script. In fairness, they probably had no idea how absurd their script really was. They just said it because you’re supposed to. That way lies (their own) success!
Alas! The career liberal world has always fawned and pandered to major gods of the guild like Lehrer. In part because of all this fawning, Lehrer was dragged out one more time last week.
The cheers of your favorite liberal stars rang in his very strange ears.
Tomorrow: Three or four final points