LEHRER’S RERUN: Last week wasn’t Lehrer’s first run!


Part 4—Harshly, murkily criticized: Did Jim Lehrer do a horrible job moderating last week’s debate?

That is a matter of judgment. In a rational world, a skilled moderator might have clarified the discussion of Mitt Romney’s murky tax proposal, the policy issue which popped at this debate.

You don’t live in any such world. And Lehrer may have been following orders, a point we’ll discuss at the end of the week.

At any rate, Lehrer was widely criticized for his passivity at last week’s debate, and for his fatuous questions. Needless to say, sycophants came out of the woodwork to defend this greatest made man.

But just for the record, this isn’t the first time Lehrer has been harshly criticized for his work in presidential debates. The same thing happened in October 2000, after the first two Bush-Gore debates.

In our opinion, Lehrer misbehaved extremely badly during those crucial debates. For the most part, we’ll leave that discussion to tomorrow. For today, it might be instructive to see what was said after the second debate.

Forget the fawning you may have seen in the build-up to last week’s debate! Back in 2000, the criticism of Lehrer was so harsh that it forced the New York Times to write a news report about it.

On the down side, Richard Berke’s news report was rather murky at several key points. To a Kremlinologist, it may have had a slight Pravda feel.

Even from this point in time, one gets the impression that Berke may have been less than explicit about some of the criticisms he was hearing. At any rate, he started his report as follows. Given reactions to last week’s debate, this may sound very familiar:
BERKE (10/17/00): On the eve of the third and final presidential debate, questions have emerged not only about the performance of the candidates but also about the man in the middle: the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS.

Mr. Lehrer has been a target of intensifying criticism from partisans and analysts who complain that he did not sufficiently probe the candidates in the first two debates and was not particularly aggressive in following up his questions. The result, these critics say, is that the nominees were let off the hook on vital matters and the debates meandered to the point where they verged on being downright tedious.

In a telephone interview today from St. Louis, where the final debate will take place on Tuesday night, Mr. Lehrer said his critics were missing the point. His role, he said, is to foster give-and-take, and not become a star attraction.

"If somebody wants to be entertained, they ought to go to the circus," Mr. Lehrer said. "They ought to go to the movies. Or they ought to go to the ballgame. I didn't sign on to entertain people for 90 minutes three times. These have been tremendous exercises for democracy.”
In the wake of last week’s debate, these criticisms may sound familiar. The same is true of Lehrer’s reaction, in which he displayed the very thin skin he discussed, and displayed, in last year’s peculiar book (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/8/12).

In the passage we have posted, Berke says Lehrer was being criticized as insufficiently probing. As Berke continued, a very harsh criticism was quoted.

At one point, a Kremlinologist might try to discern what Berke was talking about:
BERKE (continuing directly): Still, many prominent Democrats and Republicans said Mr. Lehrer, anchor of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," had set the wrong tone in pivotal encounters that could affect who is elected president.

"If you had a moderator who was trying to accentuate the differences, that would have been a fabulous debate," said Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, who blamed Mr. Lehrer for not pressing the candidates, especially Gov. George W. Bush, on the issues in the debate last week. "You could have picked 10 people off the street who didn't know Jerusalem from Georgia," Mr. Kerrey said, "and they would have had better questions.”
That second statement by Kerrey was extremely unflattering. So too with a quoted remark by Patrick Caddell. (“He is running the debates as though they were some kind of sherry hour at the institute of politics at Harvard. He refuses to press the candidates as the interlocutor on important issues.”)

But Kerrey’s first statement was murky. What did Kerrey mean when he said the debate would have been better had Lehrer “tried to accentuate the differences” between Bush and Gore?

He may have said and meant this:

Especially in the first debate, Lehrer seemed to stress the ways the candidates allegedly agreed on the day’s major issues. To a Democrat, this would have seemed to reinforce a basic pitch of the Bush campaign: the idea that Bush was “a different kind of Republican,” that he didn’t differ that much, on policy grounds, from the popular policies of Clinton and Gore.

One basic pitch of the Bush campaign went like this: On policy grounds, on basic instincts, we’re not that different from Clinton and Gore! So you can safely vote for us as a way of punishing Clinton and Gore for the moral turpitude they displayed when Bill Clinton got those ten blow jobs.

We’ll guess that Kerrey may have said something like that—and that Berke may have decided to fudge and smudge things just a bit. A bit more fudging may have occurred when Berke cited the anger within Gore's campaign—after letting a couple of sycophants fawn to Lehrer, of course:
BERKE: Mr. Lehrer has become such a fixture in presidential debates—he has been a moderator at the forums since 1988—that Peter Jennings, the ABC anchor, said in an interview that "Jim is the moderator for life."

And he has his share of admirers. Juan Williams of National Public Radio said in a television interview after the first debate, "You want someone that fairly disappears and allows the two candidates to emerge as personalities."

Gore supporters, on the other hand, have been especially vociferous in their criticism. Among their complaints is that in the second debate Mr. Lehrer said, incorrectly, that there were Gore commercials depicting Mr. Bush as a bungler. They also noted that in several of the exchanges at the end of the debate Mr. Lehrer allowed Mr. Bush to get the last word.

Some Gore campaign advisers said they now regretted that they prevailed when, in pre-debate negotiations with the Bush organization, they pressed for Mr. Lehrer as the moderator. Bush campaign officials had proposed Tim Russert of NBC, according to people involved in the talks, although at one stage they suggested Larry King of CNN and perhaps Mr. Lehrer for one debate each. In the end, Mr. Lehrer got all three, and Bernard Shaw moderated the vice-presidential debate.
What a shock! According to Berke, the Bush campaign had wanted Tim Russert, one of Jack Welch’s Lost Boys, as a moderator! For reasons which should be perfectly obvious, the Gore campaign had said no, Berke seemed to suggest.

At any rate, why was the Gore camp so angry at Lehrer? Once again, a Kremlinologist might feel the need to read between the lines.

In this passage, Berke mentioned a minor factual error Lehrer made at the end of the second debate—a factual error which made Gore look foolish, causing the studio audience to laugh at his apparent lack of candor.

Was that the problem which had Gore folks so angry? Berke failed to mention the truly horrible decision Lehrer made in these debates—his decision to end each of these debates with a full-blown discussion of Gore’s alleged character problems.

In our own view, it was astounding when Lehrer chose to end the first debate that way. He lobbed a big fat softball to Candidate Bush, letting him discuss the bad character of his troubling opponent. When Lehrer did the same thing at the end of the second debate, his decision-making was worse than astounding.

Again, he invited Bush to end the evening with a long rumination on Gore’s alleged moral failures.

Writing as a Kremlinologist, we'll assume that this remarkable conduct is what Berke meant when he said that Gore supporters “noted that in several of the exchanges at the end of the debate Mr. Lehrer allowed Mr. Bush to get the last word.” As a Kremlinologist, we will guess that that was Berke’s way of pretending to cite the Gore complaint without letting readers puzzle about what Lehrer had actually done.

Those are speculations, but they do unpack some of the puzzles lurking in Berke's rather murky report. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the closing segments of those crucial debates.

In our opinion, Lehrer showed astounding bad judgment in closing those debates as he did. (We’re being kind in seeing this a matter of judgment, as opposed to a matter of partisanship.) But in last year’s book, Lehrer notes that he did something very similar in the 1996 debates, when he tried to goad Candidate Dole, then Candidate Kemp, into discussing Clinton’s character problems at two separate debates.

In Lehrer’s book, a remarkable fact becomes clear. Despite the “courtly manner” to which Berke referred; despite the fact that Lehrer wasn’t an East Coast Irish Catholic, the group which produced the press corps' truly virulent Clinton-Gore haters; despite the fact that he wasn’t working for Jack Welch: despite these factors, it seems that Lehrer was one of the insider press corps’ leading Clinton-Gore haters.

It seems that he'd totally purchased the package: Clinton and Gore will do and say anything! In 1996, he tried to goad both Dole and Kemp into discussing this terrible problem. Four years later, he tossed big softballs to Candidate Bush at the end of each of the first two debates, giving him a very large stage on which to trash Gore’s character.

In our view, this was disgraceful bad judgment by Lehrer—and we’re being generous. Details tomorrow.

Writing as a Kremlinologist, we’ll assume that these may be the actual criticisms Berke had heard—that he simply didn’t want to describe them clearly in his report. It’s hard to believe that Gore supporters were in a fury over the embarrassing, but fairly small, factual error Berke managed to cite. We’ll guess that Berke was fudging the horrible judgment by Lehrer which we’ll discuss tomorrow.

One last point:

In last year’s extremely strange book, Lehrer discusses Berke’s report. In the process, he again displays his extremely thin skin and his fondness for rearranged facts.

Poor Lehrer! In his book, he says he “spent a full day in real hell” as a result of Berke’s softened soap. He says he spent “too much [time], in retrospect, dealing with it in the days before [the final debate], counseling with NewsHour folks, talking to the reporter, anguishing with Kate [his wife] and with our daughter Janie.”

Poor Lehrer! He was in Gethsemane again! He was in mortal agony there! Along with his wife and his daughter!

In his book, Lehrer exacts cheap, dishonest revenge on all parties involved in this matter (text below). He slimes both Kerrey and Berke, and blames the whole thing on Gore’s campaign—all while failing to tell his readers what he himself actually did.

Lehrer’s ass has been kissed for decades now. When we treat pubic figures that way, we end up with public figures with extremely thin skin—public figures who may not be especially honest about their own past conduct.

Tomorrow, we will review Lehrer’s conduct at those history-changing 2000 debates. As we do, remember this fact:

Two weeks ago, a pair of pseudo-liberal climbers were kissing Lehrer’s ass in that fawning profile in Politico. We hope the money is spending real good for Alex Wagner and the professor, because the wages of their careerism is the cluelessness of the liberals whom they agreed to mislead when they praised the wonderful Lehrer, who was the cat's meow, the perfect man for our debates.

Tomorrow: What Lehrer did and said—in 1996 and 2000!

The wages of sainthood: In a very strange book by a rather strange man, Lehrer exacts payback on everyone who criticized him in October 2000—even on some who did not! We have no idea how to explain the highlighted part of this passage:
LEHRER (page 103): After the Times story ran, Kerrey left a recorded message on my home phone in Washington, apologizing for what he said, claiming he didn’t really mean it and spoke only because “Rick Berke called me and said he needed ‘a hot quote knocking Lehrer’ for his story.”

I don’t know the truth of Kerrey’s claim because I have never taken the time to run it down. But I have no doubt that the same Gore campaign operatives who successfully pushed Berke to do the story also suggested Kerrey be interviewed.

There were other critics of those 2000 debates. National newspaper columnists as varied politically as Bob Herbert and William Safire of the New York Times and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post also took pokes at me. The cheapest of the shots was a one-liner in Time magazine, made cheaper because it was anonymously fired.
Note the way this journalist functions. Eleven years later, he still hasn’t "taken the time" to run down the truth of the claim he attributes to Kerrey. But so what! Lehrer proceeds to tell us what happened, saying he has “no doubt” about the machinations which produced Berke’s (rather mild) report.

Above, we've offered informed speculations about Berke's report. Lehrer has no doubts!

Meanwhile, we’re completely puzzled by that highlighted passage. We’ve reviewed the columns by Herbert, Safire and Cohen in October 2000. All three mentioned Lehrer in passing, but none of them criticized his performance—at least, not as mortals understand the term.

Cohen may have implied a very mild criticism of "the moderator" at one point, skipping Lehrer's sacred name. We can find nothing resembling a criticism in the columns of Safire and Herbert. That said, they did mention Lehrer’s name—and they failed to kiss his ass when they did.

To this very thin-skinned man, that may count as criticism, even eleven years later. This is the press corps we create when climbers insist on kissing the ass of their guild's flawed gods.


  1. Good God, Somerby, Jim Lehrer was nothing more than a footnote at best now and 12 years ago. I consider his "performance" about as important as Howie Mandel's "performance" on America's Got Talent in the grand scheme of issues I should truly care about.

    1. But coming here every day to say that what you do is irrelevant? -- Now *that* is an issue I truly care about.

    2. Jim Lehrer is one of the most influential journalists in the nation, and has been for many years. As co-creator of PBS' signature nightly news program, he has been a major figure since 1975. He's hardly a "footnote."

  2. In the 1960 debates, JFK said what he chose to say, regardless of the exact question. In the public mind, he won. Every subsequent candidate knows what JFK did. So, Lehrer's choice of questions doesn't excuse Obama's weak performance.

    1. This isn't 1960 anymore.
      There have been no Presidential debates since 1987.

    2. "Lehrer's choice of questions doesn't excuse Obama's weak performance."

      Nor does Obama's weak performance excuse Lehrer's choice of questions.

  3. Lehrer has been lionized so much as the Walter Cronkite of presidential debates he's probably come to believe it.

    When he wasn't looking down and doodling, or looking at Romney, he was looking wistfully at Lehrer as if to silently ask, "when are you going to start moderating a little, please?"

    Lehrer is a novelist, and therefore probably an introvert by temperament. Neither he nor Obama, another introvert, are equipped to deal with someone trained by people expert in making reporters look like the bad guys and eschewing all semblance for civil discourse. I guess that's showing the American people who can best be their Alpha dog.

  4. I disagree with the Anom on top; the one I generally agree with. The Daily Howler is doing the sort of thing he does well here; and it puts the at least very bad performance of Obama into perspective.
    It also shows, alas, that David in Ca. is also right, and the Obama campaign was nuts to either agree to Lehrer or go in, seemingly, not knowing what to expect.
    Figures like Lehrer, I believe, were shaped in the post Watergate era. After Nixon's self immolation, the corporate press knew it had to clamp down hard on displays against the status quo. So right wingers like Lehrer were presented as sensible moderates. Eventually this helped reactionaries like W into the White House.

  5. I enjoy seeing Lehrer referred to as a "pubic figure." It sounds about right.

    Lehrer is an absolute, total hack.

  6. I wonder how much money it would cost to send every major-outlet journalist in America a picture of Jim Lehrer with the famous quote from Linji Yixuan, "If you meet the budhda, kill the buddha."