LEHRER’S RERUN: Terrible, horrible, ungodly conduct!


Part 5—What Lehrer did twelve years ago: Twelve years ago, at this very time, why was the Gore campaign so angry at Jim Lehrer?

(For background, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/9/12.)

We have no first-hand knowledge. That said, Lehrer had engaged in horrible conduct at the first two Bush-Gore debates.

If you lived in a rational world, liberals would have screamed about his conduct at the time. The events we’re about to describe would still be part of liberal lore. Many voters would have heard about this past misconduct.

But you don’t live in that kind of world. You live in a world where liberal elites just sat there and took it, for twenty long months, during Campaign 2000. (Indeed, many “liberal” elites were dishing it out. Does the name Frank Rich ring a bell?) And good lord! You live in a world where liberal hustlers were kissing Jim Lehrer’s ass even as last week’s debate approached, endorsing his brilliant non-partisan greatness, his undying status as our nation’s “master of moderation.”

They misled liberals—but built their careers! All hail our liberal elite!

Why was the Gore campaign so angry twelve years ago? We have no first-hand knowledge. But Lehrer had behaved extremely badly at the first two Bush-Gore debates.

This is what he did:

Lehrer ended the first debate in a very unfortunate way. It was time to introduce the night's final topic—the topic which would put the cap on the evening.

Lehrer turned to Candidate Bush. This is what he said:
LEHRER (10/3/00): New question.

BUSH: Yes, sir.

LEHRER: Governor Bush, are there issues of character that distinguish you from Vice President Gore?
In this way, Lehrer introduced the debate’s final segment—a segment which ran more than seven minutes. This final segment would be all about questions of Al Gore’s character.

Should Lehrer have ended the evening this way? In the end, that’s a matter of judgment. But there was no attempt to balance this question with some question about Candidate Bush—about his character; about his values; about his record in Texas.

There was no question about Bush’s proposals, which he had repetitively misstated all through this first debate.

Sorry! Extending a twenty-month war, Lehrer inquired about Gore’s character. In response, Bush rattled a list of complaints straight from the press corps play book. (The Lincoln Bedroom was mentioned.)

After Bush's heartfelt oration, Gore was given a chance to defend himself. At this point, Lehrer turned back to Candidate Bush and urged him to please say more:
LEHRER: So Governor, what are you saying when you mention the—the fund-raising scandals or the fund-raising charges that involved Vice President Gore? What are you saying that the voters should take from that that's relevant to this election?

BUSH: I think they ought to factor it in when they make their decision in the voting booth—

LEHRER: In what way?

BUSH: —who can do better job at—pardon me?

LEHRER: In what way?

BUSH: Well, I just, I— You know, I think that people need to be held responsible for dis—for the actions they take in life.


BUSH: I think that—

LEHRER: Go ahead. Excuse me.
Eventually, it was back to Gore. Washington’s master of moderation had this question for him:
LEHRER: Are you saying all of this is irrelevant, Vice President Gore, to this election?
You can watch this segment at C-Span’s site (links below). Ending the pivotal first debate, this whole discussion of Gore'sbad character lasted a bit more than seven minutes.

In our view, Lehrer showed extreme bad judgment when he ended this debate in this unbalanced way. But the Gore campaign’s angry complaints weren’t reported until after the second debate.

Eight days later, Bush and Gore debated again. As the session neared its end, Lehrer unveiled his final topic again.

Welcome to the land of déjà vu, where the guild's master dwelled:
LEHRER (10/11/00): New question.

BUSH: Yes.

LEHRER: Last question. For you, Governor. And this flows out some—flows somewhat out of the Boston debate.

You, your running mate, your campaign officials have charged that Vice President Gore exaggerates, embellishes and stretches the facts, etc. Are you— Are you, do you believe these are serious issues? This is a serious issue that the voters should use in deciding which one of you two men to vote for on November 7?
"Do you believe these are serious issues!" Go ahead! Enjoy a good laugh!

In an astonishing act of bad judgment—or in a desire to further a war—Lehrer chose to end this debate the same way he had ended the first. He lobbed a big, fat softball to Bush, asking him to discuss the idea that Candidate Gore “exaggerates, embellishes and stretches the facts.”

By this point, this had been a central theme for nineteen months in a long, ugly press corps war. On this occasion, Lehrer’s question touched off a final segment which lasted more than five minutes—a segment devoted to the idea that Candidate Gore isn’t truthful.

To grasp the absurdity of this conduct, you have to understand what happened at Bush and Gore’s first debate.

At that first debate, Gore made a few minor factual errors about a few inconsequential matters. One example: In this passage, Gore compliments Bush about the way he handled a fire emergency in Texas. A few moments earlier, Bush had mentioned the fires:
GORE (10/3/00): First, I want to compliment the governor on his response to those fires and, and floods in Texas. I, I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out, and FEMA has been a major flagship project of our reinventing government efforts. And I agree, it works extremely well now.
As it turned out, Gore had not accompanied Witt to those fires. He had accompanied Witt to other fires, but he had accompanied Witt’s chief assistant to these particular fires.

This was an utterly trivial matter, but the pundit corps loved it dearly. They spent the next week claiming that this misstatement once again showed that Gore was a terrible liar. Lehrer was extending this theme as he lobbed this last softball to Bush.

Back to that first debate: At that debate, Candidate Bush had made a long list of major misstatements about his own major proposals. Most dramatically, he had insisted, for ten solid minutes, that his prescription drug proposal would take immediate effect for all seniors.

Quite correctly, Gore kept noting that Bush was misstating his own plan.

During this dramatic ten-minute segment, Bush essentially called Gore a liar. Before his repeated misstatements were done, Candidate Bush, seeking escape, had fallen back on this:
BUSH (10/3/00): Look, this is a man, he's got great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math! It's the scaring, trying to scare people in the voting booth.
As it turned out, Gore’s “math” about this wasn’t fuzzy at all; his numbers had been correct. As it turned out, his statements about Bush’s prescription drug plan had been accurate.

Good lord! Candidate Bush had spent ten minutes misstating his own prescription drug plan! And when Candidate Gore kept correcting his errors, he unloaded a scripted zinger, accusing him of “fuzzy math” and dropping the ultimate bomb:

Al Gore said he invented the Internet!

It was the ultimate press corps bomb. Under duress, Bush had dropped it.

Eight days later, Lehrer didn’t seem to give a flying fig about any of that. A scripted tool of insider power, he turned to Candidate Bush and asked him to talk about Gore’s factual errors! Here you see a fuller transcript as a tool of insider power helps a hopeful along:
LEHRER (10/11/00): New question.

BUSH: Yes.

LEHRER: Last question. For you, Governor. And this flows out some—flows somewhat out of the Boston debate.

You, your running mate, your campaign officials have charged that Vice President Gore exaggerates, embellishes and stretches the facts, etc. Are you— Are you, do you believe these are serious issues? This is a serious issue that the voters should use in deciding which one of you two men to vote for on November 7?

BUSH: Well, we all make mistakes. I've been known to mangle a syllable (pronounced sy-LAB-le) or two myself, you know. But—if you know what I mean. I think credibility is important. It's going important to be—for the president to be credible with Congress, important for the president to be credible with foreign nations. And yes, I think it's something that people need to consider. This is—

This isn't something new. I read a report or a memo from somebody in his 1988 campaign—I forgot the fellow's name—warning then Senator Gore to be careful about exaggerating claims. And, you know, I thought when—during his debate with Senator Bradley, saying he authored the EITC, when it didn't happen. He—I mentioned the last debate—


BUSH: The earned income tax credit.

LEHRER: Right.

BUSH: Sorry.

LEHRER: That's all right.
So typical.

In fact, Gore never said he authored the EITC; that was one of the three million groaners the press corps had simply invented. And the remark he did make about the EITC—a remark about the program's extension, a remark which was perfectly accurate—had not been made at a debate with Bill Bradley.

Candidate Bush had that wrong too. The remark had been made in an interview with Time, back in November 1999.

But so what? The weekend before this second debate, Lawrence O’Donnell had revived this old groaner. Hacking away for John McLaughlin on his widely-syndicated program, O’Donnell recalled Gore’s (perfectly accurate) remark about the EITC, describing it as one of Gore’s “most ridiculous and most relevant untruths.”

Now, Bush repeated the same old groaner. The moderator let it go as he helped Bush along.

Our view? As you look at these transcripts, you are looking at unvarnished journalistic malpractice—at a deeply consequential subversion of your democracy. Was Lehrer acting in good faith? If so, his judgment was awful. For the second straight debate, Lehrer chose to end the evening with a long discussion of Gore’s bad character. The master helped Bush along with his answers, even as Bush continued to misstate basic facts about Gore.

Bush had made giant misstatements at that first debate—but by now, those giant misstatements had been disappeared. Lehrer asked Bush to discuss Gore’s lying. As he did, the liberal world sat silent, complicit, compliant.

At this point, it seems that the Gore campaign screamed. They got little help from the various hacks who were making sure that their own status wasn’t endangered.

E. J. Dionne didn’t say a word. Neither did Bob Herbert, Frank Rich. Gail Collins lazily burbled and clowned. Children! Jim Lehrer had spoken!

What did the Gore campaign say to Richard Berke, the reporter who wrote a rather fuzzy report about their complaints in the New York Times? We have no personal knowledge. But Lehrer had shown astoundingly bad judgment in these first two debates.

In our view, it was amazing when Lehrer chose to end the first debate in the way he did. When he ended the second debate the same way, the master of moderation had thoroughly jumped the shark.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you what Lehrer did in 1996, when he tried to goad Candidates Dole and Kemp into discussing Bill Clinton’s bad character. Incredibly, Lehrer discussed that conduct in last year’s peculiar book, describing the way he kept trying to get Kemp and Dole to discuss the character question.

In his weirdest passage, he even said that he wanted Kemp and Dole to discuss Gennifer Flowers! (She had been out of the news for four years.) Reviewers said nothing about this, of course. People! The master had spoken!

For today, let’s close things out with one final moment from that second Bush-Gore debate. This involves a factual error made by Lehrer himself.

By this part of the closing segment, Lehrer was scolding Gore for a minor jab his campaign had aimed at Bush in a press release. Lehrer misstated the facts in the highlighted comments. This made it look like Gore was dissembling again, provoking a laugh from the live audience:
LEHRER (10/11/00): Your campaign officials, Mr. Vice President, are now calling it's—now calling the governor a bumbler—

BUSH: Wait a minute!

LEHRER: I mean, is that— No, my point is, should this, is this—

GORE: I don't—I, I don't use language like that and I don't think that, that we should. I think that—

LEHRER: It's in your— It's in your commercial.

GORE: I understand. The, the— I haven't seen that.

BUSH: Yeah.

GORE: In my commercial?

LEHRER: Yeah. Yeah.

GORE: Well, the—

BUSH: You haven't seen the commercial?
“You haven't seen the commercial?” Bush said, mocking Gore and piling on as the audience laughed.

In fact, there was no such commercial; this fact explained Gore’s confusion. In this case, Lehrer had made a factual error—and his error had provoked a laugh at one of the hopefuls’ expense. (Tomorrow, we'll review the way Lehrer corrected himself at the start of the third debate.)

A few days after this second debate, Richard Berke's report appeared in the New York Times. Describing the anger within the Gore camp, he mentioned this factual error by Lehrer. But he didn’t mention the larger problem—the fact that Lehrer had ended each of the first two debates with extended discussions of Gore’s bad character.

Reading Berke’s rather murky report as a Kremlinologist must, we’ll guess that he may have chosen to fudge the larger complaint. Darlings! This was Jim Lehrer!

Back to Lehrer’s remarkable conduct:

As Lehrer structured these debates this way, the liberal world sat silent. E. J. Dionne could have spoken, of course. But what about E. J.’s career?

Twelve years later, two rising “liberal” TV stars praised Lehrer’s brilliance in Politico. They lined the pockets of their careers—and extended an insider scam.

This is how George Bush reached the White House. But children! If it’s Alex, Melissa, Chris, Rachel you watch, you will never be told.

Tomorrow: The master goads Kemp and Dole. Also: 2004!

Suggested viewing: Thanks to C-Span, you can watch the Bush-Gore debates on-line.

To watch the first debate, click this. For the second debate, click here.

The segments we discussed today come at the end of these debates. In the first debate, the ten-minute discussion of Bush’s prescription drug plan starts at minute ten.

If you watch that remarkable ten-minute chunk, try to remember this: This is the debate at which Candidate Gore was allegedly so rude and disrespectful. Question: How much “loud sighing” do you hear as you watch this ten-minute exchange?

One more question: Without the deceptions of the “press corps,” would it even cross your mind that any such thing had occurred?


  1. OT: Wanna hate on Joan Walsh? Forget Matthew, check out Salon's welcome back to Paglia. Who knows how much people actually listen to this trash mouthed, tasteless fool, but it's hard to imagine timing this cover story to better inflict damage on Obama. But the hell with that, Paglia has a book to sell.

    1. id advise paglia to find other sources of info than right wing radio unless she is really a media hound and into propaganda, which i dont get the impression she is.

      btw, walsh is no longer in charge at salon. the guy that did the interview youre referencing is the editor in chief, i think the title is, since 2010. i dont know if she might have plans on coming back. she is currently only an editor at large so she can contribute whatever she wants without permission, is my understanding.

  2. Back to more-or-less the present, could you possibly miss how Lehrer's eyes took on this kind of glazed shine while he was being countermanded (rolled over?) by Romney more than once ? No mention of it anywhere I have seen...I certainly wasn't looking to Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell, or David Gregory for so much as a casual aside....David Brooks ? Forget about it !

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