Schieffer, you old kill-joy, you. You had to go out there, didn’t you, and do a sober and professional job as moderator of Presidential Debate Three, thereby restoring moderation to moderating?
Unlike Moderators One and Two, CBS veteran Bob Schieffer drew praise this week for staying awake and for staying out of it, the debate, that is. He did what reporters used to do before cable news: Facilitate or move along the debate, ask some nonpartisan but intelligent questions, and, above all else, do not become the story.
Unlike what happened in Debate Number Two, when CNN’s Candy Crowley just could not resist joining the fray on behalf of her man, President Barack Obama. Candy felt it was her duty, as an impartial reporter-moderator to call foul on Mitt Romney. The GOP candidate had just accused the president of failing for two weeks to declare that it was terrorism, not a stupid anti-Muslim movie, that prompted the attack on our Libyan embassy and the murders of our ambassador and three other Americans. No, no, Candy interjected like a fourth-grader anxious for the “teach” to call on her, the president did so tell us, right there in the Rose Garden, just a day later. “Very nice Candy, now put your hand down and you’ll get your star.”
Debate Number One, well what can you say? There was poor, old Jim Lehrer who, when he appeared to be awake and somewhat alert, dazzled us with questions like “How, Governor Romney, does your position on X issue differ from the president’s?” Piercing, probative! That kind of question is known in the biz as the “not so energetic reporter” query. No need to get all that specific — that, after all, would tax the noggin too much — you just mention X is the issue and let the candidates do the lifting. All reporters have done it, usually after a long night. Mister Lehrer does not look like a guy who has long nights. (“Will someone please wake up Mister Lehrer and tell him this is a debate and he’s supposed to be running it, for jiminy’s sake?”)
To be fair and all that stuff, Lehrer is 78 years old, three years older than Schieffer. He has moderated a dozen presidential debates, including, I think, that big dustup between Jefferson and Adams. But Schieffer seemed to have more than a numerical or calendar edge on PBS’ Lehrer, displaying some nice, warm humor when called for. At the end of a to-do between Obama and Romney over education, Romney assuring us he “loves” teachers, Schieffer neatly transitions with “I think we all love teachers.”
(“Please, someone elbow Mister Lehrer and tell him he’s snoring and it’s disruptive.”)
No smarty-pants display by Schieffer, either. No overwhelming urge to “correct” either candidate, as CNN’s Crowley felt compelled to do. It is one thing for a newspaper or network to do a “fact check” or some such thing after the debate, but not during. It’s kinda like Journalism 101, kinda like what every halfway decent reporter learned as a cub: Ain’t your job to change the course of the event, no matter who’s got it right or wrong.
(“We gotta get him outta here. Mister Lehrer, everybody’s gone home, please wake up, sir.”)
True, a few conservatives complained that Schieffer was more fastidious in imposing time limits on Mitt than on Barack. But it was a lot more impartial than Candy’s performance. I saw one letter to the editor that claimed Crowley gave President Obama “almost nine percent more time.” That letter writer obviously has
too much free time on his hands, figuring out percentages of air time and such. Crowley’s Rose Garden strategy and “correction” of candidate Romney clearly showed her colors; I all but expected her to go over and share the stool with the President.
(“Look, just turn the lights out and let Mister Lehrer get some rest, sshhhh.”)
Bob Schieffer did make a slip, referring to the slain al-Qaeda leader as “Obama bin Laden.” But remember, the guy is 75 years old. Of course, down in Boca Raton, where the debate was held, lots of widows consider 75 to be a spring chicken, especially if Schieffer is able to drive at night.
And you had to love his closer: “In the words of my mom, go vote. It makes you feel big and strong.”
John McLoughlin is a freelance columnist and a veteran Capital Region journalist now at NewsChannel13. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Reach him at JMcLoughlin@WNYT.com.