There’s one thing Jim Lehrer won’t shut the f— up about — his performance as moderator at last week’s presidential debate. Though he’s been widely criticized for letting the candidates disregard time limits and not asking more pointed follow-up questions, Lehrer is happy with how the debate turned out: “I thought the format accomplished its purpose, which was to facilitate direct, extended exchanges between the candidates about issues of substance,” he said in a statement last Thursday.
And last night, Lehrer echoed his comments again in an interview with the Associated Press. “I may be seeing something that’s not there, but I can’t imagine emerging from this experience — I’m talking about myself — with any permanent scars,” Lehrer, said, adding, “I’m very upbeat about it, and I don’t have any second thoughts.”
But doesn’t the PBS vet — who has moderated 12 presidential debates since the Bush/Dukakis race of 1988 — regret not jumping into the conversation more? Not so much: “The first few times I said ‘let’s move on’ and they wanted to keep talking, the inclination of course is to stop them so I could cover all the subjects I wanted to cover. But I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wait a minute, they’re talking to each other, leave ’em alone,”‘ Lehrer explained. “So I backed off.”
If the debate had been between, say, two elementary school students, Lehrer may have been more forceful. “It would have been different if they were talking about tiddlywinks or baseball, their favorite color or something like that,” he told the AP. “They were talking about the things that really matter.”
In the end, though, this may be the most salient quote from the Lehrer interview: “Lehrer will be 82 during the 2016 presidential election campaign. He said he can’t imagine being asked again to moderate and, given the pressure it puts his family through, can’t imagine accepting if he were.” It’s bittersweet but understandable. The best moderator is the one you’re not talking about the day after the debate, and Lehrer found himself as conspicuous as Big Bird.