How to Moderate a Presidential Debate
Almost as much as the candidates, NBC's Lester Holt will be on the hot seat during the debate on Monday night. Past moderators offer their advice for how to pull it off.
When it comes to moderating a presidential debate, as NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will discover on Monday night, “it’s always tight-sphincter time.”
So says former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw—one of American democracy’s more notable debate moderators of the past three decades.
“The role of the moderator is to maintain law and order,” said Shaw, who presided in October 1988 over the second and last debate between then-vice president George H.W. Bush, the Republican, and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democrat—and posed, as history now reckons, the killer question to the Democratic nominee. (More on that in a moment.)
“Remember, the moderator is operating under rules and conditions set by the candidates’ lawyers and representatives, and as a moderator, my role is to enforce those rules,” Shaw continued. “When I say ‘law and order,’ I mean maintain decorum and not tolerate or brook any interference from partisans in the audience”—which Shaw did in 1988, warning the candidates that the seconds spent on outbursts from supporters would be subtracted from their speaking time.
Former PBS anchor Jim Lehrer—whose combined moderating experience with Shaw’s goes back seven presidential election cycles—advised: “The first thing to do is to stand in front of the mirror and say, ‘This is not about me, this is not about me, this is not about me.’ Once you get that out of your system, then you can function as a moderator.”
Lehrer, who holds the all-time record as the moderator of 11 presidential debates and one vice presidential debate since the 1988 general election campaign, added: “It’s enormous pressure, and I always remind myself that this is not a television show, this is a vital event in the most vital thing we do as citizens, which is to elect a president of the United States. Every moderator must keep this in mind.
“No, you’re not auditioning for a better job. You’re not trying to show how tough you are. This isn’t about you, Billy Bob. You’ve got to remember who this is for—the people watching who are going to make a choice. It keeps you focused.”
As NBC’s Holt prepares to preside over Monday’s 90-minute televised faceoff between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—the political equivalent of Godzilla meets Mothra, before a U.S. viewership likely to exceed 80 million, to say nothing of additional millions around the world—Shaw, 76, and Lehrer, 82, shared their impressions and insights with The Daily Beast.
Both agreed that the clock is the most oppressive tyranny in a situation in which minutes and topics are rushing by and it’s up to the moderator, nobody else, to ensure that each candidate gets equal time. Nor is it the proper role of a producer or director in the control room to kibitz on questions via an earpiece, they said.
And both Shaw and Lehrer insisted that the moderator’s job does not, repeat not, include fact-checking the candidates.
“It is not my role to correct a candidate. The record will do that, and the record is there,” Shaw said, noting that there will be no shortage of real-time fact-checking, not only by the dueling campaigns but by independent groups such as PolitiFact. “These candidates are creating a record as they respond to questions during the debate. It’s not my role to be a curator of facts…Informed voters will be aware of what the facts are.”
Shaw added that a moderator risks justifiable criticism when he or she leaps into the fray to support the factual assertion of one side or the other, as CNN’s Candy Crowley famously did in the October 2012 foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, when she informed the Republican nominee that contrary to his claims, the president had promptly called the attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror.”
“That is tantamount to interference in the debate,” Shaw said, “and when a moderator interferes, it inflames supporters of the candidate. I know there are differing opinions about this, but that’s my attitude.”
Crowley left CNN in December 2014, and efforts to reach her this past week were unsuccessful, but she told The Daily Beast at the time: “I was trying to move the conversation along. They got stuck on this.” Concerning the complaining Republicans, she added: “I’m sorry they’re upset, but tomorrow they’ll be upset about something else, as will the Democrats.”
While Shaw and Lehrer politely declined to offer specific advice to this campaign’s debate moderators, they shared their general philosophies of moderating—which may or not be helpful to Holt and the other TV journalists chosen by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates to act as middlemen, facilitators and occasionally interveners during the coming weeks’ confrontations: CBS’s Elaine Quijano for the Oct. 4 vice presidential candidate debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz for the Oct. 9 town hall in which voters will question the presidential candidates, and Fox News’s Chris Wallace for the final Oct. 19 presidential confab.
Lehrer pointed out that presidential candidates and their campaigns have far less influence on the choices of moderators, formats, locations and dates of the debates, than they did in 1988—when the debate commission was created, supplanting the League of Women Voters; these days the commission largely sets the agenda.
“The job of the moderator is to help facilitate revealing who these people are,” said Lehrer, whose book Tension City (the title steals Bush the elder’s memorable description of debate anxiety) is an entertaining chronicle of the behind-the-curtain machinations surrounding modern polemical combat.
“Remember, we’re already into September and a lot of voters have already made up their minds,” Lehrer said. “It’s a very small percentage of undecideds, and although they’ll want to take the measure of these folks, it’s less about issues and positions. They’re going to be looking at the candidates for the way they move their hands, the way they frown or smile, and for the first time Clinton and Trump will be right up next to each other.”
Shaw agreed, saying: “Atmospherics are very much a factor in these debates. Television is a very cool medium and how you conduct yourself impresses viewers positively or negatively. And it’s serious.”
Shaw acknowledged that Trump might present this year’s moderators a special challenge as a reality television billionaire who has won his party’s nomination by operating well outside of traditional political norms. But he insisted: “The rules are the rules. Let’s say Donald Trump has 90 seconds to respond to a question, and if he uses those 90 seconds to filibuster instead of responding directly to the question, viewers and listeners and readers of transcripts will see it for what it is.”
Shaw added: “Presumably.”
In the end, Lehrer said, the voters assessing the candidates will be watching “how they interact with each other, reacting or attacking or explaining a difference in policy or criticizing the other,” because the bottom line for citizens will be: “ ’Oh my God, I can’t see this person sitting in the Oval Office deciding about sending kids into harm’s way. Oh my God, I’m not sure this person has the temperament to react properly to the unexpected.’ Because presidencies are all about the unexpected.”
Mike Dukakis surely didn’t expect Bernie Shaw’s first question during the October 13, 1988 skirmish in Los Angeles, a fastball aimed at his head which Politico columnist Roger Simon calls “the most controversial [question] ever asked at a presidential debate.”
Under the ground rules negotiated by Bush campaign chairman James A. Baker III (later Bush’s secretary of state), Shaw was restricted to posing only a single query to each candidate, with the rest relegated to a panel of reporters. He asked Dukakis the following: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
Dukakis gave a wonky, bloodless, robotic answer—“No, I don’t, Bernard,” he began, almost breezily—that reaffirmed his long-held opposition to the death penalty, ignored that Shaw was talking about the rape and murder of his wife (!), and played into the Bush campaign’s insinuations that the Massachusetts liberal was a devotee of ideological abstractions, divorced from the concerns of real people and real emotions—a caricature that Bush himself lampooned as “The Ice Man.”
“He never gave the question any thought,” Shaw recalled. “I don’t think two seconds existed between the end of my question and the beginning of his response, and when he started, I thought to myself, ‘Governor, that’s not the right answer.’ ”
Shaw, who name-checked Kitty Dukakis over the objections of his fellow debate panelists (all women), was the target of condemnation from many Democrats, though not the governor, as it became clear that Dukakis’s tepid response was likely to be punished with a political death penalty.
“I didn’t like the attention,” Shaw recalled.
“If you don’t like to be criticized, don’t be a debate moderator because that goes with the territory,” said Lehrer, who himself was savagely panned by some partisans and journalists for alleged passivity during the first October 2012 debate between Romney and Obama, in which both candidates wandered off topic and ignored Lehrer’s attempts to enforce discipline. “I promise you, all five of these moderators in the 2016 debates will catch flack from somebody about what they did or didn’t do. There’s just no way to avoid it. When things go wrong, the handlers of the candidate are not going to blame the boss, they’re going to blame the moderator.”
Shaw, meanwhile, said he’s been perfectly happy in the 15 years since he retired from CNN, where he was present at the creation in 1980 as the cable outlet’s first lead anchor:
“I’m enjoying life. I’m enjoying my family. I don’t miss this cycle at all.”