Jim Lehrer, the venerable host of NewsHour fame, has moderated ten presidential debates in his lifetime. But as he approaches his responsibilities as the host of the first go-around between Barack Obama and John McCain, his nerves aren't any calmer than when he first did this.
"If you screw this thing up it isn't like a television program where you can say, "Oh sorry, I'll do better tomorrow," Lehrer told the Huffington Post. "This has the potential for being one of the most exhilarating experiences a person can have and I've had it at times. But it also has the potential for being a negative experience too if you blow it because if you make a mistake as a moderator in one of these debates it could affect who becomes the next president of the United States."
Known for his steady and substantive approach towards questioning, Lehrer promised no "gotcha" moments in the September 26 debate between the two presidential candidates at the University of Mississippi. He also declined to say whether a politician's personal life should or would be fair game: "You will have to wait and see. Each one of these things has a life of its own and I'm a long way from a decision about what I'm going to ask exactly." And he framed his role as one of political tour guide rather than referee. For instance, when asked whether it was the moderator's responsibility to call a candidate on a blatant lie, Lehrer said no.
"It is the responsibility of the other candidates," he said. "It is not an interview. This is not a journalism exercise, this is a debate exercise. And the moderator is there to enforce the rules. And to ask questions obviously. But it is up to the - the whole point of the exercise is to get the candidates to respond and do the talking."
That's about the extent of insight he offered into how that affair - which will be themed on foreign policy and national security - will proceed. The construct of this debate will be different than any Lehrer has operated. The candidates will have more liberty to speak at length - segments could run up to nine and a half minutes - and, for the first time, address one another. As such, he predicted that Obama and McCain's answers wouldn't simply be extensions of their stump speeches.
"It is like a football game," he said. "Everybody has a game plan until they kick off and then things happen. This is a high stakes debate, obviously. They all are. And this one is as high as any of them. Things are going to happen and I have no idea what they are going to be. My job is to cope and to make sure that the candidates are protected from a fairness standpoint."
But the new format also added an additional sense of angst to the moderator post. The NewsHour host recalled how in 1988 he cut off then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush during his debate with Michael Dukakis before the allotted time was finished. Immediately, he felt a sense of dread that his error, in some sort of political ripple effect, would alter the course of the election. "I had to apologize to him," Lehrer said. "It was embarrassing."
Then there was the 2000 Al Gore-George W. Bush debate in which the vice president notoriously grimaced and sighed his way through his opposition's answers. Lehrer left that contest thinking Gore had clearly scored a victory, only to discover that what he had witnessed was far different from the rest of the audience.
"I had decided that I would always look at who was speaking and not who was listening. It was only when the debate was over and I was walking out of the debate hall and one of my daughters said: 'Oh dad, that was interesting what Gore did and all that grimacing and stuff,'" he recalled. "I didn't know, I had heard a little bit but I had not paid any attention to it. And that was what everyone was talking about afterward."
Certainly, regarding these types of memorable mistakes, the upcoming debate is unlikely to witness history repeat itself. But that's about all Lehrer is sure of. He has been prepping for months, bouncing ideas for questions, follow-ups and lines of inquiry in his head.
"Fortunately, I haven't been dropped out of space," he says, "I've been following this election for three years and these are the type of issues... we've been dealing with on the NewsHour since day one. It isn't about nuclear fusion."
And while the anxiety will always be there - it comes with the responsibility - he sees this debate as being a memorable, perhaps history-altering, affair.
"I'm going to have earned my zero pay after it's done," he says.