Let me state at the outset that I have always been a Jim Lehrer fan. I have watched his television show for years, had the pleasure of meeting him, and the students in my course on the American presidency this semester are required to read his new book on presidential debates, Tension City.
And so, when the blogosphere lit up with complaints a few months ago when Mr. Lehrer was selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates to moderate the first presidential debate of 2012, I was not one of those voices. In fact, even though I always advocate having a diverse group of moderators (for the record, even though two of the four moderators this year are women, no African American or Latino moderators were chosen), I defended the Commission's selection.
Lehrer has been the epitome of the fair and informed professional journalist. His experience both on the anchor's desk and as a debate moderator is second to none. However, his performance during the first debate, which happened to be Lehrer's twelfth time moderating (which is a record), was, by any description, a disaster.
With respect to Lehrer, he was lethargic and completely lost control of the debate. Throughout the evening he hesitated when informing the candidates who would go first in answering a question, even pausing as if to recall their names.
In their responses, the candidates continually ran over the allotted time to the extent that one of the six planned topics for the evening had to be shelved. At one point, after the candidates digressed into a discussion of Medicare and health care, Lehrer stopped them and said they would come back to the issue later, when he should simply have adapted the order of his prepared questions in order to continue the "flow" of the conversation.
Lehrer failed repeatedly to get the long-winded Obama to honor the time allotment and he never questioned Romney or asked for clarification even though the Republican nominee's comments were frequently at odds with what he has been saying for the past two years. Obama lost the debate, but the biggest loser was any control of the debate. It is time for a new generation of moderators.
Robert Watson, Ph.D. has published 34 books on American politics and history and serves as Professor and Coordinator of American Studies at Lynn University, site of the third/final presidential debate.