Commentary Magazine


In Defense of Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer for moderator-in-chief!

Did someone slip me a psychedelic mickey last night as I watched the debate? Because I have to say I was shocked to wake up this morning to find people on the right and the left agreeing that Jim Lehrer laid an egg, whereas I found it to be one of the best, most interesting, least infuriating debates in a long time. In fact, at several points, I found myself wishing out loud that all the debates could be moderated by Mr. Lehrer.

So, what exactly was Mr. Lehrer’s grievous sin? HE LET THE DEBATERS DEBATE!!!!! He gave them a few subjects, asked a couple of specific questions, and let Messrs. Obama and Romney go at it. Sure, he didn’t follow the rules you may be familiar with from your high school debate team. But then, neither does the format we have come to expect from our political debates, and which most commentators seem to have longed for last night:

“Each candidate will have 1 minute to sum up decades of thinking on a complex issue, and to squeeze in as many confusing facts and figures as possible; his opponent will then have 30 seconds to deliver a considered response (ditto on the facts and figures); to which the first candidate will only be able to respond if the moderator decides to be generous, or if he can manage to steal some time from his prescribed 1-minute response to the next question.”

Mr. Lehrer didn’t “control the give-and-take and keep candidates to time” [FOX]. He failed to “corral the candidates” [HuffPost]. Exactly. What we ended up with was an actual, real discussion, rather than a cringe-inducing, gaffe-producing sound-bite battle. You can understand why the Obama cheerleading team is fuming, since their candidate clearly didn’t have enough command of anything to hold his own in that kind of discussion. But for the rest of us who care about ideas and enjoy a good, serious argument, what could be better? And what could be a better way for voters to actually get a real sense of who the candidates are?