Jim Lehrer Defends Debate Moderating, But Doesn't Plan To Return In 2016

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03:  Debate moderator Jim Lehrer speaks prior to the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on
DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: Debate moderator Jim Lehrer speaks prior to the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- PBS veteran Jim Lehrer, who has taken heat this week for not tightly controlling Wednesday night's presidential debate and allowing the candidates to repeatedly ignore his directions, defended his performance Friday by saying that his job was "to get out of the way."

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Lehrer said his role was to facilitate exchanges between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, to "get them to talk, express themselves, talk about their differences, things that matter." And Lehrer feels he accomplished that.

During the debate, Lehrer did not bring up Romney's controversial claim that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as "victims," nor did he ask about a variety of important outside-the-Beltway issues, such as the foreclosure crisis, climate change, women's rights or gun violence.

But Lehrer said his job was not to "run simultaneous interviews" with the candidates or to necessarily bring up every issue that has received significant attention this election cycle. If Obama wanted to bring up Romney's "47 percent" comment or if Romney desired to talk about social issues, Lehrer said they presumably could have done so in the time allotted to directly challenge one another.

In 2008, Lehrer -- who has moderated 12 debates over the past 24 years -- tried repeatedly to get Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to question each other. He didn't have much luck under the previous format, which was broken up into eight 10-minute issue segments.

But this cycle, the Committee on Presidential Debates established new rules whereby the debate would be divided into six 15-minute segments, with the moderator allowing the candidates to each take two minutes to answer a question before they would debate for the rest of that segment -- ideally, with as little involvement by the moderator as possible.

The CPD defended Lehrer and his implementation of the new format in a statement to Politico Friday. And Lehrer, too, considers the new format a success.

"Most people have come to realize, my God, this was a major debate about things that matter, and the candidates expressed themselves, and it wasn't about one-liners or zingers and gaffes and all that," Lehrer said. "It was about substance."

While Lehrer may have wanted to get out of the way, his moderating -- or to some, lack thereof -- has made him a part of the story.

On Thursday night, Jimmy Fallon parodied exchanges between the candidates and Lehrer, who was depicted as meekly trying to interject only to be mercilessly scolded by the candidates. Both of the candidates eventually tell the Lehrer character to "shut the f*** up."

Lehrer said he hasn't seen the Fallon sketch, but acknowledged that sometimes he was able to get the candidates to move along to the next topic and other times he wasn't. The "open format," he said, doesn't give the moderator as many opportunities to break up the conversation as in past debates because of the amount of allotted time.

"There's never been a debate like this before where you've had direct exchanges like that," Lehrer said. "So it was new for them, the candidates. It was new for me, the moderator. It was new for the audience, the voters."

"I think we passed into a new threshold in presidential debates and I'm delighted in any small way I played in it," he added.

Lehrer has been hammered in the past for being non-confrontational, such as when he moderated all three presidential debates in 2000. Here's how The New York Times reported on the criticism at the time, which isn't so different from the criticism he received over the past two days.

Mr. Lehrer has been a target of intensifying criticism from partisans and analysts who complain that he did not sufficiently probe the candidates in the first two debates and was not particularly aggressive in following up his questions. The result, these critics say, is that the nominees were let off the hook on vital matters and the debates meandered to the point where they verged on being downright tedious.

In "Tension City," his 2011 debate memoir, Lehrer wrote that he "spent a full day in real hell" over the article, which was published the morning of the final Bush-Gore debate. Looking back, Lehrer wrote that he still didn't think the criticism was justified.

As for more recent criticism, much of which streamed throughout the debate on Twitter, Lehrer said it "goes with the territory."

"The larger the impact of the debate, the larger the potential criticism is," Lehrer said. "I knew there would be criticism and you really can calculate it in terms of the debate itself. The stakes are high."

And Lehrer said he wasn't taken aback when Romney brought him -- and Big Bird -- into the discussion over making cuts to public broadcasting. "I wasn't, because he said it many times before," he noted.

When Lehrer wrote "Tension City," he didn't expect to moderate any more presidential debates -- that is, until the CPD came calling again in 2012.

Lehrer likened the invitation to a "draft notice," thus making it a "civic responsibility" to participate. Lehrer said that the opportunity to moderate under a new format was "an offer I could not refuse and I am honored by the invitation.”

So would Lehrer, who will be 82 years old when the next election rolls around, consider returning if the CPD invited him once again?

"The likelihood of my doing another debate in 2016 is," he said, "on a scale of one to 10, a minus one."