What It's Like to Moderate a Presidential Debate

Legendary journalist Bob Schieffer shares some of his experiences moderating debates in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

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Sep 26 2016, 6:26pm

Bob Schieffer between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the final 2012 debate Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Journalists like to think of ourselves as central to the political process, but in truth not many of us ever have much of a chance at influencing the course of a campaign. Investigative reporting is vital and can uncover important truths about candidates, and interviews with the candidates sometimes serve as windows into their personalities, but few of these stories break through and actually change voters' minds. Arguably, the only time a member of the press has real power during an election cycle is when he or she is sitting literally between the candidates moderating one of the debates.

Bob Schieffer knows this role well. The veteran and venerated CBS newsman has been a journalist for most of his 79 years and interviewed every president since Richard Nixon; in 2008, he was literally named a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress. Along the way, he moderated presidential debates in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Even for him, it was a pretty heavy burden to shoulder.

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates chooses the moderators at these events, but in order to stay above the political fray, it lets the moderators choose all the questions. This is a lot of responsibility—before the first debate he moderated, in 2004, Schieffer told me he had a nightmare where he ran out of things to ask George W. Bush and John Kerry even though there were 20 long minutes left in the debate. So like any good journalist he over-prepared, calling on think tank after think tank to briefed him on all the relevant subjects. For the last debate he moderated, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Schieffer had more than 300 questions ready to go—but once you're in the debate, he said, most of the questions are follow-ups anyway.

A moderator's follow-up questions—what they should be, and how aggressive they should be—have been at the center of a fairly heated debate in the media lately. Donald Trump's unique habit of making statements that are tossed-off jokes, half-cooked pieces of nonsense, or outright lies puts journalists interviewing him in a tricky spot: How much do you fact-check him and call him out when he says something verifiably untrue? During a debate, with practically the entire country watching, this responsibility is amped up—Hillary Clinton's campaign has already made it known it wants moderator Lester Holt to point out Trump's "lies."

Schieffer is of the opinion that in the best-case scenario, it's the other candidate who serves as the fact-checker. He's often compared the moderator's role to that of an "umpire," meaning it's not his place to insert himself into a debate. (Other former moderators agree.) He told me that you do have to be ready to fact-check if it's needed, but stressed that a moderator is all alone out there. A director may be speaking into the moderator's earpiece, but only to note how much time has elapsed and how many minutes each candidate has spoken for—there's no producer to feed you accurate information, as might happen during a regular interview. Saying a candidate is wrong about something—as moderator Candy Crowley did, controversially, to Romney in 2012—means going out on a limb.

Schieffer's umpire analogy is about more than just fact-checking. He compared the grousing about unfair questions that some candidates engage in (and was especially prevalent during last year's crowded GOP primary debates) to coaches "working the refs" in hopes of getting favorable calls later. When that happens, he said, you have to "laugh it off" and remind the angry candidate that the audience is there to watch them and that you, the moderator, aren't running for anything. "There's a lot of things you can say," Schieffer said.

As for what voters are watching for, Schieffer thinks that they "more or less know where each [candidate] stands at this point"—the key thing is often the character of the candidates, which he says is more important in a presidential election, where voters want to know how a potential commander-in-chief reacts under pressure. That's part of the reason why the best questions from a moderator are "how" questions—how will Trump get those undocumented immigrants on the buses to deport them? How will Clinton pay for her ambitious tuition-free college plan? If a candidate can't handle those questions, that's a pretty big red flag.

Schieffer's one wish for this series of three debates is to get at least one where Trump and Clinton sit down at a table with the moderator, as Obama and John McCain did with Schieffer in 2008. That setting is more intimate and can serve as a check on the angriest rhetorical impulses. The 2008 campaign was very contentious, with plenty of negative ads, and as a result, "you could cut the tension with a knife," Schieffer said. There was a contrast between the two men up close too, with an "over-caffeinated" McCain facing off against Obama, who stared his opponent down, without taking notes, as the other man spoke. When he asked the candidates if they would repeat the claims their commercials had made about the other, both demurred, instead falling back on lines about it being a "tough campaign."

This campaign is even tougher, and Schieffer wonders if Trump and Clinton, who will be behind podiums, will even shake hands.

In the back-and-forth before the debate, Trump suggested that he'd prefer a format where there was no moderator. So I asked Schieffer why we need a moderator in the first place, and the reply was that without someone guiding the discussion, the two candidates would be too free to descend into a vindictive back-and-forth. "Can you imagine the Republican primary debates without a moderator?" Schieffer said. I could not.

So maybe the best analogy isn't a baseball umpire, who just stands around and occasionally calls balls and strikes, but a boxing referee, who is there to make sure all the blows are above the belt. I put that to Schieffer, and he paused.

"Hopefully it won't come to actual fisticuffs," he said.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

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