For 25 years, Jim Lehrer has been my friend and colleague on PBS Newshour. He has been an exceptional journalist for more than twice that long. On Oct. 3 in Denver, Lehrer will break his own indoor-outdoor record and establish a new world’s record when he moderates for the 12th time a U.S. presidential debate.
Because Lehrer both completely appreciates and accepts that presidential debates are about the presidential nominees and not about the moderator or the panelists, nobody is better at doing what he does. The often-overlooked asset Lehrer brings to this pressure-cooker assignment is the ability to pay complete attention to the answers being given to the questions he asks.
In Tension City, his book written from inside the presidential debates, he gives us his favorite made-up example of the interviewer who fails to listen to the answer:
“Q: Senator, do you believe the the U.S. should sell more grain to Cuba?
“A: Yes, Jim. I do. But first we should bomb Havana.
“Q: What kind of grain, senator?”
Just because I am never going to be invited to ask questions in a presidential debate does not mean that I do not have some questions I would like to ask President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Here are a few, which I concede are not as classy or fair as the ones Lehrer will pose.
» If you had complete assurance that it would be ratified, what one amendment to the Constitution would you propose?
» During the 2012 campaign, both of you have spent virtually no real time at all (other than to raise campaign money) talking to or listening to any voters in 42 of our 50 states. Virtually all your efforts, energy and attention have been spent courting voters in the eight battleground states. Colorado voters matter, while Maine and Montana voters do not. Why shouldn’t we abolish the Electoral College so that every American’s vote will matter and count the same?
» What is the national average price of a gallon of regular gasoline today?
» When was the last time you visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington? If you haven’t, why not?
» What is your favorite children’s book? Why?
» What would be the reason — other than to avoid paying taxes to the U.S. Treasury — for depositing one’s money in a Swiss bank or a Cayman Islands account, instead of in an American bank?
» With all the tension in that area, much attention has been focused on the Straits of Hormuz. What, if anything, do you wish to say about the Gays of Hormuz?
» Mike Mansfield served honorably in this nation’s Navy, Army and Marine Corps — all three services before he was old enough to vote — and went on to serve longer than anyone else before or since as both Senate majority leader and U.S. ambassador to Japan. Before he died, he directed that his simple grave marker at Arlington National Cemetery read: “Michael Joseph Mansfield, Private, U.S. Marine Corps.” In one sentence, what would you want your own epitaph to read?
» On Oct. 22, 1976, the first panelist to ask a question of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter was columnist Joseph Kraft: “Americans all know that these are difficult times. ... They don’t expect something for nothing. ... As you look ahead for the next four years, what sacrifices are you going to call on the American people to make? What price are you going to ask them to pay?”
Kraft’s question is even more timely today.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.