The presidential debates, especially this year’s first scheduled one — at New York’s Hofstra University on Sept. 26 — are really a national job interview.
My advice to the moderators remains to heed the wise counsel of my friend and longtime colleague, Jim Lehrer — who has moderated a record 12 presidential debates — which is to pay total attention to the candidate’s answer to the question asked.
To make this point, Lehrer, in Tension City, his book on his debate experiences, offered a fictional example of the feckless moderator who does not listen to the answer.
Question: “Senator, do you believe the U.S. should sell more grain to Cuba?” Answer: “Yes, Jim, I do. But first we should bomb Havana.” Follow-up question: “What kind of grain, Senator?” Listen.
Today I have accepted the following realities about my life:
» I never will play second base for my beloved Boston Red Sox.
» I never will have “killer abs.”
» I will never even be considered to moderate any presidential or vice-presidential debate, ever.
But I still do have questions I wish the candidates would be asked and answer:
» If you could be certain that it would be approved by Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states, what one constitutional amendment would you tonight advocate to improve our nation?
» When was the most recent time you, as ordinary Americans do daily, flew on a regularly scheduled commercial airliner? What was your personal experience with the Transportation Security Administration when you did?
» What do you admire, other than his/her family members, personally about your opponent?
» Why did you invite your opponent — for whom you obviously have minimum high regard — to be a guest at and to celebrate with you at your wedding?
» Why did you accept the invitation from your opponent — for whom you obviously have minimum high regard — to attend and celebrate his wedding?
» Tell me which U.S. president of your opponent’s political party you’ve most admired in your lifetime and why.
» What is the federal minimum wage, and do you personally know anyone who works for the minimum wage?
» Sir/Madam, you are able to ask your opponent one question on any subject. Now, please ask that question.
» If you had the power to bring back one network TV show that is no longer on the air, what would it be?
» Mike Mansfield of Montana served as Senate majority leader and as U.S. ambassador to Japan, doing both longer than anyone in U.S. history. More important, beginning at the age of 14, he served honorably in the Navy and then in the Army and finally in the Marine Corps. Before he died, he instructed that his simple gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery read simply, “Michael Joseph Mansfield, Pvt. U.S. Marine Corps.” In one sentence, what would you today write as your own epitaph?
» There has been much discussion of religion in this campaign. Both of you are professed Christians who recognize the influence of the Apostle Paul and his famous letters to the Corinthians. Tell me, do you think the Corinthians ever wrote back?
— 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, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.