President Barack Obama answers a question of moderator Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, October 3, 2012, in Denver.
All spinning aside—and if I read the term "rope-a-dope" one more time, I may lose it—Wednesday's debate was a bummer for Obama's partisans and a lift for Mitt Romney's. But let's not slight the night's one great contribution to American unity. Who among us can forget the thrill of realizing we were all fed up with Jim Lehrer? From blue, red, and even purple throats alike, a roar of "Put a sock in it, you dweeb" rang through the land.
Beware the man whose signature boast is his modesty. The comedy got underway when Monday's New York Times reported that the crypt-keeper of PBS's Newshour was "seething" over complaints that he might not be the hippest cat to moderate Denver's mano a mano. It's not unknown in Washington that Lehrer can be awfully prickly whenever anybody doubts his bland brand's unimpeachable superiority to everybody else's satin-and-tat, but still—"seething," really? It was as funny as hearing that Mr. Chips had turned into Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Then, of course, he proved the doubters right, not only by his ineffectual timekeeping—something that would hardly have mattered if he hadn't stressed the importance of hewing to his schedule to begin with—but by the wilful obtuseness of his civics-class approach. To frame virtually every question as a request for the candidates to "explain the differences" in how they'd deal with the economy, Social Security and so on was terrifically inane, considering that those differences are fairly stark and generally well understood. It might have made more sense in a primary debate, when finding policy daylight between one candidate and another—e.g., on a good many issues, Obama himself and Hillary Clinton in 2008—can be more of a genuine challenge.
In ways Lehrer presumably didn't anticipate, this played right into Romney's apparent strategy. Time after time, he was able to soften his differences with Obama and thereby reposition himself to appeal to centrist voters, no matter how brazenly his user-friendly guff contradicted the red meat Mitt's been hurling at the GOP base's fangs pretty much since the day he announced his candidacy. Naturally, good old Jim's brightest-eunuch-in-the-classroom act precluded him from ever so gently pointing out the whopping discrepancies between the latest New Mitt and the platoons of former ones on display throughout the campaign—that is, from asking the kind of sharp-elbowed follow-up questions that have lately been successfully tarnished as "gotcha" journalism, when they used to be known as journalism.
True, the real responsibility for calling Romney out fell on Obama, who bobbled it—and who could have been called out by Lehrer for a few discrepancies of his own. But if the moderator's idea of his proper role ended up making him seem dissociated from reality, don't think mere ineptitude was to blame. In fact, it was vanity, because Lehrer was imposing his priggish notions of how an election should work on the one most Americans understand is actually going on. When Romney mock-apologized for planning to give public TV the axe by noting that he was fond of both Jim and Big Bird, the line's subliminal effect was to put the two PBS stars on the same level of silliness—and so much for Lehrer's dignity. But what made it unfair was that everybody over six in this country knows that Big Bird would have been a better moderator.