Debate Host Harwood Tells the Tale of Rick Perry's 'Oops' Moment, and Keeping Perry on Spot

John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC, co-hosted the GOP debate in Michigan last Wednesday, and had a hand in Perry’s infamous debate “oops” moment, when the Texas governor was unable to list all three of the federal agencies he planned to eliminate as president. On Monday Harwood revealed that a CNBC producer helped prod Perry’s long, awkward moment by shouting a directive into Harwood’s earpiece.

Harwood also writes a weekly “Caucus” column for the New York Times. On Monday he discussed his role in Gov. Rick Perry’s infamous debate "oops," as well as how the audience booed the hosts for bringing up Herman Cain's sexual harassment controversy.

I knew our CNBC presidential debate had broken through when my daughter called from college to shout: “Dad, you’re on my two favorite Web sites!”

She was talking about and, two among the scores of outlets that replayed my exchange with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas that ended with “Oops.” It continued through “Saturday Night Live,” with Fred Armisen and Nasim Pedrad playing me and my moderating partner, Maria Bartiromo.


Indeed, most of the aggression inside Oakland University’s Athletics Center O’rena was directed at us. Audience members booed when we raised the Cain controversy.

We expected that, since Maria and I had received the same reaction at a breakfast of Michigan Republicans that morning. Nor was it surprising when former Speaker Newt Gingrich followed his pattern of attacking debate moderators rather than rival candidates.

What did surprise us was when Mr. Perry’s emphatic speech about budget cutting suddenly ran into a synaptic wall.

“It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone,” Mr. Perry declared. “Commerce, Education and the, uh, what’s the third one there, let’s see …”

As he scoured his memory, awkwardness drifted into levity. Mr. Perry smiled; I chuckled along with the audience. When Mr. Romney helpfully offered, “E.P.A.?” Mr. Perry repeated it with a joshing wave of his hand.

Since our tasks as moderators included keeping the conversation moving, Maria began asking a new question. But our senior producer, who communicated with us throughout the debate through our earpieces, recognized the moment faster than we did.

“DON’T STOP!” the producer, Sandy Cannold, called out.

So I asked whether the Environmental Protection Agency was in fact the third department on Mr. Perry’s list. He acknowledged that it wasn’t. When I offered him another chance, Mr. Perry glanced at notes but couldn’t find the answer (the Department of Energy).

TimesWatch 2012 Presidential Debates CNBC New York Times Rick Perry Sandy Cannold John Harwood
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