Mitt Romney recently told CBS’s Scott Pelley that a leader would “say which of those things that you should take out of the budget that are no longer essential,” and when pressed to be specific, Romney nominated "the subsidy for PBS,” and subsidies for Amtrak, the NEA, and the NEH. This raises one obvious question. In moderating tonight's first general election debate of 2012, can longtime PBS star Jim Lehrer be fair to a candidate who wants to zero out the subsidy for PBS?
In his 1992 memoir A Bus of My Own, Lehrer confesses he could sound like a “PBS superpatriot” in lauding his own newscast. For his own career at PBS, Lehrer professed he loved how Watergate “crumbled” Nixon’s plans to “crumble us” in liberal taxpayer-funded broadcasting:
“As justice, it was pure delicious. We were being bailed out by the sins of a president who was trying to do us in. He and his minions were so distracted with the crumbling of his presidency that the plan to crumble us was abandoned and forgotten.”
Lehrer then imagined some lost Watergate tape where Haldeman said in horror “public broadcasting lives!” and Ehrlichman says to Nixon, “We tried, Mr. President. We lied, we connived, we threatened, we vetoed, we deprived, we spit, and we bribed, but nothing worked!” Nixon offered "[expletives deleted]."
Lehrer said “Thank God for the Watergate hearings” for making his career, and thanked the Watergate scandal figures for helping PBS to put on The MacNeil-Lehrer Report in 1975 and said the PBS good triumphed over Nixon's evil:
That is important and relevant, because if it hadn’t been for the burglary and all its subsequent trimmings, it is quite probable there would be no public broadcasting anymore. It is an absolute certainty there would be no anything called MacNeil-Lehrer.
So for the record, let me say (in italic type for emphasis): Thank you, Nixon. Thank you, Messrs. Liddy and Hunt, Dean and Colson, Haldeman and Ehrlichman. We could not have done it without you.
It’s a lovely story of how good triumphed over evil. More or less.
Then there's the question of Lehrer's performance in past presidential debates.
In moderating the first presidential debate in 2008, Lehrer was typically terse. It was most noticeable that he tried to make the candidates talk at each other instead of talking to the people, which reporters like Evan Thomas thought gave the advantage to Obama, since McCain wouldn't look at Obama. Lehrer also asked this leading question to McCain: "Much has been said about the lessons of Vietnam. What do you see as the lessons of Iraq?"
Back in 2000, Lehrer moderated all three presidential debates. In the third one, a town hall debate, Lehrer approved mostly liberal questions from the “uncommitted” audience. Eight questions came from the left, only two could be counted as conservative, and five were requests for information without an ideological tone.
One questioner asked: “Would you be open to the ideal of a national health care plan for everybody?” Another poked George W. Bush: “You seemed to overly enjoy, as a matter of fact proud that Texas...led the nation in execution of prisoners. Sir, did I misread your response, and are you really, really proud of the fact that Texas is number one in executions?” Even Saturday Night Live satirized the bias of the “uncommitted” questioners in 2000. But they were selected by Lehrer. The responsibility for balance was his.
In 2004, Lehrer moderated the first George Bush-John Kerry debate, devoted to foreign policy matters. He pressed Bush: “President Putin and Russia. Did you misjudge him?...Do you feel that what he is doing in the name of anti-terrorism by changing some democratic processes is okay?” He asked Bush to get personal: “Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?” Bush protested: “That's a loaded question.”
In the same event, Lehrer’s questions to Kerry sounded like helpful speech set-ups:
■ “Speaking of Vietnam, you spoke to Congress in 1971, after you came back from Vietnam, and you said, quote, ‘How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?’ Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?”
■ “‘Colossal misjudgments.’ What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?”
■ “You've repeatedly accused President Bush – not here tonight, but elsewhere before – of not telling the truth about Iraq, essentially of lying to the American people about Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.”
Lehrer didn’t ask Kerry about his mixed votes and messages on Iraq (which Bush harped on), or about the Swift Boat veteran charges, or about his claiming before the Senate in 1971 that U.S. soldiers slaughtered and tortured Vietnamese civilians and their cows and dog
One certainly can’t expect Lehrer to be moved tonight by the “other Obama race speech” story. During live coverage of the Democratic convention on August 25, 2008, he reacted to Jimmy Carter’s florid praise of Barack Obama’s race speech in March by proclaiming: “If it happens that he is elected, or even his just being nominated, will send positive ripple effects throughout the country on the race issue.”
Who keeps letting these liberal public-broadcasting anchors moderate our debates?