Jim Lehrer on the Debate: ‘I understand why people were a little stunned by some of it’

By Gail Shister 

Jim Lehrer to critics: Bring it.

PBS’s Lehrer today insisted that he’s unfazed by the avalanche of vitriolic responses to his moderator performance at Wednesday’s presidential debate, seen by an estimated 67 million Americans.

In Lehrer’s 12th presidential at-bat, critics blasted him for being too passive, allowing President Obama and Mitt Romney to steamroll him at will. Critics also said Lehrer’s questions were vague, and that they didn’t cover a broad enough range of issues.

“Everybody is welcome to criticize my questions, or anything else I did,” Lehrer, 78, says. “I have no problem with that. I knew, going in, this was not going to be easy. What the hell. … The next debate, people will tweet, tweet, tweet all over again. That’s terrific.”

Despite being constantly interrupted and talked over, Lehrer pronounced the new debate format — featuring 15-minute, wide-open segments for the candidates to directly address each other – a success.

“The format worked,” he says. “These guys were really talking to each other. Presidential candidates had never done that before. People, including the candidates, and including me, were used to a more controlled format, with two-minute answers.

“I played a different role than in the past. I was still the moderator, but it was a different kind of debate. I understand why people were a little stunned by some it. Over time, they’ll get used to it, and realize it works.”

The downside of the open format, Lehrer acknowledges, is that it’s virtually impossible to steer the candidates in a different direction or to get them to shut up.

“I would hope the candidates themselves would do that,” says Lehrer, ever the optimist. “Certainly,

many times I was able to move them along. Many times, I couldn’t. There’s nothing you can do. You ask, you do your very best. If somebody doesn’t want to honor that request, they pay the price.

“Everybody saw what happened. ‘So-and-so wouldn’t stop talking.’ There are limits to what anybody can do to silence anybody. Yes, there were things I attempted to do. It’s just part of the process.”

As Lehrer has said in the past, presidential debates “are not about the damn moderator. The moderator is only there to facilitate exchanges about things that matter, not to show how tough he is or to get people to shut up. Debates aren’t for the moderator, or even the candidates. They’re for the voters.”

Lehrer has received “hundreds” of positive emails, he says. He won’t grade his own performance, and he won’t offer advice publicly to first-time moderators Candy Crowley of CNN and ABC’s Martha Raddatz. “If they ask, I’ll do it personally,” he says.

Any regrets? “Heavens, no. I went into it with eyes wide open, with soul wide open. I’m just very happy that so many Americans care this much about an election for President of the United States.”

Uh, one more tiny thing. After pronouncing last November, unequivocally, that he would not moderate another presidential debate, is Lehrer now willing to say he’s truly closed the door?

“I’m not going to say ‘unequivocally’ about anything anymore,” he says with a chuckle, “but it seems inconceivable to me that I’d do another presidential debate.”