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Larry King Live

Jim Lehrer Discusses Moderating the Presidential Debates

Aired October 18, 2000 - 9:00 p.m. ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight: He's not running for office, but he was in the hot seat for all three presidential debates. Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of PBS's "News Hour," joins us in Washington. And we'll talk your calls. And it's next on LARRY KING LIVE.

If you didn't know him before, you sure know him now. If you live on the planet, you know him. He anchored all three presidential debates. Our own Bernie Shaw did the vice presidential one. He's Jim Lehrer, the executive editor and anchor of the "News Hour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS. He moderated the 2000 presidential debates. He moderated other ones before that -- best-selling author of a terrific new book called "The Special Prisoner." He last appeared with us about that book.

And this Friday, his program will celebrate -- the reason was the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" -- its 25th -- would you ever believe it would be 25 years?


KING: Twenty-five years.


KING: Lot to be said for longevity.

LEHRER: Absolutely.

KING: How did you find out you were to be the anchor, the moderator?

LEHRER: I got one of those seventh grade prom-type calls from Janet Brown, the executive director of the Debate Commission. She said, "If you were asked to moderate the debates, would you do it?" And they were about to -- they were in their meetings at that point with the -- the commission was in meetings then with the campaigns. And I said -- I didn't hear her say debates. I thought she just said debate. And I said, "Sure."

And then, the next day, she called and said: "This is an official call. I hereby ask you officially on behalf of the commission and the candidates to moderate all three." And I said, "All three?"

KING: Since you had done debates in the past for the commission, did you expect to do one of them?

LEHRER: I didn't -- no, I didn't. In fact, quite the contrary. I thought: Well, I had done six already. And I thought: Well, it was probably somebody else's turn. And I've done my thing. And I did not expect it. No, I did not. I had...

KING: You had all the mention of Russert and this show. The others being...

LEHRER: Yes. Larry King.

KING: Larry King. I got tired of that. I got tired of seeing my own name, frankly. But you had to be proud that you got that. I mean, it had to be a feather.

LEHRER: Oh, it -- there was a great thing, Larry. As I said to my family, it's a terrific honor -- if I didn't just have to go out now and do it, you know.

KING: Oh, gee.

LEHRER: Oh gee, I have to go do it. No, I felt -- I mean, I'm being quite honest with you. I just was -- I was exhilarated by it: the fact that they would select me to do that. I felt terrific about it. And there's no need in playing games about it. I was -- it made me feel good.

KING: Did you have a favorite form of the three forms used?

LEHRER: You know, I really didn't. All three of them, I think, have merit on their own. And I don't really -- I happen to be in a minority, I think, on these format discussions, because I believe, no matter what the format is, if you had the two leading candidates -- or three leading candidates or whatever -- for president of the United States on the same -- at the same place at the same time for 90 minutes talking about something that matters, the format is -- it's interesting.

And it tests them in different ways. But I don't think -- for instance, the first one at the podiums, I think that shows one skill. Sitting at the table, conversationally, which was the second debate, like you and I are now, that tests another set of skills. And then last night was a different one. But I don't think one is better than the other, or one is worse than the other. I think all three of them have merit.

KING: And you think, therefore, in the future, all three might well be used?

LEHRER: I think so. I mean, I -- that would be -- if anybody asked me, that would be my recommendation. If -- for instance, some candidates are better at conversation than they are at prepared things, more podium-type things. Some are better at handling town- meeting type things like last night. And should a candidate who has a lesser skill than one of those be at a disadvantage, that would be the advantage. That would be the reason for going ahead with, say, three different kinds of formats. Maybe somebody has a fourth even, these aren't -- these things are not locked in...

KING: Wouldn't you like one without, you have two minutes, you have two minutes, you have one minute, and you have 30 seconds?

LEHRER: Oh, man.

KING: Wouldn't you like to just do it like you do your own show or this show?

LEHRER: Absolutely. Larry, I mean...

KING: Why do you think they don't do that? Why don't they just say, let's just freewheel it?

LEHRER: Well, I don't know. I mean, I go to bed at night for the last three weeks and close my eyes and I hear myself saying, that's a violation of the rules, that's a violation of the rules, the rules, the rules, the rules, and I got stuck in this position, you know, it's their -- I kept saying it like an idiot, you know.

KING: Tom Shales criticized you for it, saying that...

LEHRER: For what?

KING: ... you -- I'll give you what he said.

LEHRER: What did he say?

KING: He -- "Lehrer has, for the most part, done a good job moderating debates, but sometimes his slavish, fanatic deference to the rules becomes ludicrous and counterproductive."

LEHRER: You know, I didn't know he had said that, but I understand why he says that. It -- I mean, I felt a little ridiculous, too. But here's what -- and I'm not defensive about this.

KING: No. What...

LEHRER: But what -- you know, here's the deal.

KING: ... they put you in.

LEHRER: Yes. They gave me these rules and there is a -- it's a booklet, you know, by the time they finally wrote them up and I was told and I agreed to enforce these rules. Now, the guys who made the rules give me the rules and then violate them and then hold me -- and then I -- and then hold me responsible for not enforcing them.

KING: You're not the same as a baseball umpire.


KING: Where the two teams didn't give the umpire the rules.

LEHRER: That's right.

And what I was always been -- I've -- every debate I have moderated, my whole point at the very beginning, and all the candidates and everybody knows this, that if the thing gets out of hand and the rules become irrelevant for whatever reason, then I'm prepared to stop the debate and say, all right, gentlemen, you violated the rules. You want to continue under these rules, you want to negotiate some new ones right in front of everybody?

KING: Were you close to saying that?

LEHRER: I came close in that first debate in Boston, not that -- I mean, no, no, I didn't come close to it, but it was -- it had occurred to me that I was spending too much time -- and I agree with Shales that what -- that it sounded ridiculous at times, but I felt I had no choice. We had one candidate, George W. Bush, who really wanted those rules enforced, he came to play by those rules; we had another candidate who also had agreed to the rules, this is Al Gore, who wanted to push him a little bit. And it doesn't mean that either one of them were right or wrong, but I felt that I was obligated to try to do my best to enforce the rules.

KING: And also, it's easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize, but it is also difficult, is it not -- as a host for many years myself -- to interrupt a vice president or a governor? I mean, these people have -- this is not the guy in the street.

LEHRER: And besides, I didn't see that as my job. If I was on my program, like on your program, you invite somebody on, you can do that. I mean, that's part -- that's what you do.

KING: You had a different role there.

LEHRER: Different role. Moderating a debate is not to -- my -- I saw my job in the simplest terms is to get them to debate, not -- if they wanted to play gotcha, play gotcha, if you want to have a philosophical discussion, have a philosophical discussion. My job was to make it possible for them to do what they wanted to do -- you want to fight, fight.

KING: If you could have written the rules, you'd have had it more freewheeling. Would you allow them to question each other?

LEHRER: Absolutely, absolutely. But that was forbidden, and I got my head handed to me for, you know, stopping it, yes.

KING: We're back with more of Jim Lehrer, the moderator of the debates -- someone called him America's moderator. We'll be right back.


LEHRER: Are you opposed to affirmative action? GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: No. If affirmative action means quotas, I'm against it. If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it. You heard what I was for. The vice president keeps saying I'm against things. You heard what I was for, and that's what I support.

LEHRER: What about -- Mr. Vice President, you heard what he said.

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He said if affirmative action means quotas he's against it. Affirmative action doesn't mean quotas.

BUSH: Good.

GORE: Are you for it without quotas?

BUSH: Well, I may not be for your version, Mr. Vice President, but I'm for what I just described to the lady. She heard my answer.

GORE: Are you for what the Supreme Court says is a constitutional way of having affirmative action?

BUSH: Jim, is this...

LEHRER: Let's go on to another question.

GORE: I think that speaks for itself.

LEHRER: And it's a question...

BUSH: No. Doesn't speak for itself, Mr. Vice President, it speaks for the fact that there are certain rules in this that we all agreed to, but evidently rules don't mean anything.



KING: We are back with Jim Lehrer. I just asked him during -- were you paid?

LEHRER: To moderate the...

KING: Yes.

LEHRER: Oh, heavens know. I mean, that was not an issue. I wouldn't have accepted money if it had been offered. No, no, no -- this is -- I see this. I mean, I -- this sounds corny, but it's just the way I see it. It's like a lawyer contributing his or her services to society. And this is -- these are my skills.

KING: Pro bono.

LEHRER: Pro bono, completely pro bono.

KING: They fly you in. That's all they...

LEHRER: That's absolutely right. And I...

KING: Do you bring your own director and producer?

LEHRER: I bring my -- our -- the "News Hour's" executive producer, Les Kristo (ph), and our director of information, Annette Miller (ph). They are kind of my -- my team. And they went with me to all three of the debates, as they did the debates in '96.

KING: Who is in your ear?

LEHRER: In my ear the whole time was Marty Sletsky (ph), who is the executive producer for the commission, and a terrific professional, and a terrific human being. And he and I hit it off immediately. You know, the guy in your ear can make or break it for you. You get -- as you know. And, anyhow, he was only one in my ear.

KING: Did it annoy you when Bush kept saying: I trust people, not the government? He did it seven times. Gore said this last night: I want to fight for you -- nine times.

LEHRER: I'm not in the being-annoyed business.

KING: You don't...

LEHRER: That is totally, you know...

KING: Irrelevant

LEHRER: Irrelevant to me. Irrelevant to me.

KING: They chose to say it, they chose...

LEHRER: They chose to say it. And if somebody in the audience, some voter, wants to be annoyed by it, be my guest.

KING: You are...

LEHRER: But that's not -- that's not my thing.

KING: You are so impartial, you do not vote, right?

LEHRER: Yes, but that's not a big thing, Larry.

KING: Well, the editor of the "Washington Post" doesn't vote.

LEHRER: I know. I know. In my case, I was covering politics in Texas as a newspaper man in the 1960's.

KING: You were there at the assassination.

LEHRER: Yes, absolutely. But there -- the politics was just really an emotional thing in Texas at the time. And then you had to go into your polling place to vote in a primary. And you had declare publicly whether you were a Republican or a Democrat. And I walked into there to do that one day when I was the political editor of the "Dallas Times Herald." And everybody was staring at me.

You know, I had to choose between the two parties. And I walked out, because I didn't want the word to get out: Oh, well, he's a Republican or a Democrat. Lehrer is writing politics. And the politics was ferocious. And I just decided: OK, I'm not going to do this. And so I stopped voting. And it's not a big deal. I don't suggest this for journalists or anything. It's not any creed of mine. It's just something that I do.

KING: Will you agree, though, that in today's day of media attention and 500 channels and the rest, being a moderator puts you in the limelight as well -- as say, opposed to Howard K. Smith in 1960?

LEHRER: Sure. Well, absolutely, because of the formats too.

KING: You're judged?

LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Keep in mind, Larry, in this particular -- these three debates that we just went through, I selected -- I wrote and selected all of the questions for the first two debates. And even in last night's debate, out of 130 questions, I selected, you know, the less than 20 that were asked.

KING: The commission left that up to you?

LEHRER: Well, it was -- no. It was the -- it was in the rules. The candidates worked out these rules that I would select the questions. And from the 130...

KING: Did you write them all out? Or you just wrote little notes?

LEHRER: No. No. They had a card. Each person wrote their question on a card. And then, like shuffling, I...

KING: Because when they read their own questions, that didn't seem impromptu.

LEHRER: No, it wasn't impromptu. We had asked them to -- they came in and wrote their questions that afternoon.

KING: So it was designed to be the way it was.

LEHRER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KING: Bob Kerrey: Had you read his criticism of you?


KING: All right. He said: "You could have picked 10 people off the" -- Senator Bob Kerrey of Massachusetts, who will never be on the "News Hour." I'm only kidding.

LEHRER: Yes. KING: "You could have picked 10 people off the street who didn't know Jerusalem from Georgia and they would have had better questions."

"You weren't aggressive enough," said former Democratic pollster, Pat Cadell -- accused of "running the debate like some kind of sherry hour at the Institution of Politics at Harvard."

Your chance now to respond

LEHRER: Well, let's take these one of at a time. Let me start with Cadell. He's referring to the second debate in Winston-Salem, where we spent 41 minutes talking about foreign policy in a conversational mode. He's welcome to -- by the way, anybody is -- I'm fair game. I mean, once I agreed to moderate these debates I knew I was going to catch some hits and I'm getting them, and that's fine.

But I would say -- but specifically, what he's talking about, I made the decision, right or wrong, that Milosevic had just fallen in Yugoslavia, there was huge violence that just erupted in the Middle East. I had talked to my friend Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, and he said in a conversation, not necessarily about the debates, that 90 percent of a presidency through history has been based on the unexpected, and I also know that of all the things the president does, the things he does unilaterally, mostly unilaterally, are -- is in the foreign policy area. President Clinton got on an airplane and went to Egypt, he didn't consult with Congress, nobody had to pass a bill.

But if you want to get tax cuts, or health care reform, you have to -- a lot of other people have to be involved. But the individual decisions that a president makes in foreign policy are pretty much his. Sure, he has to go get money and all that sort of thing. So anyhow, I thought this was important and I thought in a conversational way the format was perfect, so that's why I spent that time.

KING: He referred to it as sherry at the Harvard Club.

LEHRER: Sherry at the -- yes. You know...

KING: Three intelligent people.

LEHRER: Yes, but I mean, three -- I mean, these two men want to be president of the United States. I thought -- I was trying to figure out a way for the audience, for the American people, to see how they think about foreign policy.

KING: Let me get a break before we respond on the Kerrey thing.

LEHRER: We'll be right back with Jim Lehrer, one of the great journalists, the moderator of all three presidential debates, 25 years on PBS celebrating this Friday night. We'll be right back.


BUSH: I'm against price controls. I think price controls would hurt our ability to continue important research and development. Drug therapies are replacing a lot of medicines as we used to know it. One of the most important things is to continue the research and development component, and so I'm against price controls.

GORE: Here we go again. Now look, if you want someone who will spin a lot of words describing a whole convoluted process and then end up supporting legislation that is supported by the big drug companies, this is your man. If you want someone who will fight for you and who will fight for the middle-class families and working men and women, who are sick and tired of having their parents and grandparents pay higher prices for prescription drugs than anybody else, then I want to fight for you.



KING: Tomorrow night, it will be my honor to M.C. the NCAA tribute to President Ford in New York, so Dan Rather will host this show tomorrow night, and his special guest will be Jay Leno.

Our special guest tonight is Jim Lehrer.

OK, the Bob Kerrey critique on...


KING: ... 10 people could have done it better not following up.

LEHRER: The criticism that I've received -- by the way, I don't want to overdo this -- but 90 percent of the reaction I've gotten has been favorable and I'm delighted about that. But Bob Kerrey's criticism really hurts me because I've known Kerrey for a long time and it's kind of personal and mean it seems to me.

KING: Cheap shot?

LEHRER: You know, I don't know if it's a cheap shot, but the fact that it comes from Bob Kerrey means something to me. He's a man I've always respected. I knew him -- the first time I interviewed him was at the end of the Vietnam War, and I've interviewed him many times before.

KING: What do you make of it, then?

LEHRER: I don't know. I don't know. I just -- for him to suggest that -- what he does about my questions, I mean, I'm not going to apologize to him or anyone else. I'm very comfortable with my questions.

KING: What about the follow-up? Were you allowed a lot of follow-up?

LEHRER: Well, I was allowed in -- oh, yes, I was allowed follow- ups. And I did it all the way through. I don't know what he's talking about. I mean, I should not have asked them about what they would do in the Middle East? I should not have asked them -- yes, somebody off the street could have asked those questions. So what? What difference does that make?

KING: And some Republicans also said you let Gore get away with too much.

LEHRER: Absolutely. I was accused of letting Gore get away with too much. I was accused of not -- of being too strict or being too loose.

KING: Frankly, Jim, do you think it's a no-win, in a sense?

LEHRER: It is a no-win thing because -- and here again, I understand this is a very close election. Now, I've moderated six previous debates and not got -- there was none of that because by the time the debates came around they were kind of a solidifying rather than a divisive, a dividing type of exercise. But this race is very, very close. And there are a lot of people involved in negotiating this and negotiating that, and everybody wants to, you know, to kind of to cover themselves a little bit.

KING: So any little thing could...

LEHRER: Oh, yes. Keep in mind, here's the -- I've been, as you have said, I have been doing a television program five nights a week for 25 years. I've moderated six debates. So when those people went behind closed doors at the debate commission and selected me, they were selecting a known commodity. I mean, they wanted me to do it my way. So then I do it my way, and it's, oh, no, no, no, we wanted you to do somebody else's way.

So, I take a grain of salt -- take criticism from within the campaigns with a grain of salt. They're -- but I understand it. They're looking -- and inside of the campaigns there's a lot of attention.

KING: But Kerrey is personal to you?

LEHRER: What I don't know -- Kerrey, as I said, Kerrey bothers me because...

KING: Did you call him?

LEHRER: No, I haven't called him. No. It's just such a...

KING: You did something in the first debate that I hadn't seen you do.

LEHRER: Right.

KING: Sometimes when they would answer you would say, well, let me explain this. In other words, you would capsulize their response. Did you feel their response was not on-target?

LEHRER: You know, sitting there, I decided there's only one way for me to do these things, the same way you do it. You have to go -- you can just think so many things through ahead of time and then you just have to go with your instincts and react. And so somebody criticizes my judgment in summarizing something wrong or not pursuing something, they're probably right.

KING: But the feeling to summarize was you felt you had to summarize?

LEHRER: I felt at that moment that I had to summarize, that it wasn't clear what they had just said. I was trying -- there were a couple things that -- I had two or three bottom lines all the way through, is that I wanted the differences delineated. I wanted somebody watching these men talk about an issue, when they finished talking about it, you could understand what the difference were so you could vote. OK, whether the subject is gun control or whether it's abortion or whether it's foreign affairs or whatever, you can choose and here's the choice. And that's all I was trying to do.


LEHRER: And the other thing, I wanted to be fair. Yes, and I wanted to be fair. And the simplest question, getting back to Kerrey's point -- I don't understand what he's talking about and -- beyond his tone, because the simplest question is always the best question, and it's the most difficult question to answer.

KING: One sentence.

LEHRER: "Why? What did you mean by that?" is the single-most difficult question you can ask anybody.

KING: We'll be right back with more Jim Lehrer. We'll be taking your phone calls. He's our guest for the full hour.

Don Rickles got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this week. We're going to repeat an hour interview with him on Saturday night.

And Elizabeth Hurley's going to be here Friday. Don't go away.


BUSH: Fifty million Americans get no tax relief under his plan.

GORE: That's not right.

BUSH: And you may not be one of them. You're just not one of the right people.

And secondly, we've had enough fighting. It's time to unite. You talk about eight years. In eight years they haven't gotten anything done on Medicare, on Social Security, a patients' bill of rights. It's time to get something done.

LEHRER: All right. We're going to move on...

GORE: I've got to answer that, Jim. Medicare -- I cast the tie- breaking vote to add 26 years to the life of Medicare. It was due to go bankrupt in 1999, and that 50 million figure, again the newspapers I said...

LEHRER: Vice President Gore...

GORE: ... you said, forget the journalists, but they are the keepers of the scorecard and whether or not you're using facts that aren't right, and that fact is just not right.

LEHRER: Speaking of keepers of the scorecard, that's what I'm trying to do here, Mr. Vice President and Governor Bush. We're going to move on. We're going to have to move on.



KING: At the bottom of the hour in a couple of minutes we'll go to your calls for Jim Lehrer. On November 5th on Showtime they're going to air a movie starring James Garner called "The Last Debate." It's based on a book written by Jim Lehrer.

You couldn't have put this all together in two weeks, a movie with Jim Garner.

LEHRER: Oh, thank you, Larry, for letting me explain what this is all about.

KING: How did this work out?

LEHRER: This is a novel that I first had -- the idea for it popped into my head when I moderated the first presidential debate I ever did, which was in '88 in Winston-Salem between George Bush, President George Bush, and Governor Dukakis.

I had -- I was the moderator and there were three journalists with me to ask questions. And I had -- we had worked out the questions, and we were leaving the hotel. My wife, Kate, and I were leaving the hotel to go do the debate, and I said something to Kate about, well, boy the Bush and Dukakis people would love to know what's in this binder. Kate said, "There's a germ of novel there I'll bet." So I put it, you know, filed it.

And then I did some other debates in '92, whatever. Anyhow, I finally wrote the novel. It was published in 1995 in hardback. My friend Peter Osnos, who runs Public Affairs, a publisher, decided to bring it out in paperback, but he decided this a year ago for obviously to coincide with the presidential debates this year, but long before it was known...

KING: They know...

LEHRER: ... then -- knew I was going to be involved.

The movie, the same way. A guy -- a kid named Jon Maas, a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood, reads "The Last Debate," decides he'd like to make a movie of it, takes it to Paramount. They decide to make the movie. And when do they want to bring the movie out? Certainly right, you know, before the election. So these two things have come together, and it looks like it's a little bit of -- it's a terrific thing. But it looks like I'm trying to -- trying to capitalize on my having moderated the debates this year. It's a coincidence, a lovely coincidence from the movie and the publisher's point of view, but a coincidence of timing. And it shows how wise the movie people were and the publishing people were, but that's all it shows.

KING: In fact, you never told people much about the movie?

LEHRER: No. In fact, I just remained absolutely silent. I wouldn't even talk about it really until after the debate.

KING: Have you seen the film?

LEHRER: I've seen a rough cut of it and it's...

KING: Jim Garner is a great...

LEHRER: Oh, Jim Garner's wonderful, and Peter Gallagher, Audra McDonald...

KING: Oh, Peter Gallagher's...

LEHRER: Yes, yes, yes.

KING: One of my favorite people.

LEHRER: He plays -- oh, yes. It's -- it's a really -- I shouldn't say this, but I don't -- I can say this.

KING: Go ahead.

LEHRER: I mean, well -- I mean, I wrote the book. I didn't make the movie. So as a movie I found it really, really interesting, well put together, and it tells a story about politics and pundits and debates and stuff.

KING: And it's true to politics...


KING: ... as movies go.

LEHRER: Yes. Yes indeed. Yes indeed.

KING: We'll be right back. We're going to include your phone calls for Jim Lehrer. We're going to talk a little bit about the humor of this as well. Don't go away.


KING: Jim also produced a terrific PBS documentary on the evolution of debates, which was really -- that was really well done. Was that being planned, as well, before he was elected?

LEHRER: That was being...

KING: Everything was before...

LEHRER: Everything was being planned. I couldn't believe these -- the debating -- the credit for that goes to Jim Trenboro (ph), who was our producer who actually put the documentary together, and Ed Fouhy, who started this project earlier...

KING: Good old Ed.

LEHRER: You know Ed, yes.

Ed started this project earlier and -- when he was affiliated in some ways with the Debate Commission, and it took 10 years to do and that's why Reagan is in there and...

KING: Used to be famous, now he's known as the father of Beth.

LEHRER: That's right, that's right, absolutely.

KING: Yes.

There was a lot of humor attendant to this as well, and who would lead the way but "Saturday Night Live." Here's an excerpt from last Saturday night. Watch.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Gentlemen, put yourselves in the mind set of an undecided voter watching tonight. Would it be fair for that voter to suspect that in preparing for this debate the two of you had either been highly coached or highly medicated?





UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: All right. Yes, all right.

Well, at this point, if both candidates are agreeable I'd like to deviate from the rules just a bit and for just two minutes turn to the Cardinals-Mets game on Fox.





(END VIDEO CLIP) LEHRER: That's terrific.

KING: You enjoy that?

LEHRER: Oh, yes. That's great.

KING: You like all the humor going -- I mean, Jay Leno is going to be on tomorrow night, Dan Rather is going to be in this chair. Do you like all of this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) stuff?

LEHRER: I don't watch that much of it, but I just think it's part of our culture, and I don't know how it affects votes or affects opinion, but it's -- take it or -- whether you like it or not, there it is.

KING: Were there moments you wanted to watch the game?


KING: No, OK. Just asking.


KING: Scottsdale, Arizona, with Jim Lehrer.

CALLER: Hello, Mr. King. Thank you very much.

KING: Sure.

CALLER: Mr. Lehrer, sir...

LEHRER: Yes, sir?

CALLER: ... how are you tonight?

LEHRER: Just fine.

CALLER: Last night during the debate, the vice president repeatedly asked Governor Bush questions knowing full well that the governor could not answer them within the rules. Now, why did you as a moderator with some latitude allow Al Gore to break the rules with seeming impunity by baiting Governor Bush with follow-up questions on very touchy issues?

LEHRER: Well, as I explained earlier, I had a set of rules that I was trying my best to enforce, but there were -- they were -- the rules were theirs. I had to make some judgments and the -- clearly, you saw what was going on. I always take the position when on our nightly program and I take it when I'm running the debates that you're just as smart as I am. You can figure out what's going on. Clearly, you figured out what was going on. And I just had a lot -- I wanted to get as many questions from those people sitting in those bleachers as I possibly could. I had that priority. I wanted to clarify things, and I had to make a lot of decisions, and I clearly understand why somebody would disagree with any given decision.

KING: In the second part of two minutes, could they question each other?


KING: They were never allowed?

LEHRER: They couldn't question each other. The -- what I had said and I told everybody at the beginning what I wanted to do, I was going to keep my follow-ups and everything to a minimum. I had already interviewed -- I had already questioned these two men the two previous debates and I wanted them to answer -- I wanted to get as many questions from the folks in St. Louis as possible, and the only way to do that was to hold down the follow-ups and hold down the discussion, particularly when they were on areas that we had already discussed in previous debates. New areas, you know, I did open them up and some -- a couple of cases I tried to make sure that there was a -- that we -- that they had to lay out exactly what their differences was. But I mean, here again, I agree with the -- you could go through every one of these and say, yes, I disagree with it.

KING: Unlike a boxing referee, you couldn't stop the fight, you couldn't say penalized, I penalize you two points in this round, right?


KING: You had -- you're the moderator, but you didn't have ultimate power.

LEHRER: Didn't have ultimate power. And also, there was a -- I was also trying to make sure that both of the candidates had the same amount of time when the evening was over. Now, that is...

KING: So you're a timekeeper.

LEHRER: So I was a timekeeper. And here again, Marty Sletsky was giving me overview to -- you know, we're 30 minutes in, we're even -- they're even -- or 45 minutes in we're even, all that. But I was trying to make sure that was happening, too. So sometimes I would adjust, you know, to get -- to try to keep that going as well. A lot going on out there.

KING: Fort Lee, New Jersey, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry.



LEHRER: Yes, sir?

CALLER: Since both the vice president and the governor are so well coached and their answers are all scripted, wouldn't we have been better served if you could have followed up a little more aggressively, try and knock them off balance? I've heard you say that we can see what's going on and we can, but I think it would have been wonderful if you could have knocked either one of them, or both of them off balance a little bit.

LEHRER: Well, that's not what I came to do. I don't knock people off balance. That was -- that's not a moderator's job. That is...

KING: Showbiz.

LEHRER: That's showbiz. That's not what I -- I'm -- look, as I said the other day in a -- to a reporter from "The New York Times," I'm not in the entertainment business and these debates are not entertainment. They're in -- that's an informational thing and it's for you and anybody else to listen to what these folks have to say and to -- if it doesn't -- for me to be aggressive and beat up on these guys, I'm not going to do that. That's not what I signed on to do and I don't think any moderator should, but I'm certainly not going to do it.

KING: Have you ever thought, Jim, as to why with predictions of 80 to 90 million people would watch the first debate, as watched the first one in '92, only half of that watched?

LEHRER: Well, that's not quite...

KING: I think 46.

LEHRER: There were 46, but then by the time you put in the PBS 7 million and C-Span, it goes up-- it's up into almost 60 million.

KING: But it didn't -- it wasn't 100 million?

LEHRER: It wasn't 100 million. No, no, no, it wasn't -- I have no idea.

KING: And I think 36 million last night.

LEHRER: Is that right? I don't know.

KING: Yes, which is the same thing.

Do you think there is apathy? Do you think neither of these men have really caught on, caught on? Do you think they're -- what?

LEHRER: Well, I don't -- I have no idea. I know what I've read. One of the theories is that there are only about 5 percent of the people who are undecided, so if you've already decided who you're going to vote for and nothing...

KING: Watch the baseball game.

LEHRER: ... there is nothing new, watch the ball game, or do something else. If those 5 percent of the undecided watched those debates, they were worth it in terms of, you know...

KING: Yes.

LEHRER: I don't know. I have no other -- no explanation. KING: Do you think it's as close as they say?

LEHRER: I have no idea.

KING: Neither do I.

LEHRER: My feeling...

KING: How do we know?

LEHRER: How do -- how does anybody know?

KING: How does anyone know?

LEHRER: And these polls, you know, they go boom, wow, and this may be...

KING: So when you pass someone on the street who says, it's Bush, or it's Gore, how do they know? They don't even know how they're going to vote.

LEHRER: Nobody knows. Nobody knows. I know I certainly don't, let's put it that way.

KING: Back with more of Jim Lehrer and more of your phone calls. Don't go away.


BUSH: When you total up all the federal spending he wants to do, it's the largest increase in federal spending in years, and there's just not going to be enough money.

LEHRER: Is the governor right when he says that you're proposing the largest federal spending in years?

GORE: Absolutely not, absolutely not. I'm so a glad that I have a chance to knock that down.

LEHRER: Governor, the vice president says you're wrong.

BUSH: Well, he's wrong. Just add up all the numbers. It's three times bigger than what President Clinton proposed. The Senate Budget Committee...

LEHRER: Three times -- excuse me. Three times?

BUSH: Bigger than what President Clinton proposed.

GORE: That's in an ad, Jim, that was knocked down...

BUSH: Hey, wait a minute.

GORE: ... by the journalists who analyzed the ad and said it was misleading.

BUSH: May I ask...

LEHRER: Go ahead.

BUSH: My turn?

LEHRER: Yes, sir.



KING: We're back with Jim Lehrer. Another phone call. Pueblo, Colorado, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Mr. King, Mr. Lehrer.


CALLER: My question is, in the big picture of things and in light of all the spin that takes place on these debates, do you really think that the modern debate structure really makes a difference in how people eventually vote, and if so, how?

LEHRER: Well, I don't -- I don't have an -- I don't have an answer to that question. I think it's part of the process now. I think if somebody sat and watched and listened carefully to all three of these debates, they would get a very good picture of who these men are as individuals: how they act, how they move, how they think, what their basic positions are on most of the key issues. And I think that is a tremendous, tremendous help to any voter who is trying to make a decision -- trying to decide between these two...

KING: There's no way to measure this, is there?

LEHRER: No. No way.

KING: We know there was impact in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, right, because Kennedy suddenly got credibility, surged a little in the polls. I mean, they credited it with that debate. But this is all guessing, isn't it?

LEHRER: Yes, but Larry, see, let's say that one of these three -- one of these two men in one of these three debates had made a serious error, made a gaffe of some kind.

KING: Like Ford did.

LEHRER: Like Ford did or like Nixon did but not, you know, not being -- he shouldn't have even done the debate. He was sick. And he didn't -- they didn't make him up properly, and there were -- and there have been other cases where there have been individual little seconds of whatever in a debate that helped turn the election.

Nothing like that happened in these three debates, so everybody said, oh, well, you know, it's not decisive because these three men -- these two made no mistakes, no serious gaffes. That shouldn't be the deciding factor of a presidential debate. The fact that they engaged on these issues I think is what the bottom line has to be.

KING: What do you think would have happened if Jim Lehrer had an agenda and got forceful and out of step with his normal character, interrupted, took over?

LEHRER: Well, it never would have happened, but I would rather be sitting here talking to you about criticism that my questions were too bland or too whatever than talking about my conduct in some show- off kind of thing that I was going to show how tough I was and I was going to knock somebody off, as one of the callers said, knock somebody down and talk about how overly aggressive I was. I don't believe, from my point of view, that's not what I want the people to be talking about after I finish anything on television.

KING: Do you think a moderator has a role -- this is a general question, not pertaining to these debates -- of helping someone not doing well?

LEHRER: No, I don't. Not in a debate.

If I'm interviewing somebody on our program and I'm trying to get information from them or an opinion, then I feel I do -- I have an obligation to help that person, because I'm doing it for the audience. But in a debate, it's up to the debaters to make due. I mean, you know, I mean, somebody could go back and look at my questions, and most of them were designed -- a lot of them -- well, they were kind of half and half I guess.

KING: They were fair, very fair.

LEHRER: Yes, they were fair, but they were also -- some of them were very precise, but some of them were general enough that somebody wanted to -- to kind of explain their thinking about something the opportunity was there. But the opportunity -- I just feel, on my job -- I don't want to talk about anybody else -- I felt my job was to give these men an opportunity to explain themselves and what they believed to the American people, not to have to react and fight with me, and you know, and show how -- because that's not a skill required to be president of the United States. A skill required to be president is to explain to the American people any given thing they do.

KING: You opened with an apology...


KING: ... to Gore last night. It was over a question dealing with an ad he had supposedly taken.

LEHRER: Right, right.

KING: Were you -- someone had supplied wrong information to you or was the ad incorrect?

LEHRER: No. I said it right to begin with. It was talking about this ad where I said -- I said that a Gore campaign commercial had accused Governor Bush of being a bumbler, and it wasn't a campaign ad. It was a campaign official who said that in a press statement. But I felt I had made a mistake, so I wanted to correct the record and see what the reaction to it was.

What's the difference? In some cases, some people say what's the difference between a campaign add and a statement from a campaign official? For me it was a big difference, because I had made a mistake.

KING: What does a moderator do when the question he has asked is not being answered?

LEHRER: Well, that is the toughest...

KING: And it happens frequently.

LEHRER: Uh, it happened -- it happened -- it happened to me more times than I'd like to think about these last three debates.

KING: It happened in every debate, right?

LEHRER: Every debate. But you see, that is also -- look, if you asked me, you say, right now you say, "Jim, what is your response to Bob Kerrey's criticism of you?" And I say, well, Larry let me first tell you about my movie, you know...

KING: I would stop you.

LEHRER: Yes, yes.

KING: I would have to stop you.

LEHRER: You would have to stop me. But you would have to stop me -- but in a presidential debate, how can I stop if there's a two- minute, you know, rule?

KING: He's got two minutes.

LEHRER: He's got two minutes. And it happened several times last night.

KING: So technically, he could say anything.

LEHRER: Anything. And they did last night several times.

One of the candidates would say, well, we'll get to that in a minute, but I was to follow up on something that was said earlier. And there's nothing I can do. Say, no, no, no, you ought to stick to the subject -- that's not my job. That's not the way I see my job in a presidential debate.

KING: Jim Lehrer is our guest: 25 years on what used to be "The MacNeil-Lehrer Report," is now "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."

Twenty-five years -- what, you're doing something special Friday night? LEHRER: I'm going to talk to Robert MacNeil for 10 minutes at the end of the program.

KING: Good booking!

LEHRER: Yes, good booking. And then at the very end, after I talk to Robin, we're going to run a crawl of the names of 675 people who have worked for us, worked with us over the last 25 years. And that's all we're going to do. We're not going to do show the greatest hits of "The NewsHour" with...


KING: We'll be back with some more -- with Jim Lehrer. Don't go away.


GORE: And I specifically would like to know whether Governor Bush will support the Dingell-Norwood bill, which is the main one pending.

LEHRER: Governor Bush, you may answer that if you'd like, but also I'd like to know how you see the differences between the two of you. And we need to move on.

BUSH: Well, the difference is that I can get it done, that I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That's what the question in this campaign is about. It's not only what your philosophy and what's your position on issues, but can you get things done? And I believe I can.


LEHRER: All right.

GORE: What about the Dingell-Norwood bill?



KING: San Francisco for Jim Lehrer, hello.

CALLER: Hello. Mr. Lehrer, you're on national TV. Don't you think you're setting a bad role model, example by saying that you don't vote, it's no big deal, especially when that's one of our major freedoms?

LEHRER: Well, it's a good question, and I understand why you say that. I explained why -- how it happened, and I just find now, even now -- I'll just be honest with you -- moderating the debates and sitting here having to cover the election and knowing that I'm not going to have -- I'm not going to have to make a personal decision between George W. Bush and Al Gore is helpful to me because of what I do for a living. But I'm not suggesting that to anybody else. And that's just my choice. And I hear what you're saying. It's a bad -- your criticism is well-taken. But that's how I do it. I'm sorry.

KING: Is it hard emotionally when -- since you're human, you will like someone better than another person -- it's hard to like each person exactly the same -- when you're human, to be fair?

LEHRER: Yes. It's not hard. That's the key word, is fair. The one thing about -- we were talking earlier about the criticisms of the way I handled this. Unless I have missed it, nobody has accused me of being unfair. That was the bottom line for me. And I believe that I can be fair -- if I can be fair, that everything else will take care of itself. And...

KING: And you can do that even though your emotions may go one way or the other.

LEHRER: Absolutely right. It's a matter function. And I understand what the woman from San Francisco said. And I -- also, just the only way -- the only reason this got out that I did not vote is a "Boston Globe" reporter looked me straight in the eye. He was doing a profile after I was elected to moderate the debates this year. And he said: "By the way, do you vote?" And I couldn't lie to him.

I mean, if he had said -- if he asked it any other way, I would have got -- because I understand what she's saying. It sounds bad you know, to -- hey, the guy who moderates the debates doesn't vote. And I wish it had not gotten out. But I could not bring myself to lie to this man.

KING: We will be back with our remaining moments with Jim Lehrer.

Don't forget, tomorrow night, Dan Rather hosts the program. His special guest will be Jay Leno. Friday night, our guests are Elizabeth Hurley and J.K. Rowling. It's British night on LARRY KING LIVE. Ms. Rowling gave us "Harry Potter."

Don't go away.


BUSH: When we find children trapped in schools that will not change and will not teach, instead of saying, "Oh, this is OK in America, just to shuffle poor kids through schools," there has to be a consequence. And the consequence is that federal portion of federal money will go to the parent so the parent can go to a tutoring program or another public school or another private school -- or a private school.

LEHRER: So no vouchers in a gore administration?

GORE: If I thought that there was no alternative, then I might feel differently But I have an obligation to fight to make sure there are no failing schools. We've got to turn around all -- most schools are excellent. But we've got to make sure that all of them are.



KING: Milford, Delaware for Jim Lehrer. Hello.

CALLER: Hello, yes. Mr, Lehrer, good evening.

LEHRER: Good evening.

CALLER: I thought that your questions last evening were very fair and substantive.

LEHRER: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate that.

CALLER: And I wanted to know whether you're going to be continuing with the "NewsHour" in light of all your recent fame.

LEHRER: Absolutely.

KING: Ah, yes. You're too big for the "NewsHour."

LEHRER: No, I'll never be too big for the "NewsHour." No, I'm going to continue to do the "NewsHour" until I start drooling on the air or I don't get a kick out of it anymore. I still, after 25 years, I -- thank you for asking. But I just get a real charge out of doing that program every night.

KING: What do you make of, in general, all the post-debate analysis? In other words talking about something we've already seen? Every newspaper, every radio talk show, this program, other shows, we're all analyzing what they've already seen.

LEHRER: I have a theory about this that may be proven wrong and may be just wrong on the face of it, that the more people -- the more people that see something, the less important spin is obviously. If you go to the ball game, you don't need to read the game story.

KING: Correct.

LEHRER: If you watch the debate, if somebody says, some pundit says, well, Gore really did this or Bush really did that, and you say, no, he didn't, end of punditry.

KING: If I liked it...


KING: ... you're not going change my mind if I really...

LEHRER: Right. If I've watched it and listened to it myself, forget it.

KING: So what -- analysis, then, is moot? LEHRER: Well, analysis of that kind of event watched by a lot of people. But if -- for instance, the conventions, they didn't have that much of an audience this time everybody said, but they had a tremendous impact on the election because Gore got a great lift out of that, but it was all the punditry. More people heard people talk about it than actually heard what Gore said. And that's my theory, at least, but that's not true of the debates.

KING: Your new book, "The Special Prisoner," is one of the best books I've ever read. It's a terrific book and it deserves a lot attention. You've got another one coming.

LEHRER: I've got another one coming. It'll be a little over a year or so before it comes out.

KING: A novel.

LEHRER: It's a novel. "No Certain Rest" is the tentative title.

KING: "No Certain Rest"

LEHRER: "No Certain Rest." It relates to an incident during the Civil War with a modern-day twist to it, and I'm still working on it. I've got a lot of work to do on it, but it's getting there.

KING: Do you enjoy writing as much as you do broadcasting?

LEHRER: I enjoy both of them, and I'm just, knock on wood, I'm just so fortunate, Larry, to be able to do the two things I want to do.

KING: And you and I are in the same club, the Heart Attack Zipper Club.

LEHRER: You bet. You've got it.

KING: Mine was '87. Yours was '85, right?

LEHRER: Well, '83.

KING: I remember you came on my radio show...

LEHRER: Absolutely and we talked about it.

KING: And I got it. You gave it to me.

LEHRER: And you got it. You caught it from me.

KING: You're in good health, I hope.

LEHRER: Oh, I'm in terrific health.

Thank you, my friend.

KING: Thanks, Jim. Thanks for doing this.

LEHRER: Thank you.

KING: You flew back from St. Louis today to appear with us.

Jim Lehrer, the executive editor and anchor of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Stay tuned for CNN "NEWSSTAND".

Tomorrow night, Dan Rather will host LARRY KING LIVE and Dan's special guest will be Jay Leno. Elizabeth Hurley on Friday, Don Rickles on Saturday.

For Jim Lehrer and yours truly and the whole gang here in Washington, thanks for joining us and good night.



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