Presidential debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News took a different approach than his predecessors.(Photo: Getty Images)
Once more, and one last, into the breach.
This time, for the
final presidential debate, it was CBS' Bob Schieffer stepping into the
role of debate moderator. While taking on that job is still an honor, in
this polarized environment it's also something of a risk, as each of
his predecessors became, to one degree or another, an unwilling part of
the story - and left feeling some of the heat.
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Luckily for debate
watchers, few newscasters do a better job of deflecting heat and
projecting a sort of old-school, deceptively affable cool, than
Schieffer. To no one's surprise who has watched him on Face the Nation,
he remained a calm and friendly presence, smiling at Governor Romney
and President Obama even as he asked them his sometimes pointed
questions. Where Jim Lehrer presented broad topics and allowed the
candidates to run the conversation themselves, Schieffer offered a more
restricted field of play.
Not that he always forced them to stay
within his lines; his goal seemed to be to give the candidates leeway
without allowing them to run rampant. At one point, that meant letting
them wander off into a discussion of schools and the economy that seemed
to be only tangentially related to foreign policy. But he eventually
ended that sojourn with a rebuke, telling them to shift back to the
subject because we had already heard much of what they were saying at
the earlier debates.
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Those hoping that Schieffer would take a
less-engaged role, more in line with Lehrer than with Martha Raddatz or
Candy Crowley, were no doubt disappointed - and most likely will be for
the next few election cycles. Few reporters, having seen the drubbing
Lehrer took for his hands-off approach, are likely to follow a similar
path, though for the record the problem with Lehrer was not that he was
passive, but that he was ineffectual when he tried to be active.
did, of course, have the benefit of proximity. Like Raddatz at the vice
presidential debates, Schieffer sat across from the candidates at a
desk, which inevitably seems to offer easier control.
exercised it sparingly. He directed the debate through his questions,
but did not do so as a time-keeper in any objectionable way. He never
corrected anyone's facts, he seldom cut anyone off - and when he did cut
Romney off during the transition to a segment on Afghanistan, he did so
in a way that made Romney smile as he capitulated.
the Republican candidate probably owed him one, as earlier Schieffer had
allowed Romney to reject a hypothetical about an Israeli attack on
Iran, recognizing perhaps that it really wasn't a particularly sensible
question and wisely pulling himself back from that particular breach.
is no one-size-fits-all rule for moderators; Raddatz and Crowley
brought very different styles to the job, but were equally effective.
What Schieffer proved is that a moderator could lay back without rolling
over, and offer a well-run debate while doing so.
One last, and if not the best, at least reliably close.