Jim Lehrer: The Real Purpose of Presidential Debates
Chautauqua Institution - Amphitheater, Chautauqua Institution
Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer
Presidential debates serve a greater purpose than just helping the public decide whom they want as president.
In his only solo appearance of the week, retired “PBS NewsHour”
anchor Jim Lehrer shared his thoughts on presidential debates and
criticized this year’s Republican primary debates during Wednesday’s
A storm reached its peak a few minutes into the lecture, with a
momentary hiatus after heavy winds caused the onstage backdrop to
collapse. Audience members were asked to make room for those standing at
the sides of the Amphitheater.
“Presidential debates — that’s what we came to talk about today,”
said Lehrer once the lecture began again, “and we’re going to talk about
The 2012 presidential debates are just as important as any of those
that have occurred every election year. They are the only moments during
campaigns when presidential candidates stand side by side and discuss
the same topics, Lehrer said.
It is important to remember that by the time the debates come along,
it is a month before Election Day. By that point, 90 percent of people
have already decided for whom they will vote or toward whom they lean
most strongly, Lehrer said. Despite that, people still watch the
Instead of watching them to determine whom they will vote for, he
said, people watch because the debates confirm their predispositions
about the candidates.
“It’s not necessarily a deciding thing, but a confirming thing of a
suspicion you already have or a good feeling you already have a about a
person,” Lehrer said.
The confirmations people look for happen through the candidates’
gestures. Though the substance of the candidates’ answers is important,
the gestures have a greater effect.
Lehrer used several examples to make his point, including his
favorite. In a debate between President George H.W. Bush, Gov. Bill
Clinton and Ross Perot, moderated by Carole Simpson, Bush looked at his
watch seven times.
During the debates between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, Gore sighed while Bush was giving answers.
“The people who listened to the 2000 debate between Gore and Bush on
the radio thought Gore won that hands down,” Lehrer said. “The people
who saw it on television thought Bush won or Gore lost.”
In another instance, Sen. John McCain led in the polls before his
first presidential debate against then-Sen. Barack Obama in Mississippi.
But McCain’s inability to interact with Obama gave people a negative
feeling. At the end of the debate, Obama was in the lead and maintained
the lead for the rest of the election season, Lehrer said.
“Body language is just as important as the spoken language in those debates,” he said.
Debates are also important because they can give people an idea of
whether they can imagine a candidate sitting in the Oval Office, making
decisions that affect lives and dealing with unexpected events.
When President George W. Bush was elected, Lehrer said, there were
not many huge issues. Within months, he was dealing with Sept. 11 and
the two wars that ensued.
Obama also found himself dealing with unfamiliar issues. The
financial crisis began as the 2008 presidential debates were beginning.
It was a topic Lehrer tried to ask both Obama and McCain about during
“They talked about everything but that because they really were not grounded in the subject,” Lehrer said.
A majority of Obama’s term has been focused on issues involving jobs,
housing and the financial crisis, Lehrer said. Whether Obama is
reelected, his first term will always be remembered for the unexpected
events, he said.
After discussing the importance of presidential debates, Lehrer made
three points of criticism about this year’s primary debates and
explained what should change for the 2016 primaries.
“Some of them resembled game shows, some of them were embarrassing,” he said.
In most cases, the two leading candidates in the polls were placed
center-stage and would get 15 to 20 minutes to speak before others had a
But once each candidate is onstage, Lehrer said, they all should have
an equal amount of time to speak. Instead of determining positions
based on polls, they should be drawn, he said.
People also should remember that the purpose of the primary debates
is different from the fall debates. Primaries help parties decide on
their presidential nominee.
“So let’s see all of them,” Lehrer said. “Let’s see all of the
candidates and see what their different views are about the same thing.”
Lehrer suggested that moderators ask candidates the same questions
and give all of them the chance to respond. Although there would
probably be fewer topics covered in the time allotted, it would help the
process and the voters make a decision, Lehrer said.
One of the last points Lehrer made about the primary