As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take the stage in Denver on Wednesday night for the first of their three debates, they won’t just face off against each other. They’ll also be competing with the rich history of presidential debates — the zingers, questions and comebacks that will be replayed and invoked over and over in the weeks ahead. I’ve had the privilege to moderate the two most recent vice presidential debates, and I’ve heard many misconceptions about these events and their impact on a race. Here are a few of the most common.
1. Voters use debates to decide.
For many voters, televised presidential debates serve to focus the mind. Seeing the men who would be president — yes, always men, so far — face off empowers viewers to finally choose a side.
But debates are only part of the American voter’s political diet. Like 30-second ads or stump speeches, they do as much to confirm impressions as to alter them. Think back to some memorable debate moments. Did George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch really persuade people to vote for Bill Clinton, or did it confirm the worst suspicions of those already leaning away from him? Did Lloyd Bentsen dismissing Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” lose the election for Michael Dukakis, or did it speak to an existing worry that Bush lacked the judgment to pick a No. 2 who could assume the presidency?
2. Candidates approve the questions ahead of time.
As if. I get asked this question more than almost any other. (That, and “Is Sarah Palin really as pretty close up?”)
As a moderator, I took my cue from Jim Lehrer, who has moderated a dozen debates and has become the gold standard for the job. He advised me to keep my questions to myself. I went to such extremes to do so that in hindsight, it seems a bit paranoid. The Commission on Presidential Debates never saw them. My pastor never saw them. My family never saw them. Even Jim never saw them. And these are people I trust.
3. The moderator should pick fights with the candidates.
When John Edwards slyly slipped a mention of Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation into an answer in 2004, or when Palin blithely assured 67 million viewers that she did not think it was her responsibility to answer my questions, I let it pass.
Not every moderator would have done that, but I concluded in each case that I had two choices. I could raise my voice, arch my eyebrows and express outrage. However, this would have made the debate about me and not the candidates. And guess what? Moderators don’t matter.
4. He who zings, wins.
This one is almost too easy to debunk. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen.
In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Quayle was apparently miffed at being asked for the third time by the moderators whether he was prepared to be president. The 41-year-old candidate replied that he had as much experience in the Senate as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president in 1960.
When Judy Woodruff turned to Bentsen for his reply, he pounced. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” he said sternly. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The audience hooted. The exchange went down in history.
5. Debates are the last best chance for candidates to define themselves.
No, “Saturday Night Live” is.
Whether it’s Tina Fey as Palin, Amy Poehler as Hillary Rodham Clinton or Jason Sudeikis as Romney or Vice President Biden, a dead-on impersonation that lampoons a candidate’s most cartoonish qualities can leave a nasty mark.
Gerald Ford was a gifted college athlete, but Chevy Chase convinced us that he was a bumbling buffoon.
In 2004, when I moderated the Cheney-Edwards debate, the “SNL” spoof featured that week’s host, Queen Latifah, playing me. But I didn’t know what would happen in 2008. In the interim, I’d met Queen Latifah and joked that she should play me again if the opportunity presented itself. She replied, “Sure, if there’s material.”
Palin’s candidacy in 2008, and my return as moderator, provided plenty of material. To this day, whenever I speak at a college, I am asked what I thought about being played by her.
I always reply: “Are you kidding? How else would anyone remember I was even on the stage?”
Gwen Ifill is managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for the “PBS Newshour.” She moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.