Lehrer to relate experiences as ‘dean’ of presidential debate moderators



Grant Engle | Staff Writer

The 2012 presidential election is on the horizon, and Chautauquans will have the opportunity to hear stories from one of the most prominent presidential debate moderators in history.

Jim Lehrer, moderator of 11 presidential debates, will share stories from the debates and talk about the privilege of interviewing nearly every candidate for president and vice president during the past six elections.

Lehrer said he looks forward to returning to Chautauqua because speaking to an engaged audience is a speaker’s paradise.

“It’s a terrific physical environment and a terrific intellectual environment,” Lehrer said. “There’s a great spirit of congeniality and willingness to listen and learn. It’s conducive to enjoyment and enrichment of the mind as well as the body.”

During the course of his 50-year career as a journalist, Lehrer reached millions of news consumers. He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 for the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times-Herald. He is most well-known for anchoring the many incarnations of PBS’s “NewsHour” from 1973 to 2011.

Even with a lifetime of experience providing people with news, Lehrer said giving a lecture and engaging Chautauquans in conversation is not an easy task.

“The intimidating part about coming to Chautauqua is that the audience comes to play,” Lehrer said. “Anybody who has spoken in public knows that 90 percent of having a good time, a nourishing time as a speaker, is about the audience. If the audience is with you, it’s paradise. If the audience is against you, it’s hell.”

Though engaging a group of intellectuals in the Amphitheater can be somewhat daunting, Lehrer said moderating a presidential debate is an incredibly intense pressure-cooker.

“Everything about it is intimidating,” Lehrer said. “There’s no such thing as a non-intimidating situation in a presidential debate. If I make a mistake in a presidential debate it could affect the outcome of an election.”

Lehrer said he spent countless hours preparing for each debate, and he managed to never be completely caught off guard with a candidate’s answer — “doing his homework” is an integral part of the responsibility.

The Wichita, Kan., native has become synonymous with the debates, and his peers have also taken notice. CNN’s Bernard Shaw nicknamed Lehrer the “dean of moderators,” as Lehrer has moderated 11 presidential debates in the last 24 years — more than any other journalist in that time.

Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education, said Lehrer’s return to the Institution for the Week Two morning lecture series was a natural choice in an election year.

“We invited Jim Lehrer back to return to Chautauqua because we believe that he was the most trusted anchor in television news,” Babcock said. “His 20-year experience moderating more presidential debates than anyone provided the gravitas to lead a week on ‘What Informed Voters Need to Know.’ “

The Week Two lecture theme, “The Lehrer Report: What Informed Voters Need to Know,” will continue Thursday with Lehrer and Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. Lehrer will wrap up the week by moderating a discussion between Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and Creators Syndicate columnist Mark Shields.