That man about to step into the ring with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at 9 p.m. Monday is CBS’ Bob Schieffer. He’ll be the evening’s referee … er … moderator.
Schieffer will be able to show us all what he can do in what we know now is the world’s most thankless profession in the year 2012 – moderator of presidential and vice presidential debates.
I suspect the experienced Schieffer will have a bit less trouble maintaining order Monday amid the showboating, chaos and rancor than his three predecessors – all of whom, in my opinion, performed splendidly, though in very different ways under different forms of duress.
Schieffer is no newbie in this arena. He has done it before. And while he isn’t exactly one of the original members of “Murrow’s boys” at CBS News, he is from the very next generation after them.
He probably won’t be as easy to steamroll as the others occasionally were (largely because he’ll anticipate the steamroll attempts to come).
The worst so far was PBS’ venerable Jim Lehrer, but only because he was dealing with a brand-new hitherto unexpected fact in our political universe.
To wit, Mitt Romney is a talker. A jabberer, even. Romney’s strategy has been to get in as much information and passionate self-proclamation as possible every time it’s his turn, and if that means pulling God-only-knows-what out of the ether and steamrolling over the clock, so be it.
He isn’t entirely wrong, either. The ground rules often made each candidate’s allotted time too constricting, I thought.
In response, Romney reminded me of a wonderful phrase used by William Phillips, one of the founders of the venerable little magazine The Partisan Review, to describe another founder, Philip Rahv: “He’s a manic impressive.” It seems to me that might nicely describe Romney in his debates with President Obama.
That, most of us would guess, is the exact temperamental opposite of Obama. To quote another finely honed description by someone about a partner, Obama reminds me of Ed McMahon’s immortal line about his lifelong employer and onscreen partner, Johnny Carson: “He packs a tight suitcase.”
Obama, too, is clearly a man who packs a tight suitcase. Wasted motion isn’t his thing. That didn’t stop him from scoring his points in the second debate this week, but I must confess that I didn’t find what happened at that debate to be a star-spangled moment in American democracy.
The heck with George Will, I say, and his proclamation that it was the best presidential debate he’d ever seen.
The TV spectacle of two candidates for the highest office we have circling each other as if they were in a cage match and wagging admonitory fingers (rather than drop-kicking each other in the jaw) was quite a bit less than edifying.
I’m glad that the president got a chance to make up the ground he needlessly lost in the first debate – when Romney’s penchant for blabbering over the ground rules whenever possible gave poor Lehrer his toughest task as moderator. But it seems to me anyone proposing that second presidential cage match as a sturdy template for the way all subsequent presidential debates ought to go is a damn fool.
I don’t think the debates are pointless. Voters desperately need presidential candidates to tell us who they are, how they got that way, what they believe and how they intend to govern. I also think it’s revealing to see how they react to questions from others and dissing from each other.
However, the minute it descends into circling each other like participants in one of Michael Vick’s dogfights, George Will can have it. I’m checking out. I prefer language, wit and as much truth as possible.
In other words, the minute the last presidential debate turned into “good television” was the minute I wanted to leave the room. I want the winner of the contest to be the president of the United States, not the heavyweight champion of DebateWorld.
The controversy over moderator Candy Crowley’s sudden despairing entry into the world of debate fact-checking is one of the sillier things to come out of it all. Crowley, quite logically, has said she wanted to get them both to move on and if that meant ceding each incontestable points, let it be. And if that cede messed-up one candidate’s plan for a campaign talking point, that’s just too bad.
If the year 2012 is anything, it’s the year of the fact-checker. In the protracted occupational nervous breakdown that the Internet is causing in worldwide journalism, the job of Fact Checker has received a huge upgrade from its once-modest position to one of immense value in the modern political world.
We all know pols lie occasionally. They always have and always will. It’s their job to make themselves look good to win the job of making the world better.
With the Internet as an instant research resource, the job of Fact Checker has changed. It used to be an entry-level job at magazines to make sure writers didn’t misstate something.
If, for instance, Gore Vidal, in an essay for the New York Review of Books on Italo Calvino discusses one of the Italian novelist’s books – “The Baron in the Trees,” say – it’s a fact-checker’s job to make sure he’s not misstating dates or quotes or plot points, whatever. (I use Vidal, by the way, because in the past, those who have served as his fact-checkers have gone public on the difficulties of the gig.)
The Internet has greatly accelerated the speed at which a fact-checker can do a lot of preliminary work, making on-the-air fact-checking possible right after political appearances (not to mention all over the partisan snark of the new world of social media).
What could once get by in Stephen Colbert’s immortal phrase as “truthiness” is going to get roughed up by Fact Checkers in a Fact Checking world.
It would be nice if the extreme rigors of the most dedicated journalists were always to prevail in the political world, but what all great writers and most longtime journalists discover is that facts themselves can be so plastic and even meaningless in the real world that journalists can concoct careers of many decades out of an endless supply of facts mixed with no accurate context or significant insight whatsoever.
We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with Romney and Obama on Monday, but I, for one, am going to be happy that the most thankless job in our world will be done by a man with the years of experience and foolproof contextual insight of Bob Schieffer.