From “Criticism Greets List of Debate Moderators,” New York Times, August 18, 2012: “The commission [on presidential debates] ruled out picking one of the top three network news anchors, knowing how the other two might react.”
They met at a bar walking distance from Columbus Circle. Brian Williams arrived first, ordered a scotch and soda. He liked being first to the scene. It set a tone. It said to the others, “I’ve scooped you again.”
Diane Sawyer came next, all business, hair gathered sleekly in a ponytail. Her slim hands fidgeted with a whiskey. Her eyes swiveled to Williams, to her left. “I want this done like I like this drink: neat.” Williams drank to that.
Scott Pelley was last. “Third, just like in the ratings,” Sawyer said. Pelley’s shoulders sank just a touch. “I saw that!” Sawyer spat. “Defeat lives in your body, Scott. No wonder the commission didn’t choose you. Toughen up, or this will never work.”
Pelley was nothing if not dutiful. “I’ll do better, Diane.” He ordered a beer from the barkeep.
“Eff that, you’re having Jäger,” Sawyer said before slapping his face hard. Pelley looked for sympathy from Williams, who shook his head. “She treated Couric the same way, dude.”
“So what do we do?” Pelley asked after slamming the shot with as much confidence as he could muster.
“I say we end Lehrer,” Sawyer began. “He’s the easiest target.”
“You can’t kill someone who’s been dead for years,” Williams said, rolling his eyes.
“Jim Lehrer is a zombie?” Pelley marveled at this news. “I mean, he looks as alive as any of my colleagues at 60 Min—oh.”
“I don’t think he’s a zombie,” said Williams. “That would imply some amount of reanimation, and he’s about as lifelike as Bernie Lomax.”
The three anchors spent the rest of the night taking verbal potshots at a man who wasn’t there to defend himself and probably wouldn’t have been able to defend himself even if he had been there. And they hatched a plan.
The next morning, the phone rang in Jim Lehrer’s office. It was a rotary phone; it felt more like honest journalism to call people by literally dialing their numbers. Brian Williams was on the other end, calling to congratulate him. “Your place in history is assured,” Williams said, sounding as giddy as he could manage.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure I’d get a mention in the textbook after moderating my first eleven presidential debates,” Lehrer replied dryly. It took a special amount of willpower for Williams not to apply for a gun license right there and then. The mandatory waiting period, he was sure, would do little to dim his rage.
“Listen—buddy,” he said. “I know you’re a veteran, but if you want any help preparing for this debate, just say the word.”
“But ‘fuck off’ is two words, Brian,” said Lehrer. He chuckled at his own joke, and then reconsidered. “I appreciate the offer, my man. Really, though, I think I’ve got this down by now.”
“Well, it’s not so much for your sake as for mine. I just want to learn from the best, see what your secret is.” In his corner office at 30 Rock, Williams was doing his best not to gag.
“You know what they say about magicians, Brian.” And Lehrer hung up. But little did Williams know, as he donkey punched a hole in his wall, that he had successfully planted a seed.
Sawyer watered it later in the day. She stopped by NewsHour with a box of Magnolia cupcakes. “Surprised to see me here in DC, Jim?” She sidled into his office. “I took the Acela down just to see how I could help.”
“Are those cupcakes for me, or is that what you eat instead of Ben & Jerry’s when you don’t get chosen to moderate?” Lehrer stared down his prey, one corner of his mouth curling upwards into a smile.
Sawyer didn’t bat an eye, though she would have loved to have taken a bat to both of his. “Why, they’re for you, Jimmy.” She flopped down on his sofa, as stiff as particle board and as comfortable as being tied to the top of the Romney family car. “So, what are you going to ask them about the Affordable Care Act?”
“I haven’t thought about it,” he shrugged, “and I don’t plan to.” Sawyer’s expression gave away her surprise. “Maybe that’s the big secret you three don’t know. You can’t prepare for the debates. You just have to be in the moment.”
Later that night, she would meet her colleagues at the same bar, but she wouldn’t be able to keep from pacing, practically frothing over this. “Be in the moment?! Clocks are more spontaneous than Jim freaking Lehrer.”
In his office, though, she said, “But surely you’ll have follow-ups to nail them down or call them out, yes?”
“It’s not my debate, Toots. The candidates are the ones who have to have all the facts and numbers down.”
“But, I mean, you’re a journalist. Aren’t you supposed to know their positions and policies cold so you can point out what they’ve said and done versus what they say they’ll do — you know, in the moment?”
“I mean, I read the papers like everyone else, but if I call one of them on something preposterous they say — let’s say Romney says people with pre-existing conditions would be covered just fine without Obamacare, for instance — then I’ll be perceived as being in the tank for Obama.”
“You could do it both ways.”
“But what if one of them lies way more than the other? It’ll seem like I’m being biased. A moderator can’t give off even a whiff of that. Better to just let the candidates play in their own sand.” Lehrer would not be moved. But he ate the cupcakes. Which Sawyer had laced with copious amounts of crushed Adderall. Which meant he was feeling particularly focused when Pelley called a short time later.
Jim Lehrer liked Scott Pelley. His silver hair made him appear older than he was, and Lehrer liked people who chose to look elderly. His position as a correspondent for 60 Minutes also gave Pelley some street cred with him, and the previous two anchors, like Christmas ghosts, had softened Lehrer up so that Pelley could close the deal.
“Listen, Jim,” Pelley said mellifluously. “I’m not saying you’re not the greatest there ever was at this, but I just wonder if you’ll take some suggestions from me — for whatever they’re worth.”
“You know, sure, why not?” said Lehrer, helpless by now not to listen attentively, dreamily.
“Well, I think Romney will have a ton of automatic respect for you, because he seems to defer to father figures, like his dad. So don’t worry too much about being able to interrupt him. He’ll clam up at your first signal, I’m sure.
“Second, I heard from Diane that you’re not planning to prepare beyond what you already know. I agree with that tactic, except I think you should also make sure the questions are as condescending to voters as possible. This isn’t one of those elections where many people are accusing the two candidates of being like peas in a pod, so definitely ask them to outline the basic differences between their stances on the most fundamental issues of the campaign.”
“Mmm, yes, broad strokes are nice,” intoned Lehrer, breathing heavily, eyes closed.
“And lay off women’s issues,” Pelley advised. “For God’s sake, let Crowley handle those.
“But you don’t want to sound too uninformed, so just reference some bill that people know by name but not by content. Simpson-Bowles, maybe.”
“Yes, ooo, love that name,” Lehrer cooed, practically swooning. Pelley knew they had him, and didn’t feel a bit of remorse about it. Sawyer would respect him, finally.
Last week, the three anchors held a final meeting, this time at Williams’ suburban home, to watch the debate together. They saw Jim Lehrer, to whom Sawyer had overnighted another batch of irresistible, spiked cupcakes, look into the camera, eyes as dilated as an anime character. He spoke softly to Romney, who ignored and trampled him. He asked nothing about Romney’s tax returns or about his 47% comments, about climate science or marriage equality — domestic issues, every one. His first question was this: “What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?” His second question was, “Governor Romney, do you have a question that you’d like to ask the president directly about something he just said?”
Sawyer sat behind Pelley and rubbed his back, as though she was Joe Biden and he was a biker chick. “This is worse than I could have ever hoped for, Scott. Nice work.”
Williams shook his head. “Getting the candidates to point out each other’s factual errors is one thing; trying to get them to ask each other the questions is a breathtaking brand of laziness.”
Pelley took in the grim scene. “I don’t think they’ll ever let him moderate a debate again.”
As the debate ended and they watched their colleagues lambast Obama’s stagecraft instead of mauling Romney’s factual errors, though, it was Sawyer who began to feel some unease.
“Guys, what if we didn’t just get Lehrer? What if we hurt the President’s chances at re-election?” She’d stopped her massage. “Maybe we should have gotten Lehrer to prepare more.”
“There you go again,” said Williams, “just like always, with the remorse. Look, history’s told us what we fail to see in the moment: these debates don’t really matter. Everyone who’s in crisis now about Obama forgets that there are two more of these to go, and neither of them are moderated by that man. There is no Romney domination of Obama, and there never will be.”
“Look, Brian,” Sawyer replied, “I’ve read about Nostradamus. I think he was a pretty interesting historical figure. If we’d lived at the same time, I think we would have been friends. Brian, you’re no Nostradamus.”
“That was really uncalled for, Diane,” said Williams.
Pelley glanced at his watch and sighed audibly. “She might have a point, though, Bri. Why don’t we not meddle with the other moderators and let them prepare how they should?”