Martin Schram: Civility in our time: A presidential debate strategy memo

In debates, it’s the debater whose prime job is challenging and even questioning his opponent. Moderators aren’t supposed to be the event’s central interrogators.

Today’s column takes the form of a presidential debate strategy memo — written not to candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but to the moderator, my news colleague Lester Holt of NBC News.

I’m writing it not because he particularly needs my advice, but just because I know my view on this has long been a distinctly minority opinion in our journalistic craft. And yet I’m sure it’s something he’ll at least want to consider before the camera’s red light flashes on at 9 p.m. Eastern Monday at Long Island’s Hofstra University, signaling the start of the first general election debate in what has already proven to be the most unusual and controversial presidential campaign in our nation’s modern history.

MEMO RE: A Debate Moderator’s Strategy

Lester, I believe the most memorable thing you can accomplish in Monday night’s debate is to moderate in a way that makes you totally forgettable. Let me explain:

We’ve witnessed many of our colleagues work hard at moderating in various ways that guaranteed we’d see them twirling in the debate spotlight. We’ve seen colleagues who were more peacocks than moderators (that’s not a winking reference to your employer’s peacock symbol; but it is an unsubtle disapproval; of the way some moderators paced and paraded back and forth, posturing while interrogating).

And we have witnessed debates where the moderators clearly worked hard to craft gotcha questions, highlighting instances when a politician once said X, but later said Y, and now seems to be saying Z. That’s our job when we conduct one-on-one interviews and are tasked with pinning down the politicos when they are being intentionally vague or dissembling (see also: contradictory or flat-out lying).

But in debates, it’s the debater whose prime job is challenging and even questioning his opponent. Moderators aren’t supposed to be the event’s central interrogators. After all, a debate is not a three-way interview. And debates should never be about us.

A moderator’s prime job is to first propose a specific topic to be debated — such as: How will you keep America safe from the threats proposed by the Islamic State and other global terrorists?

Then the moderator must become the facilitator and even timekeeper, to assure each debater will indeed be able to debate the topic, challenge an adversary’s position and statements, and respond to other follow-ups. Debaters must have the time to fully explain their positions — and importantly, they must have the opportunity to challenge and even question their opponent. And then, the opponent must have the time and opportunity to answer fully. If all that happens, voters won’t remember who the moderator was — but they may learn a lot about their next president.

This surely didn’t happen in the multi-candidate cluster-fest that was the Republican presidential primary debates. And it also didn’t really happen much in the Democratic primary debates that featured just two candidates. But it should have.

Moderators should interject themselves into the debate when one or both candidates are imprecise or wonky, to assure viewers will be able to understand. And yes, moderators ought to step in when debaters become evasive, to assure that truths don’t inadvertently fall through the cracks. But moderators cannot be expected to serve as full-time, live-time fact-checkers.

Let’s not forget: It’s the candidates who must be able to win debates not only by providing highlight-worthy answers but also by effectively challenging and questioning their opponents. And — surprise of surprises — this can be done civilly.

In 1963, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the father of the modern conservative movement, figured he would be the Republican nominee in 1964 and would be running against the incumbent President John F. Kennedy. So Goldwater talked with Kennedy and proposed a unique debate format that he disclosed in his 1988 autobiography: “Kennedy and I informally agreed — it seems a pipe dream in looking at some of today’s negative campaigning — that we would ride the same plane or train to several stops and debate face to face on the same platform.” Goldwater elaborated on the plan in an interview with The Washington Post’s Bill Prochnau: “He’d get out in one place and start to debate and I’d rebut him. Then we’d turn it around in the next place. … It would have saved a lot of money, we’d have a good time, and it would have done the country a lot of good.”

That historic idea was shattered by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. It might have changed politics for the better, forever. Its underlying civility need not be lost forever.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at