A moderator among partisans

Now that all the political convention ballyhoo is finally through, we can start to get pumped about the next stage in this historic presidential campaign: the debates. The first debate is scheduled for September 26 at the University of Mississippi, and I, for one, am really looking forward to it. If you pay attention in this first ideological tussle, youâÄôll get a chance to see a great American leader in action. HeâÄôs a man who has played a crucially important role in the political landscape of our country for decades; a leader in his field who is respected by his peers and able to rise above the partisan bickering so common amongst his rivals. He was his consistent self in the recent political conventions, and to the careful observer, his steady hand and carefully picked team were clearly superior to the antics of his younger, flashier rivals. IâÄôm of course referring to public television news anchor Jim Lehrer, who will be moderating the upcoming debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. Former CNN news anchor Bernard Shaw once referred to Lehrer as the âÄúdean of moderators.âÄù I would go so far as to bill Lehrer as the dean of modera-tion, something that seems to be sadly lacking in todayâÄôs political news coverage. IâÄôm a network TV guy. I donâÄôt have cable, so IâÄôm only vaguely aware of the ridiculousness the likes of Keith Olbermann and Bill OâÄôReilly have been pedaling âÄîrather successfully, it would appear âÄî to the masses. And, since I donâÄôt have cable, I (gasp!) donâÄôt watch the Daily Show. Actually, since I live out in the hinterlands of Maple Grove, and being a little tardy on the whole digital TV converter box movement, I donâÄôt even get PBS very clearly. But IâÄôll take a static-laden Jim Lehrer and crew over a crystal clear George Stephanopoulos any day. LehrerâÄôs philosophy is simple, but effective, and his talented correspondents, such as Ray Suarez, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, all follow a similar model. They donâÄôt pretend to know everything, and theyâÄôre actually interested in wheedling out the facts. Typically, in-depth coverage in LehrerâÄôs nightly show, âÄúThe Newshour with Jim Lehrer,âÄù involves two experts. These experts are usually from opposing sides of a given debate, hashing out their respective viewpoints in more-or-less civil fashion (although I do fondly recall one episode where Bob Costas and The New York Times columnist William Rhoden nearly came to blows over a disagreement on Barry BondsâÄô place in baseball history. Alas, they were linked via satellite.) My personal favorites are the political commentary duo of the left-leaning (yet reasonable) Mark Shields and the right-leaning (yet reasonable) David Brooks. You can download MP3s of Newshour broadcasts from the showâÄôs website. I think it says something about the substantive quality of a television news show when it remains effective even without the visual elements. Lehrer & Co.âÄôs in-depth reporting, combined with their principled restraint and fairness, might be what gets us nonconclusive folk through November with our sanity. While rooting around on the ABC News website, after I sifted through a Jessica Simpson music video, Meghan McCain admitting her dad is old on the View, and Whoopi Goldberg ranting about how aggravated she was by Gov. Sarah PalinâÄôs speech at the RNC last week, I came across a recent poll that said 18 percent of registered U.S. voters were still undecided about who they would vote for in the upcoming election. In a race where most polls have McCain and Obama in a virtual dead heat, this poll indicates that nearly one out of every five voters is probably looking for a fair shake on the issues, and not partisan rhetoric or superfluous nonsense. Enter Lehrer. IâÄôm not advocating a timid press here, folks. I watched OlbermannâÄôs Countdown Tuesday night on MSNBC.com, and I thought he levied some very legitimate and important criticisms at vice presidential candidate Palin. Imagine how much more effective these points would have been if they werenâÄôt coming from a commentator whose slogan plastered all over the MSNBC tent at the recent Republican National Convention was âÄúCountdown to Change.âÄù I recognize that extreme partisanship sells in our present political climate, especially to people of my own generation. IâÄôm no expert on these things, but I would be willing to guess that the Ann Coulters and the Michael Moores of the world would probably lose a sizeable chunk of their audience if they would all-of-a-sudden begin to admit the strengths of the opposing political party and to begin to examine the real weaknesses that might exist in their own platforms or candidates (unless, of course, itâÄôs primary season, in which case cannibalism amongst oneâÄôs own party is fair game. Granted, those wounds were all healed during the recent political conventions, right gang?) I know that there are large numbers of people out there who legitimately believe that Democrats and/or Republicans are the epitome of evil and are genuinely hell-bent on running this great nation into the ground. But according to ABC news, almost 20 percent of our country doesnâÄôt see things that way. Add to that number the people like me who, while our minds may be basically settled regarding who we will be voting for in November, we still like to see the other side treated with a little bit of dignity, even if they are politicians. ItâÄôs a mathematical certainty that there have to be people like that in Minnesota, where in the same statewide election the same voters elected both Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the same day. For those voters, the old adage about âÄúall things in moderationâÄù held true, at least for one day, even for political partisanship. So, if at any time during this recent political campaign you have pondered aloud the possibility of moving to Canada should your chosen candidate achieve an unfavorable result in November, you may now resume watching your cable news show of choice. IâÄôll be watching Jim Lehrer through the static on my TV. Please send comments to [email protected]