Schieffer Wants 'Freewheeling' Third Debate

CBS moderator "felt very badly for Tom Brokaw" after second debate, hopes Obama, McCain mix it up in more intimate format

Nov. 6, 2005: A maverick Republican senator and a charismatic minority-group Democrat go after one another in a televised presidential debate. The broadcast is live, but isn't for real: It's Alan Alda playing Sen. Arnold Vinick, the Republican, and Jimmy Smits playing Rep. Matt Santos, the Democrat. The West Wing debate no sooner gets started than Vinick challenges his opponent to “junk the rules.”

Vinick suggests, “We could have a debate Lincoln would be proud of,” and proposes to jettison time constraints and follow-ups, moderator intrusions and deviation to prepared statements. “We tell the American people what they need to hear—no more, no less.” When Santos worries about a filibuster-type tactic, Vinick says, “I suspect the audience will reward brevity.”

“OK,” Santos replies impulsively. “Let's have a real debate.”

Oct. 15, 2008: CBS's Bob Schieffer will moderate the third and final presidential debate before Election Day. How would Schieffer react if John McCain and Barack Obama pull a similar stunt and threaten, on live TV, to disregard the agreed-upon debate format?

Schieffer, contacted less than a week before the debate, laughed long and loudly at the thought of it.

“I remember I watched that, and I was fascinated by it,” he said, chuckling again at the thought of life imitating art.

“You know what?” Schieffer said, applying the hypothetical to McCain and Obama. “If they did that, I would say 'Gentlemen, have at it.' I would lean back in my chair, and I would probably enjoy it more than anyone else. That would be the dream, wouldn't it?”

Failing that dream coming true, the chances of Americans seeing at least one illuminating debate this season are greater with Schieffer at the helm. Debates so far have been disappointing, bogged down by format and choreographed answers.

Schieffer said, “If I could pose one question—let's just say on immigration—and say, 'Gentlemen, what are we going to do about immigration? You can build that fence, but you're still going to have 10 million illegal immigrants in this country. What are you going to do with 'em? Talk with me about that for 10 minutes.'

“If they did that, I would think I would have done my job. My goal is to make this about these two men, not about the moderator.”

McCain and Obama will be seated at the same table, across from Schieffer (“within arm's length of each other”), who hopes to use the relative intimacy to push for direct responses.

“They'll each have two minutes to answer, then I'll try to encourage them to question one another,” Schieffer said. “I'm going to do my very best to keep them on track. And if they try and get off track, I'm not going to be bashful about saying, 'Gentlemen, that was not the question.'”

Debates thus far in 2008 have been disappointingly constrained—an assessment with which Schieffer, at least in part, agrees.

“I felt very badly for Tom Brokaw during this last [debate], because he was so constrained by the format...It was very difficult for Brokaw to interject and get follow-up questions in there,” Schieffer said.

“My hope is,” he added, “with the format we'll be operating under, it'll be much more freewheeling. I'll ask each of them the same question, they'll answer, and then I'll say to the other one, 'Well, what about that?'

“These follow-up questions,” he said, “don't have to be too complicated…”

Schieffer said he started compiling questions and information two months ago (“I kind of do it the old-fashioned way: I read newspapers, and if I see something interesting, I clip it out—I have some scissors”).

And yes, he's excited about what might happen: “I can't remember a campaign where there was more interest, or where it has been close for so long. I try not to think about this too much, but I think this election could well turn on what happens at this last debate.”

For more of David Bianculli's interview with Bob Schieffer, click here.