This news about Jim Lehrer leaving his anchor job at ‘PBS NewsHour’ in June reminded me about the behind-the-scenes look I got at the legendary anchor when I covered the presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., in September 2008.
I was with a group of journos from around the world who were settling into position a few minutes before the appointed time when Barack Obama and John McCain would begin their debate.
Jim Lehrer always seemed to have a low-key, relatively quiet presence in the broadcast chair. He was anything but that as he strode onto the stage in Oxford a few minutes before the debate was supposed to begin, on his way to take a seat in the host’s chair.
With about five minutes to spare, Lehrer addressed the crowd.
“It’s going to require my absolute concentration, and I don’t want to worry about anyone cheering and hollering behind me,” he snapped. “This is not a competing pep rally. If I hear (anything), I’ll raise my hand. And that means hush.”
He said there would be five-minute periods of open discussion between the candidates sprinkled throughout the 90-minute debate.
“That’s when it’s going to get hairy for me and for everybody,” he said. “This has to be a credible debate. It has to be fair, and it has to appear to be fair.
“And. No. Cell phones. If you’ve got a cell phone, throw it away or turn it off.”
He then took his seat in the chair, with his back to the crowd, appearing to shuffle some papers.
“Thirty seconds,” he bellowed to the crowd. “The next words you hear from me will be the real ones.”
And then, as promised, “the real ones.”
Announced Lehrer: “Good evening from the Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.”