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Moderator Bernard Shaw recalls previous veep debate

By Greg Kocher, Lexington Herald-Leader –

LEXINGTON, Ky. — When the 2000 vice-presidential debate at Centre College received rave reviews for its civility, it was in no small part due to its moderator, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw.

But in a telephone interview this summer, Shaw, now retired, said the debate’s success was due to the seated-at-a-desk format and the experience of the candidates, Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman.

“Some critics said it was like ‘eavesdropping on a conversation’ and I like that, and that’s why I like that format above all others,” Shaw said. “It’s hard to be discourteous to your opponent when he’s sitting right at the same table with you.”

Shaw said the arrangement forced the candidates to engage in a courteous manner.

“It even affects the tone of your voice and the level of your voice,” he said. “It’s different than standing behind a podium where you can gesture across the stage at your opponent. You cannot do that at a table. It would look out of synch.”

Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan will be seated during Thursday’s vice-presidential debate, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. The structure will be similar to Wednesday’s presidential debate in Denver: the moderator will open each segment with a question, then each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for discussion of the topic.

Shaw, 72, was interviewed in early August, before the party conventions and the first presidential debate. Among other things, he gave insights into how a moderator prepares for a debate that typically draws millions of viewers.

The Oct. 5, 2000, debate in Danville, Ky., attracted 28.5 million viewers, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. The 2008 debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin had about 70 million.

Shaw’s preparation began months before the 2000 debate, as he and Judy Woodruff co-anchored a one-hour program called “Inside Politics.” That program included reports from correspondents about the 2000 campaign and CNN polling results.

Three days before the debate at Centre College, Shaw arrived at Beaumont Inn, a family-owned bed-and-breakfast inn about 10 miles from Danville.

“I prefer seclusion, privacy and a place where I can work on questions and reflect and be out of the spotlight,” Shaw said. “That’s why I was so thankful for the Beaumont Inn. … It was very secluded and very quiet. No hotel lobbies or gauntlets to run or anything like that, and that’s my preference.

“Basically, I was holed up in my room and would only surface for breakfast or lunch or dinner,” he recalled. “I don’t sightsee and I don’t walk around the square. I have all the local papers. I love local papers. It helps me find out what’s going on in the community, what people are saying, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking.”

From there, Shaw began printing questions on blue 5-by-7 cards. He used those cards to edit and re-edit the wording of each question.

“I believe the question should be as succinct as possible,” Shaw said. “I do not like nor use clauses in questions. Because when you’re asking a question that has two or three clauses, you’re giving the candidate the opportunity to cherry-pick whatever portion of the question that he likes or dislikes.”

A more succinct question “also compels the candidate — if the candidate is honest and not bobbing and weaving — to address the question. And I also ask the question very succinctly for the voters’ benefit, so that they, too, can follow precisely what is the question asked the candidate, and after hearing the response, the voter can decide whether or not the question was addressed.”

Shaw had raised eyebrows with what became known as “the killer question” during the 1988 presidential debate between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

“Governor,” Shaw began, “if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

While the question prompted a hitch in the breaths of those watching, Dukakis calmly and clinically answered: “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”

Kitty Dukakis complained to reporters afterward that the question was outrageous, but her husband told Jim Lehrer of PBS, who moderated last week’s presidential debate and who wrote a book about debates, that it was “a perfectly legitimate question.”

For the 2000 vice-presidential debate, Shaw said he prepared 35 questions, knowing he had no hope of asking all of them during a 90-minute debate.

“And I laid each question on this lovely green chenille bedspread” at Beaumont Inn, he said. “So I laid them out on the bed and I stood over the bed, going over each question.”

As he stood there, Shaw said, he tried to put himself in the minds of voters.

“Are these questions that I as an American voter want asked? Are these issues relevant?” he asked himself. “Any moderator’s questions have got to be relevant to the issues of the day.”

From there, Shaw memorized the questions so he could ask them verbatim as he looked into each candidate’s eyes.

When it was over, the debate drew praise. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos called it “a model debate.” NBC’s Tom Brokaw said Cheney and Lieberman “articulated the positions of their campaigns more effectively than did the tops of the ticket.”

CBS anchor Dan Rather called it the “best vice presidential joint appearance” on TV. But he also added: “Some people may not call it exactly lively and some may want to say, well for long stretches it should have carried a warning, ‘Do not listen while driving or operating heavy machinery.’ But this was a civil, intelligent, informative discussion of the issues by two candidates for vice president.”

Shaw said he has no advice for this year’s debate moderators or candidates.

“None. I would never do that,” he said. “It is not only gratuitous but almost borderline insulting. All these people are professionals. I might think certain things but I would not give voice to them.”

He did give voice to a need for elevated political discourse in the country — something he addressed in a question at the Centre debate.

“Voters are very sophisticated, but I think they are overindulging their tolerance of what these politicians are doing and not doing,” Shaw said. “The Congress of the United States is not serving the people it professes to represent. They are not conducting the people’s business. And I don’t think it will change unless and until American voters say, ‘We don’t like this. We do not want this. This is not helpful.’ And of course they can do that by voting people out of office.”

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