Veteran broadcast journalist Bob Schieffer last night toured EHS students through the history and big moments of presidential debates, sharing stories of his stints as moderator of three contests.
Schieffer said that while Americans often confuse the legendary 1858 Senate campaign debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as presidential tilts, the first debate featuring White House candidates matched John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon in 1960. Those televised bouts “changed American politics forever,” he said.
“People just fell in love with the whole process,” said Schieffer, a former CBS News anchor who has covered or moderated every presidential debate since 1976. “With the television camera and its unblinking eye recording every second of the debate, people not only got the answers that the presidents gave, they saw how they looked when they were giving those answers.”
Schieffer spoke via videoconference in the hour immediately before Tuesday's first presidential debate of 2020. The event was part of fall election programming organized for students by the School’s McCain-Ravenel Center for Intellectual and Moral Courage, which was created as part of Episcopal's 2018 Strategic Plan
. His granddaughter, Annabelle Baird ’22, introduced him and shared a commentary Schieffer wrote that he called “The Joy of Voting
Schieffer opened his remarks by talking about his other EHS connection: the late Sen. John McCain, an alumnus from the Class of 1954 and his friend for more than 30 years. “When you’re walking on the grounds of EHS, you’re walking in the shadow of greatness,” he said. “He was a truly great man.”
Asked by students to name the best debaters, Schieffer pointed to Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan. The two-term Republican in particular was “a master of television,” he said. “Reagan never took a bad picture, and he always looked like a president.”
Schieffer moderated debates in 2004, when George W. Bush faced off against John Kerry; 2008 (John McCain and Barack Obama); and 2012 (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney). He said he went to great lengths to prepare questions that would illuminate the differences between candidates. Before the 2012 debate, he told students, he conducted 26 interviews, all of them two or three hours long, with experts. He arrived at the debate stage with some 300 possible questions.
At his first debate, however, he admitted that he had to overcome a case of nerves at the idea that tens of millions were watching this pivotal moment. “I was shaking like a leaf,” he admitted. “I’m thinking, This presidential campaign can be decided tonight.”
Near the end of the conversation, Schieffer reflected on recent protests and the racial-justice movement and argued that the country has reached a turning point. Everyone, he said, is obligated to step up to do what's right.
"Social justice is a question that we must begin to answer as a society," he said. "It is just not right what’s going on now."