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Veteran Moderator Jim Lehrer Says Trump And Clinton Are Like 'Oil And Water'

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take the stage Monday night, the audience is expected to be the biggest ever for a presidential debate. No one may be watching as intently as the man who’s moderated more of these matchups than anyone else, Jim Lehrer.

The retired PBS news anchor cut his journalistic teeth in Dallas and he sat down with KERA’s vice president of news, Rick Holter.

Interview Highlights: Jim Lehrer...

…On whether he wishes he were moderating Monday night:

"Lester Holt has got his hands full. It's a daunting, difficult, exhilarating experience. Very treacherous in many ways, at least it has been for me but they matter. Because they matter so much that means everything. It's not just performing as a person as a moderator - you're actually functioning in such a way that could affect the outcome of an election for the president of the United States. Which is the single most powerful job there is in the world so it's not entertainment, it's not even journalism in one way. It has its own self to it, it exists alone, there's nothing else like it."

…On whether moderators have become characters in this debate:

"It's true. The reason is that the formats have changed dramatically, and I've been a part of that. The candidates can talk to each other, question each other, there can be all kinds of follow-ups and stay on one subject for a longer time. As a consequence, the moderator has a different job to do, and if a debate goes poorly for a particular candidate, the handlers of that candidate they're not going to criticize the boss. They're going to criticize the moderator. That's happened to me and it will happen to all five of these folks for 2016. I promise you every one of them will be criticized for something. For letting something go too long, for cutting something off, for not asking certain questions, for not following up, for not fact checking - which of course is not the moderator's job in a debate. It's the other candidate's job." 

…On fact checking this particular candidates during the debate: 

"The thing people have to keep in mind, first of all these debates, they're 90 minutes. They're not the whole campaign, these campaigns go on for two years. There's fact checking from the first word a candidate speaks and all the way through. With these debates, if you fact checked everything that everybody said in a debate, that's all you'd do. You maybe get to one question - and that's not what that's about. It's to see the candidates." 

…On what he expects to happen: 

"These debates in 2016 will probably be the more negative than any in history. It's already started, it's already there. They've talked about each other in really negative terms - now they're going to have to look at each other and do it. They've got a lot to do."

…Does he expect to be surprised? 

"Absolutely. Let's say that Donald Trump comes and he only has one mission involved - and that is to not say anything negative in any way that would appear over the top, what is commonly referred to as "presidential." Then, Hillary Clinton would probably want to try to agitate him, probably want to throw a little red meat at him. And whether he takes it or not - if he comes with already going after the red meat, then it's ok, how does Hillary Clinton handle that? And if Trump becomes Mr. Nice that could backfire on him because his supporters that support him - a lot of them do because he is a rough guy." 

…On whether the first debate will change the race:

"There's no way to know all of this. That's why it makes this case a little more dramatic - it's a lot more dramatic - because these candidates are different people and the divisions between them really dramatic. About what they believe, how they operate as individuals, how they work with other individuals, everything about them is different. It is oil and water, and they don't mix."  

Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.