Jim Lehrer has no regrets over debate

Jim Lehrer addresses the audience before the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday.

NEW YORK — Jim Lehrer said Monday that he accomplished precisely what he wanted to while moderating the first presidential debate: get Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talking to each other.

The former PBS anchor said Wednesday’s debate, viewed by 67 million people, will be remembered as a watershed moment because it was a real debate instead of simultaneous interviews of the candidates.

He took some heavy criticism on social media for his light hand, letting the candidates talk and generally asking open-ended questions designed to encourage them to explore differences.

It was a new format approved over the summer by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Lehrer said the differences were not explained well to the public in advance. The commission issued a statement Friday backing Lehrer.

“I may be seeing something that’s not there, but I can’t imagine emerging from this experience — I’m talking about myself — with any permanent scars,” said Lehrer, who has moderated 12 presidential debates since 1988. “I’m very upbeat about it, and I don’t have any second thoughts.”

Lehrer planned to divide the debate into 15-minute sections divided by topic areas. But that quickly went off the rails.

“The first few times I said ‘Let’s move on’ and they wanted to keep talking, the inclination of course is to stop them so I could cover all the subjects I wanted to cover,” he said. “But I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wait a minute, they’re talking to each other, leave `em alone.’ So I backed off.”

He’d get much harsher criticism if he prematurely stopped discussions, he said.

“Not only that, but I would have deserved it,” he said.

“It would have been different if they were talking about tiddlywinks or baseball, their favorite color or something like that. They were talking about the things that really matter.”