Moderate Rock


Alan Schroeder has a modest proposal for the Commission on Presidential Debates. “I think if Oprah moderated a presidential debate, the whole country would come to a standstill,” says Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High Risk TV. “But it’s always been Washington journalists. They’ve always gone with the safe candidate.” Choosing Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t be a complete shocker, he says. She has been mentioned informally before as a possible host, and in 2000 Al Gore and George Bush each appeared on her show.

But when the nonpartisan commission selects a moderator, it usually goes for someone who is unlikely to embarrass either candidate. Call it the legacy of Bernard Shaw, the CNN anchor who bumrushed Michael Dukakis in 1988 at a debate by asking, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Friday’s debate between President Bush and Senator John Kerry was slightly less stilted than the first one of this campaign, because of its town-hall format. ABC anchor Charlie Gibson, who served as moderator, generally tried to do his job and stay out of the way—even though Bush challenged him on that front, at one point ignoring Gibson’s attempt to ask a follow-up question. With the president fairly blasting off his stool, Gibson declined to ratchet up the confrontation.

To that end Gibson did a good job, the major part of which was to ensure that the attention stayed on the candidates. The need for balance and dispassion is the main reason so many moderators of late have come from PBS. “The commission makes pretty cautious choices,” says Schroeder. “Dan Rather would never get chosen for a presidential debate because he has too many enemies. Jim Lehrer did a good job in 2000 and there was no prejudice one way or the other. This year you had Gwen Ifill. There was some bitching about Bob Schieffer”—picked to handle the final debate, on October 13—”just because he came from CBS. So it’s always a bit of a hot potato.”

Doubting Thomas

Washington Post scribes Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher have a thing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Since 2002, the pair have authored several long-form articles for the paper and its weekly magazine. Their most recent is a series of articles trying to get at the core of the court’s most enigmatic judge.

“Just him being the second black justice is interesting,” says Fletcher, a national staff writer for the paper. “Plus there’s his politics, his unique jurisprudence, and also how people react to him. People have a visceral reaction to Thomas, and it raises some questions that a lot of black people wrestle with.”

Chief—and perhaps most stupid—among them: Can you be black and a conservative? Twelve years after Anita Hill, Fletcher and Merida’s series seeks to expose a seldom-seen side of Clarence Thomas. What the two uncovered was a record of Thomas using his influence to help several up-and-coming African American jurists, conservative and liberal.

The discovery may be surprising, but not so much because Thomas is a conservative—Booker T. Washington was no slouch when it came to kingmaking. It’s more that so little is known about him, making any anecdote that drips out a prominent stroke in a relatively blank portrait. Thomas carries a serious grudge against the fourth estate, granting very few interviews. “He distrusts the media,” says Fletcher, “and particularly the part that he would consider the liberal media. He’s engaging when you talk to him informally, but he’s wary. He can recite his own coverage chapter and verse.”

Fletcher and Merida are turning their Washington Post reporting on Thomas into a book, set to be released in 2005 or 2006. The justice is aware of the book, says Fletcher, but still isn’t taking on interviews.

Dumb and dumber

Readers of the October 3 edition of The New York Times Book Review were treated to a doozy of a shellacking, courtesy of humorist Joe Queenan. The former GQ writer’s subject was Esquire senior editor A.J. Jacobs’s new book, The Know It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. Jacobs’s tome traces his quest to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. The task earned him no love from Queenan. “At one point in the book, he says, ‘I hate Gustave Flaubert,’ ” says Queenan. “Them’s fighting words where I come from.”

No doubt. In his review, Queenan dismissed Jacobs as a “pedigreed simpleton” whose book was “mesmerizingly uninformative.” Now, far be it from Press Clips to argue against a critical beatdown, as we’ve thrown some elbows in our time. But what made Queenan’s more notable was its secondary target—Entertainment Weekly.

In his last four paragraphs, Queenan managed to slip in three shots at the magazine. He panned Jacobs for not knowing who Samuel Beckett is, calling the admission “criminally stupid, even for someone who has written for Entertainment Weekly.” He then went on to report that “people who read Marcel Proust and Bertrand Russell instead of Entertainment Weekly actually do learn stuff.” Queenan wrapped up by noting that after his self-assigned reading, Jacobs still “wouldn’t even be the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly.”

“Perhaps he’s jealous that I got a very flattering review in Entertainment Weekly along with a handsome author photo,” says Jacobs. Hmm, could be. But we’re going to go with motive B—as in Big Payback. In 2001, Queenan himself took it on the chin when reviewer Margot Mifflin wrote of his Balsamic Dreams, “Baby boomers have been called smug, self-indulgent, prone to sarcasm, and clever but shallow—and Queenan is their unintentional mascot.” Mifflin was writing in Entertainment Weekly. The ultimate insult was that Mifflin graded Queenan’s book a C—grading books is bad enough, but a C is an F minus in EW-speak.

So does Queenan really think the EW crowd rides the short bus? “Let’s just say I don’t think they’re as sharp as people who read The New Yorker,” he says. “It was just a running joke. If he wrote for Premiere, it could have been Premiere.”