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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Q&A with Carole Simpson, First Female and Minority Moderator of Presidential Debates

On Tuesday night, CNN’s Candy Crowley became only the second woman to moderate a presidential debate. The first? Native South Sider Carole Simpson, who talks to Carol Felsenthal about Tuesday night town hall meeting.

On Tuesday night, CNN’s Candy Crowley became only the second woman to moderate a presidential debate. The first? Native South Sider Carole Simpson—graduate of Hyde Park High School, and before she left for Washington, reporter at Chicago’s WCFL-AM, WBBM-AM, and WMAQ-TV.

In 1992, as then-President George H.W. Bush tried for a second term, he was challenged by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton (Independent Ross Perot also participated in the debate). Simpson, then 51 and reporting for ABC News, was a historic choice because she was the first woman as well as the first minority to moderate a presidential debate. She was also the first moderator for a new format designed by the Commission on Presidential Debates: a town hall meeting in which undecided voters could questions the candidates directly.

So who better to discuss Tuesday night’s town hall debate at Hofstra University—and the performance of CNN’s Candy Crowley (Simpson’s “friend of 30 years; we covered the Reagan White House together”)—than someone who has been there, done that? Now out of the news business—Simpson has complained publicly of being shunted aside by ABC where she had risen to senior correspondent and weekend news anchor—but teaching journalism full time at Emerson College, Simpson talked to me from her apartment in downtown Boston, where she lives with her husband, James Marshall. She moved there, she said, to be close to her daughter and three “grandbabies” who live in suburban Wellesley.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: How did Candy Crowley do?
CS:
I thought she was wonderful. Especially under the circumstances. I thought those two men were going to come to blows. Poor Candy. But she did a fabulous job—better than Jim Lehrer at keeping things under control. These are two men that really, really dislike each other beyond the rivalry for the presidency.

CF: Crowley is being hammered by Romney supporters for fact-checking Romney’s Benghazi/Libya charge (that Obama hadn’t characterized the September 11 attack as a terrorist act in his Rose Garden remarks the next day) in real time and backing up Obama. “He did call it an act of terror,” Crowley volunteered
CS:
She had to deal with that. Yes, President Obama did say that. It showed her preparation. If you are journalist, try to speak the truth if you know it. I give her creds for that. I was very proud of her. She is one of the best political reporters in the nation.

CF: Under the Commission on Presidential Debate rules governing your moderating duties 20 years ago, you couldn’t have done that. (Crowley, who had said publicly before the debate, “I’m not a fly on the wall,” simply ignored the rules not to rephrase questions, ask follow-ups, introduce new topics, comment; the counsels to both campaigns signed the Commission’s agreement; Crowley did not.)
CS:
Right. I couldn’t bring in another topic or delve deeper. I think she fought with the Commission and won. I was the lady with the mic. I was told it was to be an Oprah-style debate. All I could do was listen with my earpiece. I was told in my ear to get over to the man in the brown suit with the yellow tie or the lady in the green dress and pearls. I had no control over who asked questions or what the questions were. The producer had me go to a particular person based on [demographic] balance—men, women, an Asian, an old man. We had no idea of what their questions would be. Candy was able was to select questions and had lot more leeway.

CF: Obama and Romney were constantly getting up from their stools, often to point fingers at one another. Crowley, unlike you 20 years ago, stayed seated the entire 90 minutes.
CS:
Walking around was intimidating; and it wasn’t like I was wearing sneakers. I was in heels, and, as a reporter, I wasn’t used to wearing those. It was tricky navigating the wires on the floor.

CF: The complaints in Romney’s camp that Crowley favored Obama keep getting louder. Did you face anything like that?
CS:
Yes. After the debate in the spin room, the Republicans let me have it and told reporters that I had thrown the debate to Clinton, that I had made George Bush look bad. I was a liberal Democrat, which they would say because I was a black woman. [Bush made come critical mistakes, glancing at his watch and botching a question from a woman who asked how the deficit affected him personally.] I didn’t make Bush look at his watch; I didn’t have Bush blow the question about the deficit; I didn’t endow Clinton with the quality of being a people person. It wasn’t until after I watched the debate on video that I realized that Clinton just jumped through that television screen. Bush looked confused and older, especially when he complained that he didn’t “get” the deficit question.

CF: You write in your memoir, NewsLady, (2010) that you received death threats after moderating the ’92 debate. Some political analysts believe that Clinton won the election on the strength of his performance that night.
CS:
Yes, the day after Rush Limbaugh called me a “femiNazi” and just [Tuesday] he went after me again, 20 years later, mimicking my voice. I’m still bugging Rush. He’s still talking about me; obviously I’ve gotten to him.

CF: You have been public over the years—most recently in, NewsLady, about the barriers women and minorities face in the network news business. When you look at the Commission’s choices to moderate this year’s debates, do you see the barriers coming down?
CS:
No. The two white guys, [PBS’s] Jim Lehrer and [CBS’s] Bob Schieffer, get to be the sole moderators, write their own questions, be face to face with the candidates. [Schieffer’s turn comes next Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida for the final debate focused on foreign policy.] Martha Raddatz [of ABC News] gets the vice presidential debate, which really isn’t as important; decisions aren’t made based on what [the VP candidates] say. Candy gets the Town Hall.  Women were relegated to secondary status.

CF: Whom would you have chosen?
CS:
Andrea Mitchell. I can’t see Soledad O’Brien yet. I think she’s good and she’s a minority. Judy Woodruff of PBS. ABC’s Diane Sawyer could do it.

CF: Who won Tuesday night’s debate?
CS:
Obama. Romney looked petulant. He was very nasty to Candy. “I’m still talking. Give me my time. I’m supposed to have the next question.” Obama won, but not by much.

CF: Do you know the Obamas?
CS:
I’ve never met Michelle; I tracked the President down in Martha’s Vineyard so I could meet him. I have a house there, and he was on vacation there in August [2011]. I was a surrogate for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. She was my candidate. I moved over to Obama after she dropped out.

CF: Did either of your children want to be in the news business?
CS:
My daughter is a physician and she told me, “I don’t want to do what you do.” I knew she could do TV. She realized she could tell one mother to get her child vaccinated. On TV she could tell thousands. She had a show on a Boston station and now has a syndicated show called “Dr. Mallika Marshall Reports.” She also practices in an urgent care clinic. My son is a junior partner in a talent firm in Los Angeles.

CF: Ever get back to Chicago?
CS:
My mother was the eldest of 20, so I have aunts and cousins still in Chicago. Every time we return the city looks more beautiful.

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