Political Gabfest

What It Takes to Moderate the CBS Republican Debate

John Dickerson fills us in on what it’s like to run the show in Greenville, South Carolina.

John Dickerson.
John Dickerson listens to a crewmember prior to moderating the presidential debate sponsored by CBS at Drake University on Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

We’re posting transcripts exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript of the most recent Political Gabfest Slate Plus bonus segment, in which Political Gabfest hosts Emily Bazelon and David Plotz interview co-host John Dickerson about his recent role as CBS moderator of the Republican debate in Greenville, South Carolina.

What do you need to know before you go on screen? And what happens when the cameras go off? Dickerson takes us inside the Republican debate. Plus, find out what Ted Cruz said after his squabble with John over Justice Anthony Kennedy’s nomination.

To learn more about the Political Gabfest, click here.

This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.

David Plotz: Hello Slate Plus. Hello Slate Plus. Hello Slate Plus. We’re going to do a quick Slate Plus segment; it’s going to be all Dickerson.

What were some behind-the-scenes highlights of your debate preparation on Saturday in South Carolina? What were some great moments for you that you want to share with Slate Plus members?

John Dickerson: You know we do all this work, prep before hand. There’s a whole team of people. It was Thursday, we were in Room 311 at the Westin in Greenville from 10 a.m. until about 11:30 at night.

We didn’t actually leave the room, and that was the last session.

So you do all this work: you prepare this roadmap, which tries to be interesting, inquisitive, and fair to all the candidates, balance them out in the right way, and deal with the commercial breaks, all that stuff.

And then we had late breaking news, the same way we did—not of the same magnitude as before the debate in Des Moines with the Democrats—but we had late breaking news about Justice Scalia’s death. And that, figuring out what to do, how to deal with that tricky moment… I guess it was Will Dobson who sent me the first text about it. But by the time that happened, we were into production mode. We were all over at the venue, it was all kind of already rolling down the hill.

So [then we had] to take all this careful work we’d done and then unstitch it, figure out how not to lose all the questions we’d spent so much time thinking about. How to ask interesting questions that got at some of the issues. How not to be tacky about the fact that a conservative justice revered by much of the audience—you know, you’re immediately jumping to who his successor is—dealing with all of that in such short period of time, that was an extremely intense moment.

Plotz: So John, I’m curious. You had this encounter with Sen. Cruz about the nomination and approval of Justice Kennedy, where Sen. Cruz appeared to have the date wrong of when Justice Kennedy’s nomination was approved and you corrected him.

Did you and he talk about that afterwards?

Dickerson: Well, after the debate he came up and said that he thought it was a fair debate. And I said, You know, despite our thing at the beginning, and he was like, Oh that doesn’t matter. So he was fine with it.

What was going on with me was a couple things. Dr. Carson had started [and] I’d asked him a question about the Constitution, whether the president had the power to do this, and he’d given a kind of uncertain answer, so we had that to fix, which is not to leave the impression that the president didn’t have the power to nominate.

Although, to make things confusing, we were using the word nominate and appoint. I did and the respondents [both] did interchangeably. There is a big difference between nominating and appointing.

Anyway, by the time I got to Sen. Cruz, I was in the same mode I’d been in the back when we were trying to figure out the questions. And there’s this issue of the fact that 80 years have gone by without someone being nominated in a presidential year.

The first question was, was that just by happenstance? Or had there actually been situations in which the president had said, OK, it’s my last year, I don’t want to nominate.

So that was the first thing I was trying to figure out. And he said there hadn’t been a confirmation in a presidential year, and that’s when I said, well, Kennedy was confirmed, he was just nominated—he said he was confirmed in ’87, he was confirmed in ’88, nominated in ’87.

Anyway, what I was doing was trying to get [back to earlier] where we’d been hashing out all these questions in rapid succession. And when you ask someone a question you don’t, especially that early in the debate, to interrupt them twice in such fast succession…

We got there, but it was a little more like me carrying over what we’d been doing behind the scenes.

Emily Bazelon: I read it that way, but I felt like if looks could kill, he would have killed you.

Dickerson: I don’t know. I actually wasn’t looking at him. I was dealing with the fact that I was being booed behind me.

But I mean I wasn’t there trying to go, A-ha!  and have some Perry Mason moment. I was legitimately starving to find out what the deal was with this claim that was being made about precedent and what that told us about the situation we were in.

Plotz: What else did any candidates—did you talk to them before or after the debate?

Dickerson: I don’t talk to them before. During the commercials, Kasich, who was closest to me, and Gov. Bush, we exchanged, Kasich was noting how crazy things we’re getting.

Because the audience was very energetic, and I had spoken with him before and said, You know, we’ve had such great Southern hospitality, and I know you all will be in keeping with that tradition, feel free to say things to—or, feel free to respond, but let’s not over do it.

And that didn’t seem to work. And then I also spoke during one of the commercial breaks, and then at some point I thought, well maybe trying to [control] the audience is not… It wasn’t our audience, so there’s not much one can do. And iyou can imagine a situation in which the audience could start to delight in undermining the moderator as the moderator tries to tell them to behave.

Plotz: What do the candidates do during the commercial breaks?

Dickerson: Some of them go off the stage. I guess some of them go to the restroom. Others go and talk to their aides who are there. And then sometimes they would come up to us and talk.

And as I said Gov. Kasich was just sort of remarking on the thing. And then at one point he made some comment about my tie.  I’m also in the middle of those things trying to figure out which questions do we ask, which ones did we miss, where are we on time, [and] can I take some of the ones we missed in the first part and put them in the end? 

Because a lot of what happens is [that] you’re following up in the moment, so as you’re doing that, you’re having to kill questions you planned on. And so it’s a huge juggling act.

Plus, you’re trying to figure out if you’ve been fair to everyone on time. If you haven’t, do you have to reorder. If you reorder, are you going to end up asking two questions to Rubio in a row? There’s a lot of in the moment. 

Plotz: How do you know if you’re being fair on time?

Dickerson: They have six, and the team that works on this is amazing. Part of what they do is there’s someone in the control room with six different stopwatches making sure that the time is roughly well distributed among all the candidates.

And I’m sending texts back to the control room saying: where are we on time, where are we light [on topics], asking questions like that.

Plotz: What was the last question you didn’t ask? What would have been the next question you would have asked had you had five more minutes?

Dickerson: I can’t remember. I haven’t looked at the sheet. There were definitely a few. There were specific questions to the various candidates.

I wanted—and this is a way in which, even though I’ve told myself this a billion times, every question you ask doesn’t come with a sidecar of sodium pentothal, and—’cause a lot of times you think, Oh I’ll ask them this question! And then you realize, after a moment of thinking, well they’ll just dodge it this way. And so what seems like a great question doesn’t…

That question about question asking was supposed to go to all of them. And I, as we’ve discussed a billion times before, I think this is central to being a leader—particularly a leader in a job like that where you can’t know everything—is the talent and skill for asking acute questions.

And we knew that by asking, “what would you ask a president?” there was a risk they would go off and turn it into a moment to sing the praises of a president, which in fact Marco Rubio did with Ronald Reagan.

And I wish that I had been able to ask that to the other candidates, because all candidates wouldn’t have been able to do the same song of Reagan. I think it’s actually illuminating when you ask people to come up with questions as opposed to [not] Anyway, that was one that didn’t [happen], because we ran out of time. We didn’t get to ask it of everyone.

And there were a bunch of others that I’ll have to save for when they come and sit with me on Sunday.

Bazelon: I just thought you did such a great job, it was so fun to watch.

Plotz: Do you have anymore lined up?

Dickerson: Nope, that’s it for me. Unless they add more debates or something.

Plotz: Are the debates running through June?

Dickerson: It depends. There are, I think, three more Republican ones. And then depending on how the race is going, they may add more.

And I think the Democratic race is in roughly a similar place where they’re thinking about whether to add more. I bet they will add more, but I don’t know who they’ll add them with or any of that kind of stuff.

Plotz: And the general election debates, they haven’t chosen those yet.

Dickerson: Yeah, they haven’t chosen those yet.

Well, those will be interesting. In the same way the Democratic race was for a Democratic audience, this was for a Republican audience. A lot of the issues people would have liked to see debated would be debated in a more general election context.

The process of this — and you guys both know this because you’ve worked on long magazine pieces at institutions with serious fact-checking organizations — the process of putting each one of these questions together and then making sure that each one of them was factually correct was a woman named Jillian Hughes, who ran the research process. It was extraordinary.

There was not a word [which was incorrect]—I mean, the only mistakes that were made were mine. There was not a letter that wasn’t fact-checked down to an inch, down to the last possible scintilla. It was really, it’s an amazing process to be a part of.

Plotz: Cool.

That is it Slate Plus. Thanks for being a Slate Plus member, and we’ll talk to you later. Bye.

Update, Feb. 23, 2016: This transcript has been lightly edited after publishing to increase readability.