ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz on the art of national debate moderating

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Image Credit: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Bob Schieffer has a big task ahead of him tonight presiding over the third and final presidential debate. No debate moderator comes out of the experience completely unscathed, but ABC News Foreign Affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz’s performance in the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan — watched by 51.4 million viewers — was met with largely positive reviews. Raddatz talked to EW about what goes into moderating a huge political debate.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How were you asked to be a moderator?
MARTHA RADDATZ: I was asked completely out of the blue. [Laughs] Seriously, I had absolutely no idea I was even being considered, so when I got the phone call on a Sunday morning — I believe it was August 19th – the only thing I knew was that my bureau chief Robin Sproul told me to just keep my cell phone handy. She said, “And you must say yes.” And I thought, “What?” I immediately thought, “Is President Obama going to Afghanistan?” Because sometimes they do these secret trips and they’ll call you and it’s like a spy movie and I thought there’s no way President Obama’s going into Afghanistan right in the middle of a campaign. I completely forgot about it, and then when Janet Brown from the Commission [on Presidential Debates] called me, she asked me if I would do it. After she asked me, I basically heard nothing after that. I tell people it was like getting a diagnosis of a disease and then you don’t hear the rest of what the doctor says, so I didn’t get all the details. I asked her, “Well, if this is the second debate…how many are there?” She said four — I thought she meant there were four vice presidential debates, that’s how little I knew about the process. From that day on, it was like studying for the LSATs or the SAT or something.

And how did you prepare?
I certainly didn’t have to study so much about foreign affairs, but since I hadn’t covered the campaign, and since I would not two months ago have considered myself an expert on medicare and tax policy, I had a lot of work to do, and I just immersed myself in it. I didn’t drive in my car without listening to podcasts about the budget. I remember listening to Bob Woodward’s book on the Obama administration’s fiscal disasters of past, and I basically just read all the time. I was a nightmare to live with.

It all paid off. I’m sort of a “no-craziness” person and I tend to germinate. All these wonderful people at ABC News, like [Washington editor] Rick Klein and [political correspondent] Jon Karl — those two above all others were just fantastic and generous and great. I just listened and I went out and went to think tanks and called other journalists and I got a ba-zillion ideas, and just in my head, funneled it down and funneled it down and funneled it down. I remember Rick Klein in the end about a week or so before, he said, “Isn’t there anything I can do?” And I said, “No, I’m all set!” I think poor Rick was like, “Oh my gosh, she must not be set. There must be something I can do.” But I felt the more I learned every day, the better I felt about it.

We did some mock debates. I joked with the people who played the parts of Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan that both of them were early thirtysomething males. In my rehearsals the thing I kept messing up most was when I would look at [Fake Biden], I’d say, “Wait a minute, you’re not Vice President Biden, c’mon. I need a better Vice President Biden model.” [Laughs] I just did a couple of rehearsals.

What about on game day?
I frankly had a pretty great time that night. I wasn’t nervous when I went out, believe it or not. Everybody I talked to said “Your knees are shaking when you go out there,” but I feel like it was one of those things where I’m a reporter. I approached it like a reporter. I’ve never hosted. I don’t host shows. I’m not an anchor, so I was a little worried about keeping the time and all that. That went well. It was an honor to do it.

You do what you can to prepare, but there have to be some things you can’t be ready for.
Sure. You’re keeping track of so much. You do have that element when you go out there and you really have no idea how it’s going to go. You can do debate prep all you want and you can do rehearsals all you want but the stand-ins are not going to be the real people. I had some scenarios in the back of my mind of things that could go wrong or some challenges I might have to face. I didn’t ever really think the candidates would attack me in any way. I just didn’t, but there were other people who said you should be prepared for that. I think I was. But I’ve spent the decade in war zones, and that prepares you pretty well for a debate. I spent a decade in war zones, and I’m a mom. So those two things? I’m going to keep things in line, and in perspective, quite frankly.

I [will] tell you this story… There is a family. Their son is a triple-amputee. He is the most amazing young man I’ve ever met, and he has a wife and he has parents who have been supportive of him. He was injured in May. I told them — and I am not lying — right before I went out on that stage, one of the reasons I wasn’t nervous is not only beause I was prepared, but I thought of them. I thought, you know what? This is nothing. This is nothing compared to what [he's] been through. They knew that. His name is Jay Raffetto and he is just the neatest kid.

Obviously, any debate moderator is going to get a ton of criticism before and after the actual event. How did you deal with that?
Well, that’s no fun. I got a boatload of challenges the day before. I think you just have to tune it out. Everyone says, don’t read Twitter, but you kind of just sneak a peek and then you really just have to say, “I cannot think about that. I have to tune that out.” One of the reasons I was glad my son made it there is because he makes me laugh. He was reading the nastiest tweets beforehand, and he thought it was funny. That’s one of your concerns, because you don’t want your family and your daughter or my son to read that stuff and be upset.

Would you have been happy with your performance if no one was talking about you at all?
That’s a really interesting question. Yes, I would have. Going in, my agenda was to help the American people understand these candidates better, to see the differences between these candidates. But I didn’t want to let it get out of control — it didn’t. If I managed that, with no one paying attention to me, that would have been great. If people learned the same amount, if people learned about Joe Biden and about Paul Ryan, I would have been happy.

But by and large, you’ve gotten very positive reviews for your performance.
I’m humbled by the nice things people have said, I truly am, but the thing I love about the comments is that they’re about journalism. People who come to me or people who’ve written about it talk about it as a triumph for journalism. And I’m also really, really proud because mentoring is a huge, huge deal to me, and I can’t tell you how many young people have come up to me and been proud of that night, especially young women. If there’s any silver lining in anything to me, it’s that. That makes me happiest, that young people were happy in some way and looked at it as good journalism.

It sounds like you were calm throughout the process, but was there a moment or two when your adrenaline got pumping.
Yes — I think as soon as Vice President Biden became a little more aggressive than I thought he might be. You know, it’s a pretty intimate setting. I’m just across the table, so it was pretty obvious he was talking a little louder than I thought he would and gesticulating quite a bit. Here’s my other thing: In the moment, I didn’t notice that Paul Ryan was drinking water because apparently he was drinking copious amounts of water. But halfway through, I was thinking, Man, I am so thirsty, I don’t know how these guys are getting through it because they’re doing all the talking without drinking.

How can presidential and vice presidential debates affect the election at large?
I think it’s such a great forum for America. I mean, look at the numbers. People want to see the candidates uninterrupted, talking about a variety of topics for 90 minutes. You don’t get that at all during the campaign season. That’s why it’s such a privilege — you are in a forum where there is no other like it. Up until then, it’s horse race — it’s soundbites, it’s this topic or that topic. This is the time you get to see them talk about a variety of things compared with the other candidate.

Debates become a huge pop culture event, especially the morning after in the form of tweets, memes, etc. What were your favorite things that came out of the debate that centered on you?
I loved the Chamillionaire Tweet. The angel halo light that Jon Stewart did … I joked that I would require that whenever I’m on set now. [Laughs]

Read more:
Moderator Bob Schieffer gets the call as the debate ‘closer’
The presidential debates: Another teachable moment
Moderator Candy Crowley talks about debate on ‘The View’

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