Americans got to watch two debates last night -- the debate before and after CNN's Candy Crowley's ill-considered intervention as moderator-in-chief.
In the first half of Tuesday night's "town hall" style debate, Mitt Romney appeared confident, articulate, and quick to challenge President Obama’s policies and performance in office. But after Crowley told Romney that he was wrong about how Obama had characterized the killings of a U.S. ambassador and three other officials in Libya, Obama was emboldened and Romney was clearly on the defensive.
Crowley’s intervention not only ignored her duty to be a neutral moderator, it effectively swung the debate in Obama’s favor. Her intervention startled Romney and set him off his game. Clearly taken back at being challenged on the nebulous facts surrounding the events in Benghazi and what Obama had said about them, Romney flubbed an opportunity to challenge the president on his policies towards Libya and his efforts to protect American officials serving in dangerous posts abroad.
As a result, the many legitimate questions raised by the murders in Benghazi about the administration’s candor, competence and counter-terrorism went unaddressed.
Thank you Candy Crowley.
Can we bring Jim Lehrer back now? Viewers would have been far better served by a "potted plant" -- as media critics complained about Lehrer’s low-key performance and his modest view that the debate was about the candidates, not about him -- than a partisan player like Crowley masquerading as a dispassionate arbiter with a side-line in instant fact-checking. Crowley was not only wrong to correct Romney as she did; her correction of the record may also have been wrong. For what the president said at his Rose Garden the day after the slayings is ambiguous and open to competing interpretations.
Here are the facts. After the four Americans were killed in twin attacks four hours apart in Benghazi on Sept. 11, a grim anniversary on which American officials abroad should have been ordered to exercise vigilance and bolster security, Obama made a statement for the press and took no questions. Speaking of the attacks and the murders, he said that “we reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.” That sounds as if he, too, was blaming their killings on the anti-Muslim videotape that had ignited violent protests in neighboring Egypt.
Then he went on to praise the Libyans for helping save others under attack and lauded the victim, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Three paragraphs later, he said he had been to a memorial to commemorate 9/11 and paid tribute to those who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a paragraph later, he added: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”
Was Obama’s use of the term “acts of terror” referring to 9/11 and the other militant Islamic attacks that have plagued America for so long? Or was he referring to the murders in Benghazi as "acts of terror?" Fair-minded readers may disagree. Even CNN’s own John King said that Obama’s statement struck him as a “generic” comment about terror, and not specifically a decision to label the Libya attack a terrorist act.
But Crowley, who covers politics, incidentally, not foreign policy or national security, had no doubt. The nanny moderator was sure that the president had called the Benghazi murders "acts of terror" -- journalism’s equivalent of a replacement referee’s worst call.
Did Crowley understand that her intervention 70 minutes into a 100 minute debate was not only possibly inaccurate but also partisan in that it helped Obama? In a breathless interview with CNN about what can most charitably be called her gaffe, she claimed to have been even-handed, though she tried walking back her intervention by saying, after the damage was done, that Romney had been right “in the main.” But, she added, she had not only told Romney that he was wrong about “act of terror,” she then told him that he was right in having claimed that “it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out.”
In other words, it took the president 14 days to say that Benghazi was, well, an act of terror and not the result of a spontaneous riot over a videotape. At this point the audience might understandably have been thoroughly confused. But the president’s supporters got the message: they clapped and cheered after Obama asked her to “say that a little louder.”
As a result, rather than hone in on the Obama administration’s intelligence and/or policy failures in Libya and the Middle East, Romney looked rattled. He seemed halting and uncertain throughout the rest of the debate. He did not even ask the most obvious question: If Obama thought that the attack in Libya was an act of terror, why did he permit his U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to say on multiple Sunday talk shows four days later and his press spokesman to say on numerous occasions that the video, not terrorism, was to blame?
The instant polls reflected the results of Crowley’s intervention: 37 percent of those polled by CBS said Obama had won; 30 percent called the debate for Romney, and 33 percent felt it had ended in a tie.
Most of the media have praised Crowley’s performance. But her bias was patently obvious to conservatives. William Bigelow, writing for Breitbart.TV, noted that she had interrupted Obama 9 times. She interrupted Romney 28 times. Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as saying that although the GOP had spent a month assembling facts on the Benghazi murders, “In 90 seconds it all evaporated.”
Bob Schieffer is scheduled to umpire the next and last debate -- on foreign policy. So the candidates will have an opportunity to revisit this act of terror again. Let’s hope that Schieffer understands that occasionally, silence is truly golden.
Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, April 7, 2015).