From Your TV Screen to Gambier: Raddatz Talks Debate
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Few Kenyon parents put themselves in harm’s way as frequently as Martha Raddatz. Mother of Jake Genachowski ’15, Raddatz is a senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, and she visited campus this past Saturday. By 9:00 a.m., half an hour before her talk, it was standing room only in Higley Auditorium.
When President S. Georgia Nugent saw the crowd, she announced, “We’re moving to Rosse.”
A few months ago, Raddatz might not have been an aisle-filler, but her moderation of this month’s vice presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan changed that. According to Nielsen, a company that monitors the audience size of TV programs, over 51 million Americans tuned in to watch Biden and Ryan duke it out on Oct. 11.
“I think ABC was as surprised as I was when my name was chosen,” Raddatz told the full house in Rosse. “When I got the call, on Aug. 18, it seemed like someone had called me to tell me I had a dreaded disease, because right after that I didn’t hear anything she said and had to call her back the next morning.”
Once the message sank in, Raddatz began preparing intensely for the debate, focusing on areas she admitted to knowing little about: Medicare and Social Security, as well as the national debt and deficit. “For the next two months, I studied constantly,” she said.
Before she covered foreign affairs, Raddatz was ABC’s White House correspondent, reporting on the final years of the Bush administration. Famously, her cell phone once went off during a press briefing with Tony Snow, Bush’s press secretary at the time. Jake had set his mom’s ringtone to Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’.”
“Does Martha have a hip-hop ringtone?” Snow said. “Play that funky music, white girl.”
Raddatz was no novice to politics when she was selected for the debate. But leading up to her selection, she had spent years reporting from some of the most dangerous locations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — places like the Swat Valley — not covering politics. “I really did spend what time I wasn’t on the air doing my regular job, gathering groups of people … in particular on things that I wasn’t familiar with and just listening. I think for three weeks I just listened,” Raddatz said. Among those she consulted on what to ask the candidates was The New York Times’ Chief Washington Correspondent, David Sanger.
Through her hours of studying and preparation, Raddatz found her goal for the debate. “I really, really wanted to make [the debate] user-friendly. I wanted to look at it from a larger view and ask more pointed questions. And I wanted to talk about foreign policy, because foreign policy is an important subject to me,” she said.
When the pundits declared a winner after the debate, some said it was Raddatz. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien said Raddatz was “absolutely masterful.”
“Wonderful,” Chris Matthews said on MSNBC.
Not everyone lavished Raddatz with praise, though. After the debate, GOP politico Karl Rove tweeted, “Raddatz final question was her own personal editorial. Debate deserved better.” Sarah Palin was also critical. “Every time she seemed to interrupt was, well, to bail out Joe Biden and shut down Paul Ryan,” she said in an interview with Sean Hannity.
The set of rules that dictates the form of each debate has become an important topic this election cycle. A week and a half ago, Time magazine released a “memorandum of understanding” between the Romney and Obama campaigns, suggesting both campaigns harbored worries about things getting out of hand. The memo intentionally sought to limit interactions between the candidates. It also limited the role of the moderator.
Raddatz never saw the rules. “I was not told … anything other than that the candidates had agreed to answer two minutes,” she said. “I only enforced that once.”
She was pressured by the Romney campaign, however. “I know the Ryan campaign wanted Ryan to be called Mr. Ryan … and that [the Ryan campaign] had a deal, and I later found out that there was no deal, and if there was, then I certainly wasn’t a part of it,” she said. The Romney campaign’s aversion to the word “congressman” was intentional. According to RealClearPolitics, Congress’ approval rating was 13.8% last month.
Since her evening on the national stage, things have cooled down substantially for Raddatz. “I’ll probably go to Afghanistan in a few weeks,” she said nonchalantly when asked about her upcoming plans.
Before departing, she said she would be in New York to comment on Monday’s final presidential debate. “I really want to get back to Afghanistan in the next month or so, but I probably won’t get to go until December, after football season,” she said.
Her son, after all, is one of the Lords’ backup quarterbacks. When the debates are over and the cameras are off, Raddatz is still a Kenyon mom and a dedicated Lords’ booster. Afghanistan, it seems, will have to wait.