More Details, Please, Donald. And Why So Shifty, Hillary?

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Former “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer tells how he would quiz the presidential candidates. Fred Prouser/Reuters

This article first appeared in the Harvard Political Review.

Bob Schieffer, a longtime anchor and correspondent for CBS News, was the host of Face the Nation for 24 years. Among his numerous awards and honors, he has won eight Emmys and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2013. He has also moderated three presidential debates, one each in the previous three elections. Currently, Schieffer is the Walter Shorenstein media and democracy fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center.

If you were still on TV now and could ask any of the candidates a question or a series of questions, what would you ask and whom would you ask?

I think if I were interviewing Donald Trump I might ask him how his foot is. Apparently he did not serve in the military because he had a bone spur in his heel, and after he called John McCain a loser and we found out he had not served in the military, I think that would be a legitimate question to ask.

In a serious way, I would ask Trump some details on how he would go about some of these things he proposes to do. He talks about building a wall between us and Mexico, and getting Mexico to pay for it. How does he propose to do that?

What Trump has done is—and he's the campaign right now, he's the big story in the campaign—he has made this very accurate list about all the things that people are upset about. And most of the things that are on his list I kind of agree with. But as of yet, we've seen no realistic solutions. And so I think you would have to ask him for details on some of these things.

If I were interviewing Hillary Clinton, I would just ask her about her campaign. I'm not saying that she is, but she's come off as very secretive and very unwilling...she just hasn't come off as very open. And I would ask her why. What was their philosophy?

She's got all of these high-powered consultants, and somebody actually announces that they've done a focus group, and as a result of the focus group they're going to do certain things to make her appear more authentic?

Well, why would you make such an announcement? What could be more artificial than saying, "We're going to be guided by our focus group findings"? I find that stunningly inept. I'm not sure that's her fault, but it doesn't seem to be the kind of politics that would be effective.

I think I would also ask Bernie Sanders, if he doesn't get the nomination, would he run as the third party candidate? That would be very easy for Bernie Sanders. He's not a Democrat—he's a socialist.

Because I think it's conceivable that you could end up with four candidates: Trump, Bernie Sanders, whoever the Democrat is and whoever the Republican is. And that would turn everything upside down, because then you would have the possibility of somebody winning [with] 35 percent of the popular vote.

We have to remember, Bill Clinton never got 50 percent. He never got a majority of the popular vote, because he had Perot in there. And I don't think that's going to happen [now], but it's possible.

What do you think about how the media have been dealing with Trump?

Well, I think they've been kind of stunned by the whole thing, to start with. I thought Megyn Kelly was perfectly fair in her interview. What I am very surprised about at this point is that Trump has managed to get away with some of the things he has. I mean, after what he said about her, after what he said about John McCain, I thought those would be almost campaign-enders, and they turned out not to be.

And I think the reason for that is I think people are just so upset and so frustrated and so disgusted with politics as usual and politicians as usual that they just almost will accept [Trump's statements] because somebody is talking plain.

And I take him seriously. I think he could actually get the nomination. I certainly think that's conceivable. But somewhere down the line he's going to have to start giving us some details on how he plans to do these things.

It's not enough to say the Mexicans love him. It's going to take more than that, I think. But we'll see what happens.

When you spoke on October 4 at the Kennedy School, you mentioned the problem of consulting and money in politics. What does a modern campaign without a consultant or without money look like?

Well, basically, you got Donald Trump. And I think that's one of the reasons he's been so successful. He doesn't really have any consultants running the campaign, and he's self-financing.

And I think that's one of the things that people like about him. He doesn't come across as the usual, stale talking points. As I say, he hasn't proposed any solutions yet, but he's certainly put his finger on what people are upset about.

And I think [in terms of] Bernie Sanders, one of the reasons for his success [is that] he comes off—whether you agree with him on the issues or not—as very authentic, as very real.

I don't think these candidates are getting their money's worth with all these consultants that are making all this money.... What's happening is, every time you add another consultant, every time these campaigns become more and more data-based—that is, based on polling, based on focus groups, based on people who are telling you to be very guarded in what you talk about, and all that kind of thing—the more and more they get separated from the people.

In terms of debates, what kind of challenges does it bring to have so many candidates as we do now? How would you go about it if you were moderating a debate?

I wouldn't know what to do. I've only done presidential debates. I never did one of these primary debates. I don't know how I would handle it.

I know one thing: It's very difficult in a show like that. Where you've got all those people, and you're going off in all directions at once, it seems to me it's very, very difficult to appear serious [as a] moderator.

It becomes a contest to get attention, to get somebody's attention, rather than to make a major political point. You have two hours. I don't know how many if you take commercials out of that...but when you divide that by 10, and now 11, nobody's going to get to talk very much.

So the guy who says something extreme, outrageous or something—he's the one that's going to get the headline, and I'm not sure that's the purpose.

When I moderated the presidential debates, I thought it was my assignment to give people the best possible picture I could of who this person is, and what he stands for, and what he might do as president. I thought it was my role as the moderator to ask the questions, let the guy answer and then let the other guy make the criticism or make the response.

I don't think it's the role of the moderator to make the responses. It's the role of the moderator to present the best possible picture you can of these two people.

And it's the role of the moderator to keep them on point, not let them wander off on something. I remember when I asked Mitt Romney about something, the next thing he veered off into, "Well, what we love are teachers." And I said, "Well, we all love teachers." And then I went on to something else.

It was kind of smarty. But you have to keep them on point.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Matthew Disler is the managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. Follow him @matthewdisler.