Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain

Jim Lehrer

Language: English

Pages: 5

ISBN: 0307878449

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


“In his quiet but intense way, Jim Lehrer earns the trust of the major political players of our time,” notes Barbara Walters. “He explains and exposes their hopes and dreams, their strengths and failures as they try to put their best foot forward.”

From the man widely hailed as “the Dean of Moderators” comes a lively and revealing book that pulls back the curtain on more than forty years of televised political debate in America. A veteran newsman who has presided over eleven presidential and vice-presidential debates, Jim Lehrer gives readers a ringside seat for some of the epic political battles of our time, shedding light on all of the critical turning points and rhetorical faux pas that helped determine the outcome of America’s presidential elections—and with them the course of history. Drawing on his own experiences as “the man in the middle seat,” in-depth interviews with the candidates and his fellow moderators, and transcripts of key exchanges, Lehrer isolates and illuminates what he calls the “Major Moments” and “killer questions” that defined the debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain.

Oftentimes these moments involve the candidates themselves and are seared into our collective political memory. Michael Dukakis stumbles badly over a question about the death penalty. Dan Quayle compares himself to John F. Kennedy once too often. Barack Obama and John McCain barely make eye contact over the course of a ninety-minute discussion. At other times, the debate moderators themselves become part of the story—and Lehrer is there to give us a backstage look at the drama. Peter Jennings suggests surprising the candidates by suspending the carefully negotiated rules minutes before the 1988 presidential debate—to the consternation of his fellow panelists. Lehrer himself weathers a firestorm of criticism over his performance as moderator of the 2000 Bush-Gore debate. And then there are the excruciating moments when audio lines go dead and TelePrompTers stay dark just seconds before going on the air live in front of a worldwide television audience of millions.

Asked to sum up his experience as a participant in high-level televised debates, President George H. W. Bush memorably likened them to an evening in “tension city.” In Jim Lehrer’s absorbing insider account, we find out that truer words were never spoken.

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governor George W. Bush at the University of Massachusetts in Boston last night and sighed himself to death.” But I, the moderator, missed the sighing—as Carole Simpson had done with George H. W. Bush’s watch-watching in 1992. While walking out of the hall with family after the debate my daughter Amanda commented, in passing, about that being “really something” what Gore had done. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I had a rule about watching the candidate who was talking, never the one

be doing that. But the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us.… KERRY: Jim, the president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said, ‘The enemy attacked us.’ Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us.… That’s the enemy that attacked us. That’s the

producer Linda Winslow, who had come to Oxford as my professional “keeper/handler.” Winslow, his longtime deputy, had replaced Les Crystal in both jobs. I also spoke repeatedly and compulsively with Kate and our three daughters. The principal issue for me was the old-fashioned one of not doing anything that had a whiff of favoring one side over another. I wanted to know what the possible fallback positions were if the debate was rescheduled for another day in another city or town? There was

going to work to fake it. SHIELDS: I—first of all, all great revolutions are led by aristocrats. That is the reality of history. So, the idea that he went to Harvard Law School does not in any way preclude his leading a populist revolution. Populist has taken on a word among several of my colleagues in the press, not—at least one of whom is here, that it’s faintly disrespectful. It’s disrespectful.… BROOKS: Listen, populism and elitism are the same thing. They are class prejudices, crude class

that’s what he did. He turned down Supreme Court clerkships. I mean, he really did go back and try and make a difference. There is that in him. I would just like to see—Robert Frost once said about Jack—to Jack Kennedy, be more Boston and less Harvard. And Barack Obama is equally as complex and complicated as anybody else. And I would like to see him be more Chicago and less establishmentarian. Mark Shields and David Brooks are gentlemen and scholars of civility and discourse. I salute them

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