Luther Spoehr, Review of Jim Lehrer's "Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to McCain-Obama" (Random House, 2011).


Luther Spoehr is an HNN Book Editor and a Senior Lecturer at Brown University.

Richard Nixon’s pallor contrasting with John F. Kennedy’s “vigah” in 1960.

Jerry Ford momentarily forgetting about the Iron Curtain when facing Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Ronald Reagan pinning Jimmy Carter like a butterfly in 1980:  “There you go again.”

Al Gore sighing as George W. Bush speaks in 2000.

John McCain avoiding eye contact with Barack Obama in 2008.

Every presidential debate seems to have a signature moment or situation that eclipses—or perhaps encapsulates—everything else that happens in it.  Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour, moderator for eleven debates, takes the reader back and behind the scenes to those he moderated and some he didn’t, as he captures what it’s like “walking down the blade of a sharp knife [where] one little false move can affect the outcome of a presidential election.”

Lehrer is an old-fashioned journalist, striving as moderator to ask significant questions that are fair to both candidates, and pushing politely but firmly to get them to adhere to the ground rules they themselves have agreed to.  So it may seem ironic that for all of his (and the candidates’) hours of preparation, the debates seem most often to turn on single phrases or singular turns of events.  Then again, those moments may endure because they capture the essence of the proceedings and the candidates themselves.

Lehrer rightly doesn’t contend that elections have hinged solely or even primarily on televised debates.  But by projecting the candidates into viewers’ homes and providing more three-dimensional portraits than ones provided by sound bites, airbrushed advertisements, and position papers, they provide voters with deeper, if largely intuitive, insights than they are usually given credit for.

Or at least they can.  Anyone watching the recent CNN-Tea Party “debate” of Republican candidates, featuring a game show atmosphere complete with hootin’ and hollerin’ audience, could see how easily the format can be debased and rendered pretty much useless. 

One can hope, with Lehrer, that the Commission on Presidential Debates continues to exert its influence on the debates that matter most.  His book is hardly the definitive work on past confrontations, but it is invaluable for showing just how much work it takes and how worthwhile it is to be—yes--truly fair and balanced.  

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