The morning after the first televised presidential debate — the groundbreaking clash between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, on Sept. 26, 1960 — the print medium declared itself unimpressed. Not with the candidates, but with the broadcast journalists who had asked the questions. Editorials complained that the panelists had gotten in the way, preventing a “real” and substantive exchange. “In the future,” sniffed the New York Mirror, “these fellows can be dispensed with.”
For some observers of presidential debates, the Lincoln-Douglas dream persists: the classical ideal of two candidates, mano-a-mano, lectern to lectern, in direct confrontation. No preening reporters playing to the camera; no obnoxious anchors asking Messrs. Lincoln and Douglas to raise their hands if they believe in abolition.
It’s an appealing idea. Except, it turns out, the candidates themselves have never liked it much. Democrats, Republicans, incumbents and challengers alike have made clear, in pre-debate negotiations, that they fear a free-for-all. They want a referee, a restraining hand. And the one they want, more than any other, is Jim Lehrer of PBS.
In the two decades since his first walk “down the blade of a knife,” as he describes the experience, Lehrer has set both the standard and the record for moderating presidential and vice presidential debates. He has moderated 10 of them, establishing himself, with all due respect to the Mirror, as indispensable indeed. Now he has collected his impressions in “Tension City,” a brisk and engaging memoir of his “view from the middle seat.”
“The only opinions that matter are those of the candidates,” Lehrer observes. “Nobody cares what the person asking the question thinks about anything.” Beware moderators preaching modesty — unless that anchor is Lehrer. His approach, as he explains, is to “leave it to the combatants and stay out of it as much as possible.” While this understates his role in challenging, directing and, at times, restraining the contenders, Lehrer’s humility goes a long way toward explaining his successful stewardship of the debates.
The author of 20 novels, Lehrer is a skilled storyteller, and “Tension City” provides a vivid peek at behind-the-curtain clashes among his fellow journalists. He recounts the argument between Bernard Shaw — the CNN anchor who, in 1988, asked Michael Dukakis whether he would drop his opposition to the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, “were raped and murdered” — and the panelists, all women, who pressed Shaw before the debate to drop the question or, at least, the use of Kitty’s name. (Shaw, as we know, refused.) Lehrer also lets us in on his own real-time reactions. He recalls what he thought when Al Gore, in the third debate of 2000, suddenly strode across the stage toward George W. Bush: “Oh, my God! Gore’s going to physically attack Bush! Do a body block, a head butt — something.”
Lehrer steers a high-speed course through debate history, identifying “Major Moments”: George H.W. Bush’s giveaway glance at his watch; Dukakis’s bloodless response to Shaw’s brutal question (“I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime”); Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again”; and Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Lehrer recognizes that the real drama comes from what a candidate’s answers, facial expressions and body language portend about a presidency.
Throughout the book, the combatants themselves provide a Greek chorus of commentary, critiquing (or excusing) their own performances. Lehrer draws from interviews that he conducted for an oral history project and a pair of documentaries. “Ugly . . . contrived . . . show business” is George H.W. Bush’s frank assessment of the debates. That, and “I wasn’t too good at ’em.” By contrast, Bill Clinton, who certainly was good at them, looks back “with delight,” Lehrer writes, “almost like a football star going back over his big plays.” Then there is poor Dukakis, who still sees nothing wrong with his answer to Shaw. “Maybe I’m just still missing it or something,” he says. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
As “Tension City” makes clear, presidential debates are nearly always revealing, though rarely in ways that a candidate might wish. After months of shadowboxing by TV ad, by stump speech and now by tweet, there is a visceral thrill in seeing the contenders in the same room, on the same stage, close enough to, well, head-butt each other. Bush is not wrong — there is an element of contrivance to these events — but in the end, the debates are no less “real” than the personalities they expose.
Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
By Jim Lehrer
Random House. 209 pp. $26