August 17, 2011

Standing in the spotlight

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From the first nationally broadcast presidential debate in 1960, television has changed the dynamics of elections. Those who listened to that debate on the radio felt that Richard M. Nixon had won. Those who watched it on TV deemed John F. Kennedy the winner. Analysts believed a lot of it had to do with image: Nixon looked ashen and sweaty, while Kennedy was tan and relaxed. Since then, the televised debate has grown in importance, watched by millions of Americans who may decide their vote based on a candidate’s comment, a facial tic, even a sigh. At the center of many of these debates has been Jim Lehrer, longtime anchor of “NewsHour” on PBS. Now Lehrer shares his memory of the debates he’s moderated in his new book, Tension City.

Along with the opportunity to moderate 11 presidential or vice presidential debates, Lehrer also has had the chance to interview most of the candidates who have participated. The book’s title comes from former President George H.W. Bush, who when asked by Lehrer what he thought of his debates, replied, “. . . it was tension city, Jim.” Indeed, Lehrer’s behind-the-scenes observations reveal just how high-stakes these debates can be. Candidates take weeks prepping for the debates, and negotiate every detail, including the size and shape of the podium. And no matter how well prepared they are, one little “gotcha moment,” as Lehrer describes it, can determine the outcome. Lehrer colorfully recounts Al Gore’s “sighs” at George W. Bush; Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again”s to Jimmy Carter; and Lloyd Bentsen’s response to Dan Quayle: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Highlights from each of the debates Lehrer has moderated are supplemented with interviews of the candidates, making Tension Citya book rich in observation and perspective. The debaters, including all the sitting presidents, are refreshingly candid, providing critical assessments of their performances. And like the able moderator that he is, Lehrer guides the book’s narrative in a steady, balanced style. A seasoned journalist, Lehrer’s writing is detailed, but also concise. Thus, his Tension City is both educational and enjoyable, and equally suitable for both political wonk and common citizen.

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