Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy–Nixon to Obama–McCain, by Jim Lehrer (Random House, 224 pp., $26)
In the world of presidential campaigns, Jim Lehrer has become an institution: He has moderated, or served on a questioners’ panel for, eleven presidential and vice-presidential debates. In doing so, he has played such an important role that at one point, in 2000, Al Gore’s team even studied tapes of Lehrer’s previous stints as moderator to help prepare their candidate. The effort, while perhaps a good idea, failed. As Newsweek described it, “All [Gore’s] preparation . . . could not alter Gore’s basic character trait, his must-win combativeness.”
Lehrer has, to his apparent chagrin, at times become part of the campaign story. After the aforementioned Gore debate in 2000, the Gore team laid the blame for their candidate’s poor performance on Lehrer’s supposed lack of objectivity. (The more likely explanation is that Lehrer failed to show Gore the liberal slant his aides anticipated.)
Lehrer’s importance to debate history is underscored by the fact that there have been only 34 presidential debates (or 35, if you include the 1980 debate between John Anderson and Ronald Reagan that Jimmy Carter refused to attend). Lehrer’s participation in so many of the relatively few presidential-level debates has prompted him to write a history of his experiences — providing readers with a unique view of our quadrennial political Super Bowl. His book is revealing, not just because of his insider remembrances of his eleven appearances, but also because of his follow-up interviews with nearly all of the living participants. Gore was a notable holdout; otherwise Lehrer received an impressive level of cooperation in this endeavor.
Books like Theodore H. White’s Making of the President series, The Selling of the President, and, most recently, Game Change demonstrate that politicians are usually less guarded when they are being interviewed for posterity rather than for the next day’s papers. Lehrer takes advantage of this to unearth a multitude of revelations from the debaters. George W. Bush, for instance, was so eager to discuss the subject that he jumped straight from an interview in the Oval Office for Lehrer’s NewsHour to meet Lehrer’s request to discuss his debate appearances. Lehrer was a good sport (not that he had much of a choice). Despite having had no time to prepare, he switched topics and tapes, and got some fascinating insights from Bush about Gore’s infamous stalking tactic in the third presidential debate of 2000. Bush apparently considered meeting the oncoming Gore with a “huge chest bump” but then thought better of it.
Lehrer also provides insights from the losers. We learn, not surprisingly, that Jimmy Carter is still bitter about Ronald Reagan’s famous “There you go again” line in the 1980 debate. For him, the Reagan line was not an artful and good-hearted neutralization of Carter’s accusation that Reagan hated Medicare and could not be trusted to administer the program for the elderly. In his interview with Lehrer for the book, Carter sniffed, “That was a memorable line. I think it showed that he was relaxed and had a sense of humor, and it was kind of a denigrating thing for me. And I think that he benefited from saying that, politically speaking.” That he only thinks the line showed Reagan in a good light reveals that those who have lived through history sometimes still don’t get it, even 30 years later.
Lehrer provides other interesting revelations, including the tidbit that Ross Perot’s campaign gave Adm. James Stockdale almost no advance warning before his appearance in a 1992 debate with Dan Quayle and Al Gore. The lack of preparation clearly showed on stage, and Stockdale, a legitimate war hero, is now unfortunately remembered for introducing himself to America with the words “Who am I? Why am I here?” But Lehrer further reveals that Perot, in addition to sandbagging his running mate, did no debate prep himself, “except go to the barbershop.” This is in stark contrast to the hours of painstaking preparation that Gore used to engage in before all of his debates, including his one-sided annihilation of Perot in their nationally televised 1993 debate on NAFTA. As James Fallows showed in a broadly circulated piece in The Atlantic in 2000, Gore had developed a reputation as one of the best-prepared, meanest, and most effective debaters in American politics. He went on to lose this reputation with his wildly inconsistent performances in the 2000 debates against the far more measured and collected George W. Bush.
We also learn a bit about Lehrer himself in the book, including the fact that he, like many of his media colleagues, is terribly thin-skinned. When the Gore campaign criticized him after the 2000 debates, he complained that he “spent a full day in real hell.” If such is “real hell,” perhaps Lehrer should think about what he and his colleagues say about prominent public officials, and in particular Republican ones, just about every night on the evening news.
Despite his aversion to criticism — a trait he freely acknowledges in the text — Lehrer clearly had some other characteristics that made him acceptable to both sides of so many closely fought contests. He seems to think it is a lack of bias, a trait all newsmen think they have and usually do not. But I suspect that Lehrer’s added advantage was not so much a lack of bias, if such a thing actually exists, but a real aversion to putting himself in the center of the story. Lehrer recounts the 1988 presidential-debate incident in which Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis the hypothetical question of whether he would support the death penalty for someone who had raped and murdered his wife. All of Shaw’s fellow questioners blanched at the question. While some of Lehrer’s female colleagues were offended by it, Lehrer’s problem, as he told Shaw, was that the question was “a showstopper” that would “just seize the debate right at the beginning.”
At the same time, Lehrer benefits from the realization that the debates were not about the questions, which are usually fairly predictable. (When I worked on the George W. Bush debate-prep team in 2004, we correctly anticipated all of the questions that were asked in the third debate, and to which candidate they would be posed.) The key part about the debates is the answers, and Lehrer’s skill was in letting the candidates talk, and hang themselves with their responses, as they occasionally did.
Tension City is a fine and readable effort, although it is marred somewhat by Lehrer’s deviation from the realm of debates to other experiences he had as a journalist, such as Bill Clinton’s “there is no sexual relationship” interview, and his opinion of NewsHour panelists David Brooks and Mark Shields. While some of these are interesting (the Clinton section) and others are not (the Brooks and Shields parts), these deviations from the debate topic give the reader the sense that they are filler material designed to get the book over 200 pages. Still, for those interested in the history of presidential debates, Tension City has some previously unknown behind-the-scenes stories that provide indispensable insights.
– Mr. Troy is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior White House aide. In 2004, he was in charge of the preparation of debate briefing books for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign.