BOOK REVIEW: ‘Tension City’

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TENSION CITY: INSIDE THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES, FROM KENNEDY-NIXON TO OBAMA-MCCAIN
By Jim Lehrer
Random House, $26, 209 pages

Jim Lehrer is the avuncular, even-keeled executive editor and anchor of “PBS NewsHour” who has moderated 11 of the nationally televised presidential and vice-presidential debates. As a journalist and as a moderator, Mr. Lehrer tells us he attempts to play it straight down the middle, always aware that he and his opinions are never the story and never should inform the questions he asks.

In “Tension City,” a title supplied by George W. Bush, Mr. Lehrer takes us on a 50-year tour of the presidential debates as we’ve come to know them, beginning with the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 - a debate Nixon won on radio but lost on television, thereby giving Kennedy legitimacy as a candidate and establishing the visual as being as important a factor as the cerebral in winning.

But questions of appearance and reality aside, television has made the visual as well as the rhetorical faux pas possible. In 1992, there was George H.W. Bush frequently checking his watch. In 2000, in the debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Mr. Gore, for no discernible reason, lurched golemlike across the stage to hover threateningly over Mr. Bush, who was in the process of answering a question.

“About two-thirds of the way through the ninety minutes … Gore began his menacing march across the stage … I thought, Oh my God! Gore’s going to physically attack Bush! Do a body block, a head butt - something,” Mr. Lehrer writes.

As those of us who watched remember, Mr. Bush did a modified double-take, “gave the approaching Gore a puzzled smile, stepped to one side and continued saying whatever he was saying ….” In the opinion of many, Gore lost the election with that aimless televised cross-stage lurch.

Mr. Lehrer also walks us through some of the more notable verbal gaffes and masterstrokes, all of which might have turned the elections. Among them: President Ford’s assertions about Soviet dominance in Poland in his debate with Jimmy Carter for the 1976 election;President Reagan’s response to former Vice President Walter Mondale about his age leading up to the 1984 election; President Carter’scomments about his daughter Amy’s hatred of war in 1980;and the “There you go again” quip by Reagan to Mr. Carter that helped put the election on ice.

At times, as described by Mr. Lehrer, the debates can reveal a deep and apparently personal dislike, as when Arizona Sen. John McCain, who it was said had felt betrayed by his opponent in the Senate, refused to look at then Sen. Barack Obama in 2008. And at other times, there are moments when conduct can border on the indefensible.

In a 2004 debate he clearly was losing to a more intelligent and better-prepared Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, seldom mistaken for a gentleman, offensively raised the subject of Mr. Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation. That might have been expected of Mr. Edwards. But much to his discredit, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry did the same.

In addition to discussing his own preparation, apprehensions and performances, Mr. Lehrer also reports on the roles his colleagues have played in the debates, among them CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, who asked former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis if he would be in favor of the death penalty if his wife were “raped and murdered,” and Peter Jennings, who wanted to surprise the candidates in 1988 by changing the agreed-upon rules just before the debate.

Mr. Lehrer concludes with some advice for future debate moderators. Like many former Marines who served honorably, he’s soft-spoken, with nothing left to prove. But he’s also tough-minded about his profession. He deplores the decline of journalistic standards, which has “resulted in a lot of loose-mouthed opinionating … by people who haven’t done their homework, don’t care about the facts, and disdain balance and fairness - and good taste.”

“In the new media environment … there is no shortage of opinions…. I urge everyone involved not to let these opinions slip into the presidential debates.

“The only opinions that matter are those of the candidates. Nobody cares what the person asking the questions thinks about anything.”

Well said, and words to remember when choosing the moderator or panelists for the upcoming presidential debates.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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