Review: No debating quality of Jim Lehrer's book

MIKE HOUSEHOLDER - Associated Press
In this book cover image released by Random House, "Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain," by Jim Lehrer, is shown. (AP Photo/Random House)

"Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain" (Random House), by Jim Lehrer: Presidential debates are subject to as much Monday morning quarterbacking as, well, a big-time football game.

A candidate's every phrase and physical movement is dissected by campaign officials, political strategists, journalists and others.

It's the ultimate high-wire act: Make a mistake in front of millions of prospective voters watching at home, and a White House hopeful potentially jeopardizes nothing less than a shot at becoming president of the United States.

Who better to provide a thoughtful and revealing examination of these uniquely American electoral exercises than Jim Lehrer, a man who has moderated a whopping 11 of them?

The longtime PBS anchor does exactly that in "Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain."

Readers surely would have been satisfied had Lehrer relied on his own experiences for the book, but he does so much more than that.

Lehrer conducted interviews with many of the candidates and moderators/questioners and draws out of them fascinating details on how they felt before, during and after their debates.

The result is an illuminating behind-the-scenes look — from all perspectives — at a quadrennial event the author likens to "walking down the blade of a knife."

Take, for instance, then-Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan's famed "There you go again" line, which he uttered during a 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent. Reagan told Lehrer the use of those words was entirely spontaneous, while Carter believed it was a "well-rehearsed line" Reagan had "prepared carefully."

Lehrer also touches on what he calls "Major Moments" from other debates, including Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen's memorable dressing-down of his GOP counterpart, Dan Quayle ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy) in 1988 and Arizona Republican John McCain's refusal to look at his opponent, fellow Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., during this past presidential election.

One of the most engrossing passages in "Tension City" focuses on the 1992 town hall debate in Richmond, Va., among Republican President George H.W. Bush; his Democratic challenger, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton; and Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, who was running as an independent.

During that three-way showdown, Bush was caught on-camera eyeballing his wristwatch, which some saw as evidence the president would rather have been somewhere else.

As it turns out, that observation was a fair one.

In the book, Bush reveals, "Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over? Yeah. And maybe that's why I was looking at it — only 10 more minutes of this crap, I mean."

Clinton said he also noticed the president checking out his watch.

"I thought, I felt, when I saw it, that he was, you know, uncomfortable in that setting and wanted it to be over with."

It was Bush who provided the book with its title. Lehrer asked him to sum up his debate experience, and the ex-president's answer was: "Those big-time things ... it was tension city, Jim."

There's no debating the nerve-racking nature of these face-offs between presidential wannabes.

Or that "Tension City" is a really good read.

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