Former debate moderator looks at how TV changed the conversation

There is nothing in politics quite like a televised presidential debate. 

No other occasion seems to offer such a clear opportunity to change the course of a White House race, and with it the course of the country. For the candidates themselves, there is the ever-present fear of committing a gaffe of such gravity that it sends them to their doom.

The problem — at least from the point of view of pundits and viewers — is that candidates and their aides have become more and more cagey as the years have rolled by.

Free interplay between the candidates is increasingly kept to a minimum. It might also be telling that a search back through the past two decades for potentially election-altering moments tends to dredge up instances of dubious body language rather than actual words. 

Al GoreAl GoreDem Murphy wins New Jersey governor's race CNN to air sexual harassment Town Hall featuring Gretchen Carlson, Anita Hill GOP gov hopeful veers to right in New Jersey MORE’s sighing in his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000 and, eight years prior, Bush’s father’s impatience in looking at his watch during his showdown with Bill ClintonBill ClintonTop Oversight Dem pushes back on Uranium One probe Bill Clinton hits Trump, tax reform plan in Georgetown speech The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE and Ross Perot might — arguably — have held some significance to those elections’ ultimate outcome. 

But it is difficult to argue that they were quite so dramatic, or indeed so legitimately important, as then-President Gerald Ford’s contention in 1976 that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” — an assertion that must have come as startling news to the denizens of Bucharest and Warsaw.

To some extent, the deepening tendency for presidential debates to promise more than they deliver hampers Jim Lehrer’s new book, Tension City.

Lehrer has moderated 11 of the 35 nationally televised presidential and vice presidential debates — an impressive feat by any yardstick — and he is therefore ideally placed to write this kind of anecdotal history of them. 

The problem, which is no fault of Lehrer’s, is that the big moments of past debates are exceedingly well-known, even to casual followers of politics. It is difficult to say anything new or especially illuminating on the subject.

For all that, Tension City is a brisk and engaging read. Its main strength lies in its use of interviews with candidates, which Lehrer conducted over a period of 20 years. The interviews began as part of an oral history project run in conjunction with the Commission on Presidential Debates, but some were also utilized in a 2000 PBS documentary, “Debating Our Destiny.”

Despite the passage of time, it is still interesting to read of the devastation felt by Walter Mondale after Ronald Reagan delivered a winningly self-deprecating remark during a 1984 debate. Reagan, whose performance at an earlier debate had raised questions about his mental sharpness, jokingly said that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

“I knew he had gotten me there,” Mondale tells Lehrer. “I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was.”

Also revealing are the contrasting approaches exhibited by Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Clinton, Lehrer notes, seems to relish reliving the debates, and also defends them on their merits. He argues that they “helped me to be a better president.”

Bush, by contrast, adopts an almost heroic old-school disdain for the whole enterprise, which he derides as “show business.” He admits that the now-infamous instances of him looking at his watch in 1992 did indeed reveal his overall attitude.

“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.’ ” 

Lehrer tries to add heft to the book with some behind-the-scenes details. They are for the most part gently diverting, recounting his panic when a teleprompter remained hidden or an audio link failed.

His account of a different kind of debate — that between the moderator and panelists of a 1988 George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis encounter — will also be of interest to media-watchers. 

On that occasion, Bernard Shaw of CNN told three female panelists in advance about a deeply controversial question he intended to ask Dukakis, an opponent of the death penalty. (The question, referring to the candidate’s wife, began, “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered ... ”) 

The other journalists reacted with shock and tried, without success, to dissuade Shaw. Dukakis, interestingly, considered it a legitimate question — and continues to defend his answer, which critics complained was so dry and lacking in passion as to seriously damage his candidacy.

Tension City has some weaknesses, notable among them Lehrer’s surprisingly thin skin when it comes to criticisms that were leveled against him. 

Overall, however, it is a pleasurable read, if not an especially revelatory one.

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
By Jim Lehrer
Random House, September 2011
224 pages, $26