Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, From Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain: My View From the Middle Seat.

Author:Olson, Kathryn M.
Position:Book review

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, From Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain: My View From the Middle Seat. By Jim Lehrer. New York: Random House, 2011. 209 pp.

As its primary title communicates, Jim Lehrer's Tension City is pitched mainly for a general, rather than scholarly, readership. (The phrase is George H. W. Bush's characterization of televised debates [p. 32].) The book's secondary title--Inside the Presidential Debates, From Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain--clarifies the subject matter, but it is really the tertiary title--My View from the Middle Seat--that most accurately describes this volume's perspective. Lehrer does draw on his retrospective interviews with the majority of living presidential and vice presidential debate contenders (available in full at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/interviews.html), but the book is, in fact, heavily autobiographical. The author, who moderated 21 of the 35 nationally televised debates between 1960 and 2008, articulates how and why these debates were as much "tension city" for the moderators as for the candidates. The back story of jittery nerves, agonizing over questions' wording, technical problems, and Secret Service gaffes is what Lehrer is uniquely qualified to narrate, and he does so charmingly.

Lehrer tells the story both thematically and chronologically. The introductory chapter overviews the scope of televised presidential and vice presidential debates and Lehrer's (and other moderators') place in that history. Most subsequent chapters focus on a theme (e.g., "Killer Questions") and illustrate that theme with debate vignettes. However, the vignettes (and the larger structure of the book) unfold in approximately chronological order across Lehrer's moderating career, with an occasional return to a previously discussed debate from a different angle or the reemergence of an earlier theme. The book is well indexed, so it is possible to locate a particular story or point quickly. In the final chapter, Lehrer offers some advice for moderators/interviewers.

Beyond the fun of reliving old war stories with an author who was there in person, the value of this book for presidential scholars is twofold. Initially, the book recounts most of the significant firsts and major moments from the debates. The information is not new, but ample details are presented, and the stories are engaging. This feature will be a handy resource for scholars who engage in postdebate media interviews...

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