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‘Tension City’ Reflects on Jim Lehrer’s Decades Moderating Presidential Debates

October 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his new book, "Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain," NewsHour Executive Editor Jim Lehrer looks back at more than 40 years of televised political debates in America. Jeffrey Brown and Lehrer discuss his unique front-row seat to history as a 10-time presidential debate moderator.

GWEN IFILL: And we end tonight with a return to the subject of presidential campaign debates, as seen through the eyes of one of our own.

Jim Lehrer’s new book tells the story from the unique front-row seat he occupied for decades as a debate moderator.

He sat down with Jeffrey Brown recently to talk about it.

JIM LEHRER: What are you going to have to give up in terms of the priorities that you would bring as president of the United States?

JEFFREY BROWN: For American voters, presidential debates are usually the only chance to see and take the measure of candidates side by side.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: Jim, under my plan, all seniors will get prescription drugs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Upwards of 60 million viewers.

MAN: Sen. Dole, you voted against the crime bill.

JEFFREY BROWN: The stakes are incredibly high.

MAN: None of us has any idea what Jim Lehrer intends to ask.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the man who has moderated more of these debates than anyone else says it’s like walking down the blade of a knife.

Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

JIM LEHRER: It’s not a lot of fun, but if you get to the other end, it’s really exciting.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have made it.


JIM LEHRER: You have made it.

Our questions this evening will be about equally divided between foreign and domestic policy matters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Lehrer moderated his first presidential debate in 1988, and nine more since, as well as a vice presidential debate.

In 1996 and 2000, he moderated all the presidential debates, the first person to do that. In a new book, “Tension City,” he writes an insider’s account of debates over the last several decades.

We talked about it recently at his Washington, D.C., home.

JIM LEHRER: The bottom line, Jeff, is that when a debate is over that I moderate, I want everybody to say, OK, here you have seen and heard the candidates for president of the United States on the same stage at the same time talking about the same things, and you can judge them, not just on content, because, by then, people already know about lockboxes and Social Security and all those issues.

They want to take a measure of the person. I mean, do you like this guy? Is this person really — you know, is he telling the truth, all that kind of stuff. Well, you can’t — and you see them right there together it’s a huge test.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write about the preparation, the period, the tension for you leading up to it. And at one point, you say, “You learn that dealing with nerves is the key to being able to function effectively.”

JIM LEHRER: The first step, the must step, is, you have got to be prepared. And preparation means not so you can write the greatest questions in the world, but because you — so you can listen in some comfort zone to the answers and make a decision, a split-second decision that could affect all kinds of things, including the outcome of an election, whether to follow up on this or not follow up on…

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re aware of that all the time.

JIM LEHRER: All the time. All the time.


JIM LEHRER: And so the way I get into my comfort zone is, I say, first of all, it’s just — just read everything, try to digest it all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have it in your head.

JIM LEHRER: Have it in the head, and then try to imagine the event itself, actually see Billy Bob candidate and Sammy Sue candidate stand there, ask those questions, and how would he or she respond, and try to get at least some kind of loose picture already in my mind.

And then the final step is, I do write the questions and all of that. And by then, I’m in a kind of isolation booth of my own, of my own making. I don’t even talk to people on the NewsHour staff.



JEFFREY BROWN: The one person who does hear the final draft of questions beforehand is Jim’s wife, Kate, a novelist and, of course, veteran of a million NewsHour viewings. She acts as Jim’s debate prep editor and shares in all the anxiety.

KATE LEHRER, wife of Jim Lehrer:As soon as the process really gets under way, it’s sliding into — I’m Alice in wonderland going in the rabbit hole…


KATE LEHRER: … praying to come out on the other side.

JEFFREY BROWN: so, it’s safe to say this is pretty nerve-racking?

KATE LEHRER: It’s very nerve-racking. It’s just fairly surreal.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the book, Jim writes of preparing opening questions for the 1992 three-way debate between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

JIM LEHRER: I will ask questions for the first half under rules that permit…

JEFFREY BROWN: To get things going, he wanted a question along the same lines, apples to apples, for each candidate. This one time, Kate was on a book tour, and so they talked by phone not long before the start of the debate.

JIM LEHRER: I called Kate, and I ran through those three questions, and there was dead silence on the phone.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you thought…

JIM LEHRER: I’m thinking, uh-oh, uh-oh. I really don’t need this.

JIM LEHRER: I said, OK, what is it? And I was not terribly polite about it. And she said, “Well, you have got two apples and an orange.”

KATE LEHRER: That was one of the hardest calls I have ever made, though, because I knew he was in his zone. He felt really good about his questions. He was really up. And that’s a split-second decision.

As he says in the book, he called me back to tell me by the time he got there that I had been right and everything, it was OK. In the meantime, I got Amanda, our youngest daughter, and I said, “We have got to go for a walk. We have got to go for a walk.”

And so we got out. And I said: “I have ruined the debate for your daddy. I have ruined everything.”


JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Jim writes, Kate saved the day.

But glitches of all sorts can and sometimes do occur. In his basement office surrounded by the bus signs he collects, Jim showed me the coding system he uses to keep track of questions and time, here for the 2008 Obama-McCain debate. But it doesn’t always work.

JIM LEHRER: In the debate in 2004 between John Kerry and George W. Bush, I literally forgot whether or not — uh-oh, is this a new question or is this a follow-up question? My mind just went blank. And I had to make a decision. And I just guessed right.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book highlights so-called major moments in debate history, the ones that come to define an event and sometimes a candidate.

George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992.



JEFFREY BROWN: Those zingers from Ronald Reagan that wounded Jimmy Carter in 1980.

In the documentary “Debating Our Destiny,” Jim went back to talk to candidates about their experience of the debates and had the chance to ask whether they prepared famous lines ahead of time.

JIM LEHRER: I asked Ronald Reagan about “There you go again” and a couple of others, his family lines. “Oh, no, no, no, it just came to me.”


RONALD REAGAN: No. It just seemed to be the thing to say in what he was saying up there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you believe him?

JIM LEHRER: Oh, I don’t know whether I did or I didn’t. I just thought it — I found it interesting that none of the — nobody wants to admit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another major moment came in 2000, with Vice President Al Gore rolling his eyes and loudly sighing during his debate with then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For example, in Alaska, there’s a lot of shut-in gas.

JEFFREY BROWN: The whole world knew it, except for the third man on the stage that night in Boston.

You didn’t know it was happening.

JIM LEHRER: Didn’t know it, because, under my — under my personal rules, I ask candidate-A a question, I look only at candidate-A. I never look at candidate-B, because I don’t want to be involved in eye contact to help — in any way affect the response of the other candidate.

And when the debate was over, one of my daughters said to me, “Gosh, dad, that was incredible, what Gore did.” And I stopped and I said, “What did Gore do?”


JEFFREY BROWN: When you have taken a hit — and you write about…


JEFFREY BROWN: … when you did, it’s, you’re not being aggressive enough or pushing hard enough.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. I’m criticized all the time for that, that I haven’t been aggressive enough.

A lot of people would expect a moderator, whether it’s a debate moderator or a moderator on the NewsHour, and say — I say, senator — ask a question — or a candidate — asks a question, and the candidate gives the answer, and the moderator yells, “Liar!”


JIM LEHRER: Well, see, moderators are not human lie-detector machines. The lie-detector machines are the people who are listening. It’s — do it for them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the years, many debate formats have been tried, candidates standing, sitting, walking around, and moderators in a panel, given strict bounds or relative freedom.

JIM LEHRER: Two minutes. Two minutes. And then I will decide whether we go on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still maybe the key question is, do — do our presidential debates offer real debate, for the citizens to hear a real debate among the candidates?

JIM LEHRER: To coin a phrase, it all depends on what you mean by debate.

To have a free-flowing debate, where the two people literally talk to each other and argue with each other, no, we haven’t had those, and with a few exceptions.

I know this sounds a little kind of cliché-ish, but the fact is, the format to me is the least important thing. The important thing is that they have these debates. Everybody watches for different things. And they’re going to see all kinds of different things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you, what’s next? Would you like to moderate more?

JIM LEHRER: No, no, no. I have done my — I have done my duty, and I have walked down that blade. And it’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: You got to the other side.

JIM LEHRER: Got to the other side — not every time.


JIM LEHRER: I got cut a few times.

But I feel good about having done it. But it’s somebody else’s — other people’s turn now. And I rest my — I will rest my case.


JIM LEHRER: And, for now, from Boston, I’m Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.

From Coral Gables, Fla., I’m Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.

From Oxford, Miss., thank you, Senators, both.

I’m Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.