Jim Lehrer on ‘Tension’ of Candidates, Moderators in Presidential Debates

BY Anne Davenport  September 13, 2011 at 4:13 PM EST

In his new book out Tuesday, NewsHour Executive Editor Jim Lehrer, known as “the dean of moderators,” looks at more than 40 years of televised political debates in America and draws on his own presidential moderating experience since 1988.

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain” sheds light on the 10 presidential and one vice presidential debate Jim has moderated and also includes insights from his interviews with every president since Gerald Ford.

Here, he reads two passages from “Tension City”:



The name “Tension City” is President George H. W. Bush’s take on how he viewed debates; Jim compares moderating debates to “walking down the blade of a knife.” As he told senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown in a recent interview:

“The stakes are very high, no question about it. By the time these big televised debates come along, there are usually two, three, four weeks before the election itself and 90 percent of the people have decided for whom they are going to vote, but the debates are where they solidify positions. They help the few that haven’t decided and they help the few that are leaning one way or another and they become extremely important to a candidate because there are very few runaway elections anymore in American politics. So it gets very close toward the end at a debate and one thing you can do in a debate, good or bad, can affect the outcome and everybody knows it.”

“Tension City” is the latest in a long line of Jim’s books: 20 novels, two memoirs and three plays.

For more on Jim’s role in the presidential debates, check out the Debating Our Destiny series.

Jim’s conversation with Jeff airs on Tuesday’s NewsHour broadcast. Jim also appears on Tuesday evening’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and appeared on Tuesday morning’s Diane Rehm Show on public radio.