Review: “Tension City” by Jim Lehrer

This October the vice presidential debate will be held here at Centre College. In Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, From Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain, perennial moderator Jim Lehrer describes what the debate experience is like from the perspective of the moderator. He describes personal anecdotes and memories from a variety of presidential and vice presidential debates over the last several decades. One of his primary messages is that the moderators prepare just as much as the candidates and are often just as nervous about their performance.

Lehrer takes his account one further, though, in reporting comments from interviews with numerous presidential candidates who participated on those debates. For example, even though Mike Dukakis got a lot of heat for how he responded to the infamous death penalty question in the 1988 debate, he maintains to this day that it was a fair question and he thought he gave a pretty good answer.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the book was to see how these various presidential candidates perceive the impact of their debate performance on their eventual victory/defeat. For example, Lehrer reports that after the 1976 vice presidential debate, “Mondale left the Houston stage certain that the Carter-Mondale ticket had won the election right then and there. It was over” (pg. 19).

Throughout the book, it’s never clear whether Lehrer believes that debates ultimately determine (or even greatly influence) the outcome of any given election. In one example, he reports that after the first 2008 debate between Obama and McCain, that Obama’s calm demeanor and McCain’s “tense body language would affect the final outcome of the election” (pg. 152). In another location, he writes that “there is no evidence that the election result would have been any different if Dole [had] concentrated on Clinton’s personal problems in the 1996 debates” (pg. 82). 

Regardless of whether or not elections ultimately are decisive factors in the outcome of elections (my own perspectives can be found here and here), Lehrer offers two key ways in which debates are indeed important parts of presidential campaigns. The first is articulated by Bill Clinton who reports that “even if these debates don’t change many votes … [they] force people who wish to be president to do things that they should do [know the issues, be able to explain them to the American people, etc.]. And I am convinced that the debates I went through … actually helped me to be a better president” (pg. 7).

The second, and perhaps most important, element of presidential debates can be found on page 153-154: “Voters watch debates for candidates’ body language and temperament – indications of how candidates might react under pressure, under severe testing.”

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