Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain

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“In his quiet but intense way, Jim Lehrer earns the trust of the major political players of our time,” notes Barbara Walters. “He explains and exposes their hopes and dreams, their strengths and failures as they try to put their best foot forward.”

From the man widely hailed as “the Dean of Moderators” comes a lively and revealing book that pulls back the curtain on more than forty years of televised political debate in America. A veteran newsman who has presided over eleven presidential and vice-presidential debates, Jim Lehrer gives readers a ringside seat for some of the epic political battles of our time, shedding light on all of the critical turning points and rhetorical faux pas that helped determine the outcome of America’s presidential elections—and with them the course of history. Drawing on his own experiences as “the man in the middle seat,” in-depth interviews with the candidates and his fellow moderators, and transcripts of key exchanges, Lehrer isolates and illuminates what he calls the “Major Moments” and “killer questions” that defined the debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain.

Oftentimes these moments involve the candidates themselves and are seared into our collective political memory. Michael Dukakis stumbles badly over a question about the death penalty. Dan Quayle compares himself to John F. Kennedy once too often. Barack Obama and John McCain barely make eye contact over the course of a ninety-minute discussion. At other times, the debate moderators themselves become part of the story—and Lehrer is there to give us a backstage look at the drama. Peter Jennings suggests surprising the candidates by suspending the carefully negotiated rules minutes before the 1988 presidential debate—to the consternation of his fellow panelists. Lehrer himself weathers a firestorm of criticism over his performance as moderator of the 2000 Bush-Gore debate. And then there are the excruciating moments when audio lines go dead and TelePrompTers stay dark just seconds before going on the air live in front of a worldwide television audience of millions.

Asked to sum up his experience as a participant in high-level televised debates, President George H. W. Bush memorably likened them to an evening in “tension city.” In Jim Lehrer’s absorbing insider account, we find out that truer words were never spoken.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
"Tension city" is the phrase George H.W. Bush applied to his presidential debates when he spoke years later to Lehrer, who has just retired from anchoring PBS NewsHour. Here, Lehrer recounts his experiences in front of the camera between 1988 and 2008 as moderator of 11 of these televised election-year spectacles. Although the subtitle takes in a longer chronology, Lehrer's coverage of pre-1988 debates is somewhat cursory, and not every presidential election after Kennedy-Nixon included debates. Lehrer offers his own insights and opinions but doesn't present much new information. George H.W. Bush disliked the debates, but Bill Clinton relished them. Nobody witnessed more of the moments that defined these contests than Lehrer. The manner in which he moderated the debates is also the manner of this evenhanded account of his successes and missteps as well as those of the contenders. VERDICT Much of the material here came from oral history interviews and a 2000 PBS documentary, giving the book a slightly warmed-over taste. Even so, it is an easy, agreeable read but those wanting a more substantial first-person account could try Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay's Inside the Presidential Debates.—Bob Nardini, Nashville
Library Journal
Former president George H.W. Bush once told PBS News anchor Lehrer that the presidential debates were "tension city," though if Lehrer himself felt that way, it never showed. Dubbed the "dean of moderators" by CNN's Bernard Shaw, he has held sway over 11 presidential debates with enviable aplomb. Here he recalls those debates, detailing how the candidates prepared and how they fared. This should be an eye-opener from someone who saw it all up close and personal.
Kirkus Reviews

Award-winning NewsHour anchor Lehrer (Super, 2010, etc.) discusses the televised presidential election debates he and others have covered.

The author, who first moderated a debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988, reports that most candidates believe that elections are not won because a candidate performed well in a debate. However, a campaign can certainly be pushed toward defeat by a poor performance before the cameras. In Lehrer's experience, such effects are not often brought about by "gotcha" questions, bloopers or flubs; what counts is how the camera reveals body language in that particular moment and circumstance. In America's first televised debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, the camera showed Nixon's sweaty face and stubble, so different from Kennedy's healthy look—tanned and plumped up from his treatment for Addison's disease. In 2008, as John McCain refused to respond or even look at his opponent, the hostility appeared almost palpable. In 2004, the camera caught images of an impatient-seeming George W. Bush, and in 2000 it focused on the condescending sighs of Al Gore. In 1992, George H.W. Bush was captured checking and rechecking his watch. Lehrer didn't necessarily notice these defining moments as they were occurring, but rather looked at the debater as he answered the question. He was careful not to appear to fall into the trap of establishing rapport through eye contact. Though Lehrer's recollections are nostalgic and often insightful, many readers may wish to learn more about how he puts his questions together and how that skill relates to other behind-the-scenes skills.

A limited but entertaining peek at some of what goes on behind the curtain.

Jeff Shesol
…brisk and engaging…Lehrer is a skilled storyteller…
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
Advance praise for Tension City
Unique and compelling . . . Jim Lehrer at once enlightens and entertains, deepening our understanding of the modern presidency while telling a splendid story. Tension City is engaging history from a fair-minded and insightful author who has himself become part of the nation’s fabric.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion
Recreated with a wit and perspective that only a natural born storyteller can summon . . . Some of the most interesting presidential debates take place off-camera, around the reporters asking the questions . . . remember Bernie Shaw’s jaw-dropping inquiry directed to Michael Dukakis about the hypothetical rape and murder of the candidate’s wife? That’s just one of the revelations that makes this the ultimate insider’s account of what George H. W. Bush dubbed ‘tension city.’ It’s all here—Gerald Ford’s premature liberation of Poland; Ronald Reagan’s way with one-liners; the well-honed empathy of Bill Clinton; and the multiple personalities of Al Gore.”—Richard Norton Smith, author of The Colonel
Jim Lehrer is a national monument, and this riveting book shows how he became America’s moderator. Tension City is at once Lehrer’s behind-the-blue-curtain account of his central role in almost a dozen presidential debates and an original, brisk inner history of recent American politics, combined with important lessons on how to moderate anything—all told in Lehrer’s famously wry and authoritative voice. Each page of Lehrer’s book benefits from his unparalleled experience as a key player, and his extraordinary ability to view these fabled confrontations with the detachment, insight, humor, and ironic sense of a wonderful writer.”—Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidential Courage
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400069170
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/13/2011
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,528,688
  • Product dimensions: 9.48 (w) x 6.44 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer is the author of twenty novels, two memoirs, and three plays, and for years was the executive editor and anchor of The NewsHour on PBS. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his novelist wife, Kate. They have three daughters.


Jim Lehrer didn't always aspire to be a writer -- when he was 16, he wanted to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since he wasn't a very good baseball player, he turned to sports writing, then writing in general. As a member of what he's called "the Hemingway generation," he decided to support himself as a newspaper writer until he could make a living as a novelist.

After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism, Lehrer served for three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, then began his career as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor in Dallas. His first novel, about a band of Mexican soldiers re-taking the Alamo, was published in 1966 and made into a movie. Lehrer quit his newspaper job in order to write more books, but was lured back into reporting after he accepted a part-time consulting job at the Dallas public television station. He was eventually made host and editor of a nightly news program at the station.

Lehrer then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as public affairs coordinator for PBS and as a correspondent for the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT). At NPACT, Lehrer teamed up with Robert MacNeil to provide live coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings, broadcast on PBS. It was the beginning of a partnership that would last more than 20 years, as Lehrer and MacNeil co-hosted The MacNeil/Lehrer Report (originally The Robert MacNeil Report) from 1976 to 1983, and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour from 1983 to 1995. In 1995, MacNeil left the show, but Lehrer soldiered on as solo anchor and executive editor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

When he wasn't busy hosting the country's first hour-long news program, Lehrer wrote and published books, including a series of mystery novels featuring his fictional lieutenant governor, One-Eyed Mack, and a political satire, The Last Debate. Lehrer surprised critics and won new readers with his breakout success, White Widow, the "tender and tragic" (Washington Post) tale of a small-town Texas bus driver. He followed it with the bestselling Purple Dots, a "high-spirited Beltway romp" (The New York Times Book Review), and The Special Prisoner, about a WWII bomber pilot whose brutal experiences in a Japanese P.O.W. camp come back to haunt him 50 years later. His recent novel No Certain Rest recounts the quest of a U.S. Parks Department archaeologist to solve a murder committed during the Civil War.

Across this wide range of subjects, Lehrer is known for his careful plotting and even more careful research. Clearly, this is a man who cares about good stories -- but which is more important to him, journalism or fiction? Lehrer once admitted that he's known as "the TV guy who also writes books. Someday, maybe it will go the other way and I'll be the novelist who also does television."

Good To Know

During the last four presidential elections, Lehrer has served as a moderator for nine debates, including all three of the presidential candidates' debates in 2000. He also hosted the Emmy Award-nominated program "Debating Our Destiny: Forty Years of Presidential Debates."

Lehrer lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, novelist Kate Lehrer. The two also have an 18th-century farmhouse close to the Antietam battle site. Visits to the site helped inspire Lehrer's thirteenth novel, No Certain Rest.

Robert MacNeil, for many years the co-host with Jim Lehrer of PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, is also a novelist. His books include Burden of Desire, The Voyage and Breaking News.

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    1. Also Known As:
      James Lehrer
    2. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 19, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Wichita, Kansas
    1. Education:
      A.A., Victoria College; B.J., University of Missouri, 1956

Read an Excerpt


Good Evenings

“Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for a discussion of issues in the current political campaign by the two major candidates for the presidency. The candidates need no introduction. The Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and the Democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy.”

That was how the moderator, Howard K. Smith of CBS, opened the first televised presidential debate from the studios of WBBM-TV, Chicago, on September 26, 1960.

“Good evening from the Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. I’m Jim Lehrer of The NewsHour on PBS, and I welcome you to the first of the 2008 presidential debates between the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.”

That was how I began the first McCain-Obama debate on September 26, 2008--nearly fifty years later.

There have been thirty-five nationally televised presidential and vice presidential debates, counting that first in 1960 and the last four in 2008.

All the moderators have been broadcast journalists except one--Chicago Sun-Times editor James Hoge in 1976. There have been several repeaters: Howard K. Smith of CBS and ABC, Edwin Newman of NBC, Barbara Walters of ABC, Bernard Shaw of CNN, Bob Schieffer of CBS, my PBS colleague Gwen Ifill, and I account for twenty-one of the thirty-five moderating assignments.

Our “Good evenings” have remained roughly the same--except for the top billing going to the geography.

“Good evening from the Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.”

“Good evening from the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, Connecticut.”

“Good evening from the University of Miami Convocation Center in Coral Gables, Florida.”

The first of my greetings was for a 1988 debate between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis in Winston-Salem.

That was when I got my introduction to the terrors and triumphs of moderating presidential debates, an experience I have sometimes compared to walking down the blade of a knife.

At Winston-Salem, it actually started before the debate itself.

I was closeted behind a closely guarded conference room door with my three debate colleagues--Peter Jennings of ABC, Annie Groer of the Orlando Sentinel, and John Mashek of The Atlanta Constitution--to discuss our questions for Bush and Dukakis. This was before the coming of the single-moderator format; the standard arrangement was a moderator plus panelists.

Jennings, anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, had an act of provocation on his mind.

He urged the four of us to forget the rules that had been agreed upon between the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates. We should publicly--in front of the whole world--invite Bush and Dukakis to take on each other directly with no time limits on questions, answers, or anything else.

I said we couldn’t do that. We had given our word to follow the rules of the debate. Not to do so, I insisted in my most righteous tone, would be dishonorable, among other things.

Annie Groer and John Mashek agreed. Jennings quickly went along, with grace and professionalism.

Also in Winston-Salem, my wife, Kate, helped with some much needed pre-debate personal perspective that remains with me to this day.

In the hotel, as we were leaving for the debate, I came down with a bad case of nerves. I whined to Kate about how terrible the pressure was on me.

She said, quite calmly, “If it’s bad for you, think what it must be like for those two candidates--one bad move and they lose the presidency of the United States.”


But I was still left with the pre-debate anxieties that have been with me in every one of the ten presidential and vice presidential debates I have moderated since. I soon learned that dealing with nerves is the key to being able to function effectively as a moderator. My guess is that there are surgeons, classroom teachers, and short-order cooks among the huge crowds of other people who know exactly what I’m talking about. Possibilities of pleasure and satisfaction, horror and failure, await everyone who performs.

The incredibly high stakes are what magnify it all in presidential debates. Candidates and their attendants have only one overriding purpose--to win the election to be the most powerful person in the world. But others, including most in the serious press and political science worlds, see debates as decisive opportunities to inform and educate the voters about whom to grant such power.

The critical space between those two very different purposes is the battleground on which all combat occurs.

“Ugly, I don’t like ’em.”

That’s how George H. W. Bush categorizes his debate experience.

“Why not?”

“Well, partially I wasn’t too good at ’em. Secondly, there’s some of it’s contrived. Show business. You prompt to get the answers ahead of time. Now this guy, you got Bernie Shaw on the panel and here’s what he’s probably gonna ask you. You got Leslie Stahl over here and she’s known to go for this and that, I want to be sure I remember what Leslie’s going to ask and get this answer. . . . There’s a certain artificiality to it, lack of spontaneity to it. And, I don’t know, I just felt uncomfortable about it.”

That exchange was one of the many I have had with the candidates after their presidential and vice presidential debates. The interviews, done over a period of twenty years, began as an oral history project with the Commission on Presidential Debates. Portions were later used in Debating Our Destiny, a two-hour PBS documentary that was first broadcast in 2000.

George W. Bush’s view differed from his father’s.

“I think it’s useful for people [to] watch and see how a person they don’t know stands up and answers questions and deals with the thrusts and parries of the debate. I actually also think you can learn what the person really believes. I think they are very useful.”

Ronald Reagan was also positive. “The people have a right to know all they can in comparison to make a decision,” he said. “If the debate is concentrated on the major issues and the views of the two individuals on those issues, then it is of service to the people.”

Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, in their separate interviews, said debates help make for better candidates.

“I think they force us to prepare,” said Dole. “They force us to think about issues we maybe hadn’t focused on--they force us to think ahead.”

Clinton went even further: “Even if these debates don’t change many votes and, you know, normally both sides do well enough so they can avoid any lasting damage, but having to do them and knowing that if you blow it, they will change a lot of votes, forces people who wish to be president to do things that they should do. And I am convinced that the debates I went through, especially those three in 1992, actually helped me to be a better president.”

George H. W. Bush, after further thought, favorably compared debates to competitive athletics, which he said he always loved. There was an adrenaline flow during debates similar to that triggered by sports--particularly tennis.

Jimmy Carter also offered a sports comparison: “I think I did go in as though it was an athletic competition, or a very highly charged competitive arrangement.”

So did Gerald Ford, who said, “I had that experience many times playing football for the University of Michigan, and that was my attitude before that first debate. I felt comfortable with the positions I would take, and I was anxious to get into the ball game.”

Al Gore, Ross Perot, and Lloyd Bentsen were the only candidates missing from our postmortem debate interviews.

Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic nominee for vice president, very much wanted to talk to us but was by then too ill from a stroke to do so. With former vice president Gore, we tried every ploy we could think of and went through every channel we could find, but he declined to discuss his several debate experiences as a vice presidential and presidential candidate. So did Ross Perot, who as an independent made it to the presidential debates against President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton in 1992.

In addition to Bob Dole and former presidents Reagan, Ford, Carter, Clinton, and both Bushes, I also questioned former vice presidents Mondale, Quayle, and Cheney, plus John Kerry, John Anderson, Geraldine Ferraro, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, and James Stockdale.

Most of the conversations concentrated on Major Moments, as they’ve come to be called--happenings during specific debates that drew the most attention and seemed destined to find their way into political histories.

Presidential debates are the ultimate Rashomon exercises, of course. Each participant remembers a debate performance through the prism, emotional as well as political, of his or her own place at the podium--or table, chair, camera, or microphone.

That goes for those who ask the questions as well as those who answer them.

The first ever nationally televised debate moderator, Howard K. Smith, spoke mostly as an observer/reporter when recalling his 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate experience. In a 1996 memoir, Events Leading Up to My Death, he wrote, “Having the two appear live, side by side, answering the same questions, was a welcome innovation. But it was not much of a debate. Because the reporters on the panel were not allowed to pose follow-up questions, both candidates shamelessly slid by questions rather than answering them.”

Smith said it was obvious from the moment the two entered the Chicago studio that Nixon realized he should never have agreed to the confrontation. He was the incumbent vice president and much better known than Kennedy. Appearing together would only elevate Kennedy’s status.

Also, Nixon had been in the hospital and was pale, Smith said. “I offered a makeup expert, but he refused and allowed an aide merely to dust a little powder on his face, which made him paler. He was downcast; he knew it was a mistake.”

Kennedy, meanwhile, “entered the studio looking like a young athlete come to receive his wreath of laurel.” Addison’s disease had added a tan tint to his skin, and the steroids he took for back pain had caused him to fill out.

Smith said of Kennedy, “He later told me he won the election that night.”

That is also the conventional wisdom among many political historians, keyed to the fact it had more to do with looks than words. Neither Kennedy nor Nixon opened up any major differences over policy that dominated their campaign before or during the debate. Politically, both were running--and mostly seen--as no-boat-rattling centrists.

More than one hundred million Americans followed the debate, and those who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon had won.

Nixon didn’t go so far as to say that the perception of the first debate cost him the election, but he hinted at it. He wrote of the 1960 campaign in his 1962 memoir, Six Crises:

“I paid too much attention to what I was going to say and too little to how I would look.”

Those are words to live by that a few post-1960 candidates have ignored at their peril.

The negotiated agreement for the four Kennedy-Nixon events set future patterns for formats and almost everything else about the debates until 1992--including the negotiations themselves.

As a matter of history, even Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas tangled over the specifics of the subject, the number, and some of the details of their seven famous Illinois debates on slavery in 1858. They did their pre-debate negotiating through the mail and surrogates--not that much differently than the way it still happens.

In 1960, surrogates for Nixon and Kennedy wrestled with the debate sponsors--the commercial television networks--over the room temperature, the use of notes, and the lighting, among other things. The biggest hurdles were over the number of debates and the selection of the journalist moderators and panelists. Kennedy wanted more debates than Nixon; the networks wanted only TV/radio questioners, while the candidates insisted on bringing print people into the mix, as well.

Kennedy and Nixon stood behind podiums, made opening and closing statements, and, in between, answered questions that were solely the work of the individual panelists. No questions or specific topics were cleared ahead of time with anyone--most particularly the candidates.

Debate formats differed little through the years between 1960 and 1992, the major variables confined to answer time limits and the addition of a live audience. The four Kennedy-Nixon exchanges were all in silent television studios.

In 1988, moderators were allowed to move beyond traffic-cop and follow-up duties to ask their own opening questions of each candidate. I was the first moderator to do so.

The October 15, 1992, debate among President George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot changed everything. For the first time, candidates would answer questions created and asked by would-be voters, not professional journalists, in a town hall–type format. Carole Simpson of ABC News moderated that event at the University of Richmond, Virginia.

The opening half of the October 19, 1992, ninety-minute Bush-Clinton-Perot event at East Lansing, Michigan, which I moderated, was the first presidential debate with no major time restraints--no two-minute answers and one-minute responses. That followed a week after the raucous vice presidential debate among Dan Quayle, Al Gore, and James Stockdale, which featured a five-minute discussion period about each issue. Hal Bruno of ABC moderated that one.

Those debates also marked the end of the journalist-panel format. Simpson, Bruno, and I all sat alone at the moderator’s table at our respective events. Every debate since--in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008--has had either a sole moderator or a participatory “town hall” audience.

The only other new wrinkle has been to have the candidates do at least one of their debates seated at a table rather than standing at podiums. During the George W. Bush years, all vice presidential debates were seated, a pattern that began at the insistence of Dick Cheney, as the Republican candidate for vice president in 2000 and again as the incumbent four years later.

While the 1992 wide-open “experiment”--a podium debate--appeared to work at the time, it has yet to return in any future debate. According to those involved in negotiations since, most candidates, each in their own way, choose not to take what is considered “the risk” of an open format.

There were no presidential debates for sixteen years after the Kennedy-Nixon four. Their return almost immediately proved that some risks cannot be negotiated away.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

1 Good Evenings 3

2 Killer Question 30

3 Apples and Apples 51

4 Personal Differences 77

5 The Big Sighs 93

6 Play-by-Plays 115

7 Number Eleven 143

8 Mr. Jefferson, Among Others 161

9 Good Nights 175

Acknowledgments 199

Index 201

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Interviews & Essays

A letter from Jim Lehrer
                "Someday I'm going to write a book about it all."

I had been saying that to family and friends for years, about my experiences moderating presidential and vice presidential debates. It was not that I believed I had anything deep or important to say, but I knew I had collected—lived through—a few stories that might be worth recounting. I had also interviewed, on videotape, nearly all of the candidates who participated in those high-pressure, nationally-televised encounters about their experiences.

It was in such a chat with former President George H. W. Bush that I got the line that eventually ended up being the title of book.

"Those big time things... they're Tension City, Jim."

I decided that, along with the stories and interviews, I would also sprinkle in some bits of advice to the various players in debates .

Most were fairly obvious. Candidates, answer the question. Whatever else you do, respond directly to what you were asked. Yes, tell an anecdote from your childhood, or put it in historical context, but do it after having answered the question.

Moderators, spend some time in front of a mirror before a debate saying outloud, "This is not about me. This debate is not about me. It is about the candidates, not the moderator. " Ask direct, simple questions. Stay away for all gotcha questions and beware of hypotheticals. Do your homework not in order to prepare great questions but to be relaxed and informed enough to listen to the answers.

I also wanted to make the case about how important these nationally televised debates are to the process of choosing the people who will run the country.

As for timing, I decided that moderating my eleventh, the first Obama-McCain debate in 2008, would be my last. If asked to do another in 2012, I would decline on the grounds that others have the opportunity to do good and/or bad for our democracy in front of millions of people.

So. I was free to write this book. That "someday" had arrived.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 13, 2011

    Loved it!

    Not dry and boring at all, just interesting and lots of fun! Jim Lehrer is such a smart man, and this book really brings across so much of what makes him the preferred moderator for the Presidential debates. Go Jim!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 10, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    As the editorial reviews mention, it's light on substance. What

    As the editorial reviews mention, it's light on substance. What is included is breezy and entertaining, but it's a rather cursory look at the subject. The book may have benefited from additional information about Mr. Lehrer's process as a moderator or the subsequent impact of the debates on the respective fortunes of the candidates. As it was, a solid read, but I doubt I'll take away anything truly memorable or noteworthy from this book.

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    Posted November 7, 2011

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    Posted October 27, 2011

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    Posted June 28, 2011

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