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.