Jim Lehrer is one of the most trusted names in journalism. Besides helping to found the long running NewsHour on PBS with colleague Robert McNeil in the mid-'70s and winning numerous awards for journalistic excellence, he’s also been called upon time and again to moderate presidential debates, starting with 1988’s contest between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis and running through the 2008 election season.
In Tension City (the name taken from a comment the elder Bush made in reference to his distaste for debates), Lehrer gives an insider’s look at the history and nuances of presidential debates, discusses his experiences as moderator (including a bizarre, murderous “appearance” Off-Broadway) and explains the importance of civil discourse, even among historical re-enactors. Here, he talks to us about his stints directing traffic in
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Will you be moderating any of the upcoming presidential debates?
I’ve done 11 of them, and it’s a very exhilarating, satisfying experience, but I’ve done enough. It’s time for others to have the opportunity to have that same experience. And so, no, if asked, I will respectfully decline. I will help anybody who is involved in the debates, but I will not participate as a moderator. I’ve done enough. Thank you. [laughs]
How do you define a good debate moderator?
A good debate moderator knows that it’s not about him or her—it’s about the candidates. It isn’t about calling attention to the questions or to the moderator as an individual. And [a good moderator] is somebody who knows how to listen, who does the homework, not so he or she can prepare fabulous, hot questions, but so he or she can be relaxed enough to listen to the answers and respond accordingly.
Can you describe the feeling during a debate?
The feeling going in, for me at least, is an absolute nerve-wracking experience. I never ever, ever lose sight of the fact that all I have to do is make a mistake, a bad choice of words, a bad choice of a follow-up question, missing something that was said, just doing something that could affect the outcome of the debate and thus the election—that is hellish. As I describe it in the book, it’s like walking down the blade of a very sharp knife.
But my experience has been that once I get going—in other words, once I get past the “good evenings” and the first question or two and I’m into it—well, then I am so locked into what’s going on that, yes, I’m aware of the frailties involved, the constant state of jeopardy that I’m in, but I’m really concentrating on what’s going on. And before I know it, boom, 90 minutes is over.
In the book, you talk about democracy being served any time candidates share a stage and talk about things that matter. But it seems that oftentimes these debates are decided, or a major impact is made, by sighs and body language and appearance. Are there times when debates don’t serve democracy?
No, I think they always serve democracy. Most of the voters, by the time the debates actually happen, are already on top of the election. In other words, they have followed the issues, they know what everybody thinks about Social Security, about the use of armed force and all the other issues that might have come up—the deficit, the debt ceiling, whatever in the world is on the plate at any given time—and what they want to do is take the measure of the individual. That’s why the debates are so important. Because you do see [the candidates] sitting or standing there together, and that can say a lot—whether you like this person, whether you think this person can handle pressure, handle the unforeseen.
Presidents, remember, are elected, yes, on what they believe and what they say they’re going to do, but they’re really elected based on how people feel about how they’re going to handle the unforeseen—the Katrina, the 9/11, the financial crisis. And that’s why these debates are so important because that’s where you take a measure of somebody. And so the body language, spoken language, it’s all part of the taking measure.
How important has your wife, Kate, been to your moderating career?
She’s been critical to it. She’s so smart, number one, but she’s also very aware, maybe because she couldn’t help but be, because we’re very, very close, and we’ve lived together and lived our lives together in a very close way for over 50 years, and she’s aware of all these pressures that are on me when I’m doing a debate and all that.
So she also is aware of how important all of this is, how important it is to me, but also, she’s aware, for instance, of getting information. People are always wanting information, speculating. Everybody wants an edge. If you’re working for candidate A, you want an edge going in, if you can find one. If you could figure out what the moderator is going to ask, it would be a huge edge. So, as a consequence, I quit talking to anybody, even people on the NewsHour staff, about my questions and all of that several days ahead of time. I don’t talk to anybody about it after that, except Kate. And she has a good ear for the rhythms and also for content and all of that. So she is my aide de camp, intellectually as well as every other way.
Do you ever go back and watch the debates you’ve moderated?
A couple of times I did that. There were a couple of times I was worried about something I thought I had done, and so I went back and looked at it and came away thinking, “Well, it wasn’t that bad. I’m OK. I’m all right. I can still go to the grocery store and they won’t throw tomatoes at me.”