Sarah's Reviews > Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain

Tension City by Jim Lehrer
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Sep 09, 11

bookshelves: bea2011
Read from September 07 to 08, 2011

[Reviewed from a galley from Book Expo America 2011. Expected publication date 9/13/2011]

In college, I took a course called "Presidential Rhetoric," taught by a former George HW Bush speechwriter. The class was an interesting study of what presidents say, why and how they say it, and who puts the words into their mouths. Lehrer's new book -- his first nonfiction work in two decades, according to the author bio -- would be a good addendum to a course of that type. I know I'm not the only person who thinks "Jim Lehrer" when the topic of debate moderators comes up -- having moderated a great many of them over the past couple of decades, he is in a unique position to discuss them.

For the book (and for a previous PBS documentary), Lehrer interviewed former presidential and vice-presidential candidates about their debate performances, and their recollections are interspersed with his own memories, sections of transcripts, and discussions of whether, and how, the debates really shaped the trajectory of the race. He discusses "major moments" -- the infamous Kitty Dukakis question from 1988; "There you go again"; "You're no Jack Kennedy"; the sighing, lockbox-obsessed Al Gore. And Lehrer doesn't spare himself from his criticism: he discusses things that he did wrong as moderator, questions he wishes he'd worded differently, and questions he wishes he hadn't asked.

The book is an interesting historical document. Lehrer's writing style here leans a little towards "college essay," but it's a quick read and would be of interest to anyone who's a bit of a political junkie.
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