Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tension City:
Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
by Jim Lehrer
Random House, New York, 2011. pp 209.

Given that Jim Lehrer has had a front row seat to eleven U.S. presidential debates, you wouldn't be wrong to expect more from Tension City, a slim volume that works as an appetizer when it should have been a meal. The metaphor is apt since, like a good croquette, Tension City is easy to digest and possible to finish in a single sitting. As a man who had a worm's eye view of some significant political moments, Lehrer had the opportunity to supply some deft political analysis, both on the art of debating and the evolution of the televised debate from political confrontation to its current form as orchestrated entertainment. Instead, Lehrer seems content to supply anecdotes and only a few juicy facts as he gives us a whirlwind tour across fifty years of debating history.

The televised debate, of course, revolutionized American politics, beginning with the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960. Listening to the debate, one might have guessed Nixon was the better politician; but he fared so pooly on camera when compared to the robust and tanned Kennedy that many believed the election was lost in a single night. "I paid too much attention to what I was going to say," wrote Nixon, "and too little to how I would look." Lehrer remarks that these are words to live by for the modern politician and he couldn't be more correct. We've come a long way from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858: the quality of your character isn't half as important as how you look on film. Lehrer points out a few moments when this fact has come to haunt a candidate: George H. W. Bush checking his watch during the 1992 debate with Bill Clinton; Al Gore's heavy sighs during a 2000 debate with George W. Bush; and John McCain's refusal to look Barack Obama in the eye during a campaign in 2008.

It's a savvy idea to take Nixon's remark, written at the dawn of the televised debate, and see how it has been reflected through the years. Unfortunately, this is one of the only insights Lehrer brings to the subject. For all his knowledge and experience, he seems stuck in his role as a journalist: he's happy to print the facts, but shies away from opinion. He breaks away from this on occasion - he clearly has no respect for the most recent evolutionary step in televised debates, the Town Hall - but for the most part he seems content to leave the analysis to the politicians who he interviewed about their performance. This is a bit of a coup, as there are definitely some telling moments of self-reflection from both George Bushes and Bill Clinton. But there are too many gaps. Al Gore and Ross Perot both declined to be interviewed and it's far too soon to have any clever insights from John McCain or Sarah Palin about their 2008 debating performance. 

At times, Tension City fights to double as a psuedo-memoir, with Lehrer charting his journey from neophyte to consummate pro. There are touches of this throughout, but it's not nearly enough - again, Lehrer gets caught in the journalist's trap. He himself is so absent as a character that when he does have a few moments of triumph, they fail to resonate. More focus on Lehrer's own professional journey through the years would have given the debates far more significance: each would have been a benchmark in a man's development. It may very well be that this is what they were, but Tension City's narrative fails to highlight this in any way.

Ultimately, the book feels most like a missed opportunity. To return to the food metaphor, the book left me hungry for more and I ended up crawling through cyberspace searching for clips from the Dukakis - Regan debate or the Cheney - Lieberman debate which, apparently, was one of the most civilized in history. It's definitely a testament to Lehrer that he was able to whet my appetite for something as seemingly dull as presidential debating history; but given that Lehrer is the only person to ever moderate eleven debates, it's too bad that he chose to keep his journalist hat on for as long as he did.

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