cover image Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV

Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV

Alan Schroeder. Columbia University Press, $70 (280pp) ISBN 978-0-231-11400-4

Ever since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, televised candidate confrontations have been a staple of presidential campaigns; they've gone from being a novelty, to being an option for candidates, to being expected and unavoidable. Viewed by millions of people--according to Schroeder, presidential debates get Super Bowl-sized ratings--the stakes could not be higher for the candidates. In this informative ""backstage tour through the fractious world of presidential debates,"" Schroeder (a professor of journalism at Northeastern) reveals just how tightly these events are staged. Candidates and their staff at least try to control every aspect of the event--from the seating position of the spouses to the color of the sheet hanging behind the podiums. Even the campaigners' ad-libs are carefully scripted. Reagan's famous ""There you go again"" was planned out beforehand--as was vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen's ""You're no Jack Kennedy."" Candidates spend weeks preparing themselves and making every attempt to prevent spontaneity. But happily, Schroeder notes, live TV cannot be totally scripted, and it is the rare moments of candor in increasingly pre-packaged campaigns that make the debates both good TV and educational for voters. Memorable unscripted moments include Bush's glancing at his watch in 1992 and the unfeeling reply Dukakis gave in 1988 to a question about the theoretical rape and murder of his wife. So, flawed as they are, the author suggests, presidential debates do matter. Indeed, they show signs of improving as new formats, like ""town meetings,"" where real voters ask questions, loosening the candidates' grip on the process. In any event, they are not going away, and Schroeder's ""tour"" is a good one, sparked by lively writing and an eye for telling details. 3-city author tour. (Sept.)