Only when PBS NewsHour executive editor and anchor Jim Lehrer thought there was no chance he'd be moderating another presidential or vice presidential debate did he decide to delve into the importance of the debates from the 1960s through the current administration. The result is Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain, coming from Random House this September.
"I think readers will be surprised to discover how much power to decide an election rests with these debates," Lehrer tells Show Daily. "People are looking to take a measure of the candidates, and it's the only place, the only opportunity that people have to see the candidates side by side, dealing with the same set of issues, the same set of questions."
Lehrer, who has moderated 11 such debates, acknowledges the growing importance of what evolved from a panel of journalists to a single moderator. "It's like walking down the blade of a sharp knife, and one little false move can affect the outcome of a presidential election—and the moderator never, ever loses sight of that."
The journalist has written 20 novels, three plays, and two memoirs. He notes that in fiction writing, "All you have to do is make it up and move on. In this book, I had to work very hard at making sure that every detail of what was said at any particular debate that I was quoting was absolutely correct. I had to do due diligence on the facts, and I did."
According to Lehrer, the importance of the debates cannot be overemphasized. "[The voters] want to know—in addition to what his or her position may be on Iraq, or using military force, or taxes—do you like this person? How do you feel this person might handle him- or herself in an emergency, because most presidents deal with the unexpected, and it is dealing with the unexpected that the voter wants to measure, and the only way they can measure that is by paying very close attention to the way a candidate handles a question."
Lehrer, who hosts this morning's Breakfast, has been to BEA in New York. "This is where the book business becomes collegial, and if you don't care about books, you're not going to be at Book Expo. You're among people with a shared interest and a shared stake, and it's exciting." —Hilary S. Kayle