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Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates Paperback – September 25, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A Letter from Author Jim Lehrer

"Someday I’m going to write a book about it all."

I had been saying that to family and friends for years, about my experiences moderating presidential and vice presidential debates. It was not that I believed I had anything deep or important to say, but I knew I had collected--lived through--a few stories that might be worth recounting. I had also interviewed, on videotape, nearly all of the candidates who participated in those high-pressure, nationally-televised encounters about their experiences.

It was in such a chat with former President George H. W. Bush that I got the line that eventually ended up being the title of book.

“Those big time things… they’re Tension City, Jim.”

I decided that, along with the stories and interviews, I would also sprinkle in some bits of advice to the various players in debates.

Most were fairly obvious. Candidates, answer the question. Whatever else you do, respond directly to what you were asked. Yes, tell an anecdote from your childhood, or put it in historical context, but do it after having answered the question.

Moderators spend some time in front of a mirror before a debate saying out loud, “This is not about me. This debate is not about me. It is about the candidates, not the moderator. ” Ask direct, simple questions. Stay away for all gotcha questions and beware of hypotheticals. Do your homework not in order to prepare great questions but to be relaxed and informed enough to listen to the answers.

I also wanted to make the case about how important these nationally televised debates are to the process of choosing the people who will run the country.

As for timing, I decided that moderating my eleventh, the first Obama-McCain debate in 2008, would be my last. If asked to do another in 2012, I would decline on the grounds that others have the opportunity to do good and/or bad for our democracy in front of millions of people.

So. I was free to write this book. That “someday” had arrived.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Advance praise for Tension City
Unique and compelling . . . Jim Lehrer at once enlightens and entertains, deepening our understanding of the modern presidency while telling a splendid story. Tension City is engaging history from a fair-minded and insightful author who has himself become part of the nation’s fabric.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion
Recreated with a wit and perspective that only a natural born storyteller can summon . . . Some of the most interesting presidential debates take place off-camera, around the reporters asking the questions . . . remember Bernie Shaw’s jaw-dropping inquiry directed to Michael Dukakis about the hypothetical rape and murder of the candidate’s wife? That’s just one of the revelations that makes this the ultimate insider’s account of what George H. W. Bush dubbed ‘tension city.’ It’s all here—Gerald Ford’s premature liberation of Poland; Ronald Reagan’s way with one-liners; the well-honed empathy of Bill Clinton; and the multiple personalities of Al Gore.”—Richard Norton Smith, author of The Colonel
Jim Lehrer is a national monument, and this riveting book shows how he became America’s moderator. Tension City is at once Lehrer’s behind-the-blue-curtain account of his central role in almost a dozen presidential debates and an original, brisk inner history of recent American politics, combined with important lessons on how to moderate anything—all told in Lehrer’s famously wry and authoritative voice. Each page of Lehrer’s book benefits from his unparalleled experience as a key player, and his extraordinary ability to view these fabled confrontations with the detachment, insight, humor, and ironic sense of a wonderful writer.”—Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidential Courage


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 25, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081298143X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812981438
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #46,141 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I pre-ordered Tension City during the first Republican presidential debate, when some casual googling brought the book up on my laptop. I have to admit, I expected it to be a bit dry and boring, but I thought I'd give it a shot. I picked up my copy from the bookstore this morning, took it home, and read it cover to cover. I loved it! The stories he tells are fascinating, and he really gives you a sense of the theatricality of politics. I guess it comes from his experience writing novels (which I will certainly be getting my hands on now!), but Jim Lehrer turns what could have been a loose collection of anecdotes into a gripping narrative.

One more point I think is important in today's political and journalistic climate is that Lehrer interviewed for Tension City practically all the candidates he faced in the debates. That speaks volumes for the respect he has earned as a journalist and moderator from politicians of all stripes. This book has turned me into a huge Jim Lehrer fan!
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Format: Hardcover
Thankfully most people will never find themselves in a situation where a single comment, a sidelong glance, a sigh, or a momentary lapse of reason could change the course of history. Jim Lehrer has found himself in this type of crucible some eleven times since 1988 when he moderated his first presidential debate. His latest offering, "Tension City," like all good books, works on a number of different levels. It is at once part autobiographical, a historical record, and a "How-To" manual on conducting oneself as a candidate and a moderator in the sanitizing sunlight that the television camera casts. Lehrer has returned to the scene of the crime and recreated the conditions under which the debates were conducted and has augmented history with the testimony of those that stood accused of the crime of presidential desire. In the fIn de siecle of network broadcasting and in the nascent era of Twitter, texts, and focus groups that convert candidates into caricatures for talk shows, personalities are revisited to help complete some societal conversations that were never really finished. Among the candidates, Ross Perot's vice-presidential choice, Admiral James Stockdale, and Bob Dole's running mate Jack Kemp are presented as far more nuanced, skilled, and decent than perhaps we as a nation deserved. What you have is in essence a greatest hits collection of political moments that truly defined generations and individuals. Ask most people why Sen. Ted Kennedy never became president and they'll probably spin an elaborate yarn that spanned a couple of decades while, in truth, the answer is perhaps much simpler than anyone could've ever guessed. Even the author provides a mea culpa for some of his miscues on this grand stage.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The idea of the book really caught my attention as one of my favorite genres is presidential history and biographies. The book is a quick read, and had some great inside stories about the debates that are highlighted. But in the end it was more about Jim Lehrer's role in them than anything - how he prepped, handled issues, etc. If you're a fan of his you should love this book, just not what I'd hoped for.
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Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
I'm sure Jim Lehrer's "Tension City" is good in its own right as a book. But, as an unabridged Audio CD read by the author, it's spectacular! Of course, the audio version brings you Lehrer's well-known voice, an easy companion for five hours of listening. But it also brings all the 'major moments' and 'killer questions' as the actual audio from the debates. It's one thing to read again about Mike Dukakis' answer to Bernie Shaw's "killer question." It's quite another experience indeed to hear Dukakis's voice, answering Shaw's hypothetical shocker (what if wife Kitty was raped and murdered) as if he were performing a rote budget analysis.

Moreover, we get the back story to these pivotal moments. Turns out, using this one episode as a good example of the book's revelations, that Shaw ran through the question in advance (and was none too pleased with having to reveal his hand) with his three woman panelists. Their reactions - and whether or not the question was leaked to others outside the room - make for an intriguing 'Rashomon' scenario amongst a group of well-known journalists.

Moreover, Lehrer has been involved in a project to do follow-up interviews with most of the participants. He's got most of those on tape, too. So, we hear Bush 41, Bush 43, Clinton and Carter among others. Of particular note is Bush 43's remembrance of Vice President Gore's odd bull-rush of him in the third debate. He and Lehrer both get to laughing about that most odd of moments...neither can figure out what was going through Gore's mind, but it was the capper of a three-debate skein that Lehrer recalls vividly.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having watched Jim Lehrer moderate eleven of the thiry-five nationally televised presidential and vice-presidential debates and listening to him on PBS, admiring his calm demeanor and quiet personality, I ordered this memoir knowing it would be interesting - and it is. An easy 198 page read. Every American can benefit from learning how the debate process works - the preparations, venues, moderators, quirks of the candidates, and just how unnerving it is for candidates to field all the questions, both expected and unexpected, without flinching. I guess I never thought about how nervous the moderator is!

I remember the Nixon-Kennedy debate televised in 1960 with Howard K. Smith as moderator, and I have never missed a debate since. Jim Lehrer, who was assigned to twenty-one debates along with other broadcast journalists, was a fixture but he compares the experience of moderating and questioning as like "walking down the blade of a knife." He admits to being nervous and under great pressure.

His memoir will change the way I enjoy future debates. He is honest but not critical and understands the tension involved in debating. He writes with some easy humor as he remembers our former presidents since 1960 and the challengers when they were "onstage". Funny moments and scary ones - this is never a dull memoir.

Many thanks to Jim for sharing his perspective and stories of the various candidates over the past fifty years when they were "onstage". One thing I know for sure - Anerica will vote for the candidate who knows how to debate candidly, articulately, and unafraid to show some humor in the tense situations as they are being challenged. They better be healthy, trim, and know when to smile, too. No smirking allowed!
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