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.
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