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Book Review

Lehrer offers insider’s view of presidential debates

Barack Obama and John McCain after a 2008 debate. Barack Obama and John McCain after a 2008 debate. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
By Jesse Singal
September 24, 2011

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Debate season is drawing near, and that means different things to different people. Depending on whom you ask, presidential debates are either the highest expression of American democratic ideals or the media equivalent of cicada invasions - noisy, buzzing, annoying events which, mercifully, only descend on us every four years or so.

Jim Lehrer certainly falls in the former camp. The veteran PBS newsman has moderated 11 debates and has decided to share his experiences in “Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to McCain-Obama.’’ Unfortunately, it’s a mostly uninteresting, scattershot effort that seems more preoccupied with sharing insidery tidbits than with casting any new light on the history and process of presidential debates.

Part of the problem here is that Lehrer, a serious and straight-down-the-middle, old-school news man, approaches the entire concept of the presidential debate uncritically. Debates are Very Important, Lehrer seems to be saying throughout the book, and therefore any and all details about them must be interesting. So he doesn’t really bother trying to develop any argument about presidential debates - he simply jumps from one to another with an endless stream of anecdotes, only a small number of which will be of interest to anyone but the most obsessed political junkie. (If, like me, you don’t find the fact that the headset connecting Lehrer to his production team didn’t work right up to about 30 seconds prior to the start of the 1996 debate particularly enthralling, this book may not be for you.)

So it’s unsurprising that there are far too many details and quotes from former candidates and their operatives. At one point, Lehrer devotes three paragraphs on a Clinton-Dole debate to simply relating what the last few questions were about, with no explanation of the candidates’ responses or their significance. Elsewhere, he excerpts directly and at length from a “freewheeling exchange’’ that occurred during the 1992 vice-presidential debate in which Ross Perot’s running mate James Stockdale famously asked “Who am I? Why am I here?’’ But the circus-like atmosphere simply doesn’t come through on the three pages that follow, doesn’t translate to a compelling block of text.

In addition to the lack of focus, there’s some rather clunky writing interspersed throughout. For instance, when Lehrer references the infamous 1988 debate moment when moderator Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis whether his anti-death-penalty views would waver if his wife were raped and murdered, he writes, “There is now a universal recollection that everyone who was watching had a breath hitch or some kind of ‘Oh my God!’ reaction.’’ Like Dukakis the candidate, the sentence is bloodless and clunky.

There’s nothing malicious about Lehrer, of course, and he deserves some degree of credit for taking his role as an impartial, objective observer so seriously - and for acknowledging certain mistakes he’s made during his career as a moderator. But there’s just something wafer-ish about “Tension City.’’ A veteran journalist taking on a project like this should be able to probe, to highlight, to illustrate critically. While it’s interesting, here and there, to read politicians’ takes on their involvement in pivotal moments in debate history, not much in the way of a larger theme ever comes forth in the book.

Like a poorly conceived political speech, it’s not a story; it’s a collection of discrete, largely disconnected facts and observations.

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at jessesingalglobe@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal .

TENSION CITY:

Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to McCain-Obama

By Jim Lehrer

Random House, 209 pp., $26