From the man widely hailed as “the Dean of Moderators” comes a lively and revealing book that pulls back the curtain on more than forty years of televised political debate in America. A veteran newsman who has presided over eleven presidential and vice-presidential debates, Jim Lehrer gives readers a ringside seat for some of the epic political battles of our time, shedding light on all of the critical turning points and rhetorical faux pas that helped determine the outcome of America’s presidential elections --- and with them the course of history. Drawing on his own experiences as “the man in the middle seat,” in-depth interviews with the candidates and his fellow moderators, and transcripts of key exchanges, Lehrer isolates and illuminates what he calls the “Major Moments” and “killer questions” that defined the debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain.
Oftentimes these moments involve the candidates themselves and are seared into our collective political memory. Michael Dukakis stumbles badly over a question about the death penalty. Dan Quayle compares himself to John F. Kennedy once too often. Barack Obama and John McCain barely make eye contact over the course of a ninety-minute discussion. At other times, the debate moderators themselves become part of the story --- and Lehrer is there to give us a backstage look at the drama. Peter Jennings suggests surprising the candidates by suspending the carefully negotiated rules minutes before the 1988 presidential debate --- to the consternation of his fellow panelists. Lehrer himself weathers a firestorm of criticism over his performance as moderator of the 2000 Bush-Gore debate. And then there are the excruciating moments when audio lines go dead and TelePrompTers stay dark just seconds before going on the air live in front of a worldwide television audience of millions.
Asked to sum up his experience as a participant in high-level televised debates, President George H. W. Bush memorably likened them to an evening in “tension city.” In Jim Lehrer’s absorbing insider account, we find out that truer words were never spoken.