Lifting the curtain on five decades of presidential debates

Three presidential debates will be held next October, in Denver, Hempstead, N.Y., and Boca Raton, Fla., it was announced this week.

We know the Democratic player will be President Barack Obama. The Republican will emerge within the next few months. A third-party candidate remains a minor possibility.

But the one face certain to be missing next year belongs to moderator Jim Lehrer. The executive editor and anchor of PBS’ “NewsHour” – who has refereed more presidential debates than any single journalist in U.S. history – has called it quits.

“I haven’t been invited, and if invited I’m not going to accept,” Lehrer said in a phone conversation. I did my 11 and I’ve survived. It’s time for others to have the opportunity.”

Possibly you didn’t realize Lehrer’s extraordinary record as a herder of cats under hot lights. This is as it should be. “My belief is that moderators should be invisible,” he said.

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To celebrate his retirement, Lehrer has penned a book, “Tension City,” ($26, Random House) examining 48 years of televised presidential debates, from John Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon in 1960 to Barack Obama vs. John McCain in 2008.

Lehrer made himself available ahead of an appearance at one of the largest book fairs in the country, which starts Saturday and is put together by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.

“Tension city” is how, in 1999, George H.W. Bush famously described the chess games surrounding televised debates – the negotiations over format, questioners, stage settings, even the thermostat.

We laughed then, but the truth is that the future of this country indeed can depend on whether a man is wearing enough make-up.

Over the years, Lehrer has gone back to most of the participants for a debriefing on his or — in the case of the late Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984 — her performance.

Lehrer reviews the phrases that American history has turned on – such as Gerald Ford’s lame contention that the Soviet Union had no real influence over Eastern Europe, Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” jibe at Jimmy Carter.

The most surprising tidbit may be the near-revolt among female journalistic questioners who objected to the query that CNN’s Bernard Shaw posed to Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988: If your wife Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, Shaw asked, would you want the death penalty for her killer? Dukakis’ emotionless answer killed any chance he had to beat George “Tension City” Bush.

Lehrer takes a generous view of today’s non-stop rash of GOP debates for the nomination. “We need all keep in mind what the purpose of those primary debates is. All you have to do is go back to 2008. There were 40 of them – both Democrat and Republican, because no incumbent was running,” he said.

As for the debates-by-Twitter or town-hall approaches, Lehrer says he prefers a lone moderator popping questions and pushing for answers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually they have a debate with the candidates underwater, hanging by their thumbs or something like that,” he said. “They’re trying everything. But that’s okay. I find them all terrifically important.”

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Every high school student has learned that the first televised presidential debate in 1960, between Kennedy and Nixon turned on the tan of one man and the pallor of the other.

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The truth is something different. Kennedy cheated. Unbeknownst to Nixon, while he publicly declared he’d have nought to do with womanly deceptions, Kennedy ducked into a room and had a light layer of powder slapped on.

That tidbit isn’t in Lehrer’s book. It can be found in “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero,” ($27.50, Simon and Schuster) by Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball.” Matthews is also part of the MJCCA book fair.

Matthews writes biography in a highly personal tone, with the aim busting through many of the myths surrounding Camelot and the nation’s first Catholic president. The first excellent new find: Matthews traces Kennedy’s line of “Ask not what your country can do for you,” used in his inaugural address, to a phase often used by the headmaster of Kennedy’s prep school.

Then there’s the story of how Jack Kennedy was dragged into politics by Joseph Kennedy Sr., when his first-born son and namesake, Joe Jr., died during World War II.

“I certainly didn’t buy the myth that the old man created him. I didn’t like that myth – the old man was not Jack, and Jack was very much an assimilated American. He just had different values – he didn’t have this narrow, businessman’s point of view,” Matthews said in a phone interview Wednesday.

And Joe Jr., by all accounts, was a dull young man who exuded none of the charisma of the second son, Matthews added.

“Jack Kennedy” is a well-written book with Christmas-list heft. But Matthews himself has already pushed his tome into current, Democratic discussion – directing attention to the charismatic Kennedy as a means of underlining his own disappointment with Obama.

“On the mall on the day of the inaugural, there were all these African-Americans. I’ve never seen so many black people on the mall,” Matthews said. “And [Obama] sent them home. It’s absolutely amazing. You win the election of a lifetime, you’ve got this army, and you dismiss them,” Matthews said.

“He’s been a soloist. I don’t know how you can be Peter the Hermit and be president of the United States.”

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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36 comments Add your comment

Question Man

November 2nd, 2011
9:45 pm

Good story, but where are your stories about Tuesday votes on school taxes and Sunday booze sales?

MrLiberty

November 2nd, 2011
9:55 pm

One thing is for certain. The ruling elite decide who will be invited, change the rules to suit themselves, and make sure that no ideas that deviate from the status quo are allowed in. That is why our country is so messed up. Since 1973 the Libertarian Party has wielded candidates with outstanding ideas that could have put this country on the right course. Instead, the same failed, corrupt, two major parties have made sure that americans are denied the opportunity to find out that there are actually serious ideas that harken back to the founding of this country actually being espoused by parties other than the two that have caused all of our country’s problems. Ending the income tax, a sensible foreign policy, sound money, an end to the failed war on drugs, a restoration of the Bill of Rights and plenty of other great principles that the two major parties abandoned over 100 years ago – to the detriment of us all. Anyone who actually thinks that the debates have been anything other than a propaganda machine for failure and the protection of the power the corporatists in washinton have held over the citizens of this country has been sorely diluded.

Centrist

November 2nd, 2011
10:05 pm

Jim Lehrer is a moderate Democrat – rare for an anchorman other than Fox, and a relative breath of fresh air. Chris Mathews is way left. My point is only that our resident Democrat blogger has again found a topic to his liking.

Terry Pickens

November 2nd, 2011
10:13 pm

The Christian Right destroyed America, and the movement started here in the south. Jealous, dismal, and drugged up northerners got together to ruin the simple lifestyle we enjoyed as southerners. It is no secret y’all. When 9-11 happened happened, they only found another excuse to spread Christianity and murder hundreds of thousands. Can we please get rid of all these republican legislators?

td

November 2nd, 2011
10:14 pm

Since the left has had the moderators job now for 11 times it is time for someone from the right to moderate. I nominate Sean. The best would probably be Bill. He would stand up and announce that this will be a spin free debate.

td

November 2nd, 2011
10:18 pm

The difference between conservatives and liberals…a conservative will punch you in the face and laugh about it until you bleed to death, while a liberal threatens to use force only to apologize a second later!

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william brimage bates

November 2nd, 2011
10:19 pm

@td
Why not Clarabell the Clown?

td

November 2nd, 2011
10:24 pm

william brimage bates

November 2nd, 2011
10:19 pm

Why should the left always have the position? If you do not like my choices then please name a conservative that would be acceptable to you?

td

November 2nd, 2011
10:26 pm

td

November 2nd, 2011
10:18 pm

I see the coward is back tonight. His/her post was funny and pretty accurate.

Centrist

November 2nd, 2011
10:32 pm

No chance of ever getting right of center or moderates like: Fox News Chris Wallace or Britt Hume, WSJ Paul Gigot, NYT David Brooks, or Weekly Standard Bill Kristol. Only journalists left of center need apply.

Centrist

November 2nd, 2011
10:39 pm

I like this guy, too – but he says it is a done deal for Obama’s re-election (he’s probably right):

Obama’s reelection is really a very, very simple math problem. Consider the following:

1) Blacks will vote for Obama blindly. Period. Doesn’t matter what he does. It’s a race thing. He’s one of us,

2) College educated women will vote for Obama. Though they will be offended by this, they swoon at his oratory. It’s really not more complex than that,

3) Liberals will vote for Obama. He is their great hope,

4) Democrats will vote for Obama. He is the leader of their party and his coat tails will carry them to victory nationwide,

5) Hispanics will vote for Obama. He is the path to citizenship for those who are illegal and Hispanic leaders recognize the political clout they carry in the Democratic Party,

6) Union members will vote overwhelmingly for Obama. He is their key to money and power in business, state and local politics,

7) Big Business will support Obama. They already have. He has almost $1 Billion dollars in his reelection purse gained largely from his connections with Big Business and is gaining more everyday. Big Business loves Obama because he gives them access to taxpayer money so long as they support his social and political agenda,

8) The media love him. They may attack the people who work for him, but they love him. After all, to not love him would be racist,

9) Most other minorities and special interest groups will vote for him. Oddly, the overwhelming majority of Jews and Muslims will support him because they won’t vote Republican. American Indians will support him. Obviously homosexuals tend to vote Democratic. And lastly,

10) Approximately half of independents will vote for Obama. And he doesn’t need anywhere near that number because he has all of the groups previously mentioned. The President will win an overwhelming victory in 2012.

– Dr. Walter Williams

td

November 2nd, 2011
10:43 pm

Do a diddy diddy dum diddy dooooo..Now were together nearly every single day singing doo a diddy diddy dum diddy do!!!!.

Off de Plantation

November 2nd, 2011
10:54 pm

Centrist:
I found this on the net and it should be seen by all liberals and “plantation dwellers.” It’s about 7 min. long but an excellent video. You will appreciate it as will all conservatives and Cain bashers (Jimmie G. need not bother). Hope you enjoy.

BTW: Any liberal or other socialist will immediately turn it off even though it is an ex-plantation dweller doing the video.
OdeP

http://therealrevo.com/blog/?p=57506

Centrist

November 2nd, 2011
11:06 pm

Hmmm. I don’t think he is a journalist, isn’t wearing a suit, and has NO chance of being a Presidential Debate Moderator.

Mike H.

November 2nd, 2011
11:16 pm

Well, well, the City of Atlanta has had to pay out almost half a mil to clean up the Occupier mess. Now I see where the 2 largest mass-media hounds on planet Earth will be having a meeting with them this week. Jimmy Carter couldn’t make it but Jesse and Al couldn’t pass up a chance to stick their nose into something that involved scant few AFRICAN-Americans. What will that accomplish? Glad I moved out of Atlanta 40 years ago. Will they ever elect a mayor that is not a liberal, socialist weenie who isn’t a Dimocrat?

ND

November 2nd, 2011
11:53 pm

“Blacks will vote for Obama blindly. Period. Doesn’t matter what he does. It’s a race thing. He’s one of us,”

People who say things like this just expose how little they know about black people. The black people I know are split about 50/50 on either voting for Obama because the alternative would be worse or staying away from the polls altogether in disgust, with a few outliers willing to vote for a Republican. Regardless of what you want to believe out in Cumming and Kennesaw where black people are just a myth you see on television, they are not one homogeneous group.

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]

Frederick Douglass

November 3rd, 2011
12:05 am

To those on the right that say Herman Cain would rip the president to shreds in a debate, let’s hope and pray that the questions steer clear of whether China has nuclear weapons or not. What a monumental joke Cain is, and this guy’s the GOP front runner??????

SAWB

November 3rd, 2011
12:14 am

Ever since Presidential debates and the campaigns in general have been covered extensively by television have you noticed the best looking guy wins?

Kennedy over Nixon – pretty obvious
Johnson over Goldwater – close, but people were really voting for Kennedy
Nixon over Humphrey – a push I realize, but I still give Nixon the nod
Nixon over McGovern – see above
Carter over Ford – remember that hair and of course that big goofy grin
Regan over Carter – pretty obvious
Regan over Mondale – extremely obvious
Bush I over Dukakis – Bush old world prep versus eye brows from outer space
Clinton over Bush I – not even close
Clinton over Dole – Dole was a tough SOB, but Clinton was hotter
Bush II over Gore – close, but remember how weird Gore acted in the debates
Bush II over Kerry – please Kerry looked like Lurch from the Addams Family
Obama over McCain – obvious

td

November 3rd, 2011
12:51 am

I’m a coward!

Centrist

November 3rd, 2011
12:53 am

Do not say that about yourself thilly! Let me come over and make you feel better! ;)

Smoke

November 3rd, 2011
6:11 am

Wow. A “Resident Blogger” actually finding topics to his liking. What an unusual idea. Lehrer, Mattews, and at least one comment show how very petty things have swayed the opinions of who “won” debates.

Buckhead Boy

November 3rd, 2011
6:17 am

td, I would suggest William F. Buckley, Jr. and Barry Goldwater were they not deceased — as is thoughtful conservatism. Your difference between conservatives and liberals would be cute were it not that the liberals seem generally to count more guys with the military medals while the so-called conservatives number a whole lot of the draft deferred. However, analogies to violence really have no place in political discourse.

Smoke

November 3rd, 2011
6:21 am

So, Dixiecrats will vote blindly for the GOP candidate, uneducated women will vote for the GOP or not at all, conservatives will vote for a conservative, Republicans will vote for Republicans, Miami Cubans will vote Republican, Dixiecrats hate union workers, Big Business owners and some 1%’er love Republicans, Southern Baptist and Homophobes hate Obama, and probably 60% of independents will not vote for the Republican candidate. Yep. Obama will win re-election.

Smoke

November 3rd, 2011
6:44 am

This topic on books about Presidential Debates has brought up an interesting point by someone. What do Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Mormans, Hispanics, Homosexuals, educated women and Obama (and “folks” like him) have in common? They are all despised by Dixiecrats. Now, if only Liberals could just find a way to get “uneducated” women to stand up for themselves.

Stating the obvious...

November 3rd, 2011
6:45 am

This blog is becoming a joke….

Democratic Plantation Dweller

November 3rd, 2011
7:37 am

We always support the democrats.

Why should we have to think or work…we just let our elected officials take care of us.

Eli

November 3rd, 2011
8:26 am

Wow does td make some spot on accusations (I am referring to the bit about conservative violence and liberal tolerance).

We liberals believe in tolerance, and td…you are right. Conservatives would rather not listen and learn, if some one does not agree with you the policy you adopt is remarkably similar to those employed in other conservative regimes (ie Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Attila the Hun, the Catholic Church of the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries).

I can not say you remark applies to all liberals…but it is clear that we are smarter than you conservatives. Afterall, President Obama was able to help topple the Libyan regime, find and kill Qaddafi, and pull forces off the coast of Libya all in a matter of 3 months, for less than $ 2billion, and without losing a single American life. Amazing how much more efficient things work out when smart people are in the Oval Office.

cartoon

November 3rd, 2011
9:01 am

The recent ricin suspects and the math-majors who poisoned that dog with LSD are the grassroots of the Tea Party and the poster-children for the trolls who infect the Bookman, Kyle, and Galloway blogs. Bookman’s Army. Kyle’s collaborators and Galloway’s pests.

The ricin suspects made statements. Their syntax is identical to the handful of serial posters on bookman and Kyle.

cartoon

November 3rd, 2011
9:04 am

Best looking candidate wins? Then how do you explain Aaron Burr over Ben Franklin, moron?

Dave

November 3rd, 2011
9:52 am

Herman Cain started out blaming his accusers and the news media for the story alleging inappropriate behavior with at least two female employees when he headed the National Restaurant Association. He then turned to Democrats and liberals, arguing that they don’t want to see A Black Conservative win the GOP presidential nomination. And now Cain and his campaign are blaming Team Perry for leaking the story…..so typical of Republicans.

findog

November 3rd, 2011
10:20 am

Bob Schieffer is no liberal and he typically moderates one of the debates. Thing is that Bill and Sean are Fox News entertainers and not journalists; it’s a debate not the Gong Show…

findog

November 3rd, 2011
10:22 am

cartoon, I didn’t know they had TV in 1796

DJ Sniper

November 3rd, 2011
11:09 am

Here’s another reason to vote for Obama: None of the GOP candidates are worth a damn.

Redcoat

November 3rd, 2011
2:48 pm

Dixiecrat = Democrat……What I was always told…..someone is blowing smoke to redefine……another Democrat trait

Redcoat

November 3rd, 2011
2:55 pm

Eli………..Now Libya is turning more radical against the US ….Is that a smart move? Is he just speeding up the process?