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.
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.”
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.
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