Monday, January 30, 2012

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain by Jim Lehrer

Tension City sounds like a honky tonk song from Loretta Lynn more than a book title by respected National Public Radio commentator and producer Jim Lehrer. Lehrer borrowed the words “Tension City” from President George H.W. Bush, who used them to describe how he felt about presidential debates as Lehrer described in this C-Span interview.

Lehrer, author of twenty novels, three plays and two memoirs, has moderated eleven presidential and vice-presidential debates, starting with Bush-Dukakis in 1988. Tension City provides his insider view of the debates he participated in as well as tidbits from follow-up interviews with many of the politicians who were running for office.

I thoroughly enjoyed the history lesson. Some of the incidents I remember from having watched the debates myself -- the first Bush checking his watch and Gore's sighs in his debate with the second Bush -- but many of the incidents Lehrer writes about contain details only someone who was on the stage can provide. Lehrer has a clear voice, and he is as critical of his own performance as he is of the candidates. I admire his ability to remain impartial in demanding political settings.

Several reviewers criticized Tension City as being too personal, but that's what I found to be charming.  I did not find Lehrer's book too fluffy. The chapters of the book do not progress in a lineal chronology, and I liked that, too. Lehrer's prowess as an author of fiction transfers well to his vivid memoir; it reads well at a fast pace and is never boring.  Now that I have read Lehrer's nonfiction, I may try some of his other books. I'm curious about what kind of plays he writes. Will they be political? And I learned that his wife Kate is an author also, so I have another name to add to my list of authors to sample.

Check out Lehrer’s PBS biography, and just for fun take a look at some of Loretta’s song titles

- Michelle, Adult Services


  1. Thanks for the great review. I heard a wonderful interview with Lehrer on my favorite radio show, The Book Report, a couple weeks ago. The show isnt syndicated in Iowa but you can catch it online or in the archives at

  2. Samantha, thanks for passing on the link to the interview on The Book Report. I checked out Lehrer's novel "The Phony Marine," and it will probably be my next staff review. - Michelle