Presidential debates are often referred to as blood sport, but only once in his 11 turns as moderator did Jim Lehrer ever fear that one might actually get physical. That was the famous third Bush-Gore debate from 2000, when Gore suddenly started invading the future president’s personal space.
“It looked like Gore was going to run right over him,” Lehrer recalls. “I had a couple of beats of absolute panic. I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do — throw myself between these two guys?”
That’s just one of Lehrer’s “Major Moments,” tide-turning events in the history of American presidential debates that the veteran “Newshour” host relates in his new book, “Tension City.” Lehrer traces the evolution of the political face-offs from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain. The author himself has the best seat in the house for more of those debates than any other moderator in history.
Though he admits that he declared at least three of those debates to be his last, Lehrer now says he’s “rock solid” on his retirement. “I’ve done my job for my profession and my country and now it’s time for some others to do it,” he says, though he admits he’ll miss the gig. “It’s exhilarating, it’s hairy, it’s scary. The potential for making a fool of yourself in a big way is there. But, I’ve never failed to feel touched by the fact that this was an important thing I was part of.”