The Last Debate by Jim Lehrer (1995)

LehrerLastDebateNot all that I expected, but very entertaining and thought-provoking nevertheless.

The Republican Party nominated James Meredith, a fundamentalist Christian, bigot, and all-around bad guy. Think Glenn Beck crossed with any of those megachurch preachers who rant and rave, and throw in a bit of Rick Perry or Santorum. The Democrats nominated Paul Greene, Governor of Nebraska, a colorless candidate everyone expects to lose. He may be a decent enough president, but he’s a remarkably bad campaigner.

Their respective campaign managers finally agree on having a single televised debate moderated by a well-known journalist, and three questioners who do not so much represent three different points of view (they all frankly hate Meredith) as three demographic categories: a well-known lady broadcast journalist, a relatively unknown black woman and a relatively unknown Hispanic man.

When these four meet to discuss the details the day before the debate, they take the unprecedented step of scrapping the format worked out by the campaign managers and decide they are going to basically attack Meredith with some pretty damming evidence that he’s . . . well, no spoilers.

When the debate comes to a dramatic conclusion, the book is only half over. Even the election results are received before the book has gotten to the final one-third. So most of the rest is taken up with Tom Chapman, the fictional author of this book, uncovering the who, what, where, how and why of the drama which unfolded before the largest TV audience ever recorded. Some of what he uncovers is predictable, and some is not. Perhaps some was not very predictable in 1995, when this book was written, but we have grown more cynical over the last 20 years.

I enjoyed the book a good bit, and found the story intriguing, but ultimately I was left with a few huge unanswered questions. Chapman is busy uncovering what happened immediately before and after the debate, but never goes into how these two candidates won their respective primaries, or how the country found themselves in such a fix that a group of journalists had to rescue it by violating their own ethical standards and risking their jobs.

I’m a cockeyed optimist, and will place my faith in the American people to the extent that I don’t believe we’d be so crazy. Or rather, that there are not enough crazies in positions of power to ever nominate a jerk like Meredith. Still, I can’t help thinking of the term “eternal vigilance” when I say that.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.