Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1934, Jim Lehrer attended Victoria College. In 1956, he received a Bachelor's journalism degree from the University of Missouri before joining the Marine Corps, where he served three years as an infantry officer. For the following decade, Lehrer worked as a reporter in Dallas, before moving on to a local experimental news program on public television.
He came to Washington with PBS in 1972 and teamed up with Robert MacNeil in 1973 to cover the Senate Watergate hearings. In 1975, they started what became "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" and then the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" in 1983, the first 60-minute evening news program on television.
The program became The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in 1995 when MacNeil retired. Lehrer has received numerous awards for his work, including a presidential National Humanities Medal in 1999. He also has moderated ten of the nationally televised candidate debates in the last five presidential elections.
Lehrer is the author of 17 novels, including Eureka (2007), The Phony Marine (2006), The Franklin Affair (2005), and Flying Crows (2004). He has also written two memoirs and three plays. Lehrer and his wife, Kate, have been married since 1960. They have three daughters and six grandchildren.
Question: When you read the newspapers, what issues stand out?
Jim Lehrer: Well I think that the biggest issue for us – as a country, as a nation, as a people, as an American people – is that we are the most powerful nation in the world any way you want to look at it. Even with all those problems, we’re still the military power of the world, the economic power of the world. Yes, China and others are growing, but we’re still the economic power of the world. We’re the cultural power of the world. People wear our clothes. They listen to our music. They see our movies.
For me, the biggest issue of all is how we, the American people, exercise this power.
There are all kinds of ways to exercise power. One, you can use the fist. You can use the quiet talking way.
What troubles me is that we have not given enough thought, there’s not been enough open debate about how we exercise the power. What is it that we want to do with this military power? What is it we want to do with our economic power? For instance, the power to clean up things in the environment. Global warming; everybody is very concerned about global warming. And there are always going to be things like this. We have the power to fix these things. We have the power to influence others to do things. We, the United States of America, in my opinion, should be the power to get others to do the good things, and to stop the bad people from doing the bad things because. We have that power.
And it doesn’t mean that we have to exercise military power. Sometimes the best power is the power that’s not exercised. You just have it, you know? And if it’s exercised in restraint, sometimes it’s the most powerful thing there is. I just want to say to me, that is an issue. That’s why I want Presidents of the United States. I don’t give a damn what party they are or what their political persuasion is. I want the President of the United States to come to grips with the power that they have as the leader of this great power. And to quit acting. I’m not talking about pushing people around. Quite the contrary. Or making everybody look like us, and talk like us, and whatever. But to me our power is the number one issue. Everything else flows from that in my opinion.
Jim Lehrer: Well one thing I do know, that the 2008 presidential election is going to be, in my opinion, one of the most important elections we’ve had in this country in a long, long time.
We have no Vice President who’s automatically the nominee. We have no frontrunner, surefire nominee at this point. Everything is on the table.
I think we have a wide variety of candidates on both parties, plus the possibility of an Independent candidacy or two. We have an opportunity, and we have time. This campaign, people are complaining about how long the campaign is. I think that’s terrific. Everybody gets tested. Everybody gets known so that it increases the chances of our not making a mistake if we go through this long, long involved process that some people find boring. I don’t find it boring at all! How in the world can it be boring for a campaign that’s going to lead in the election of the President of the United States?
But anyhow, I’m optimistic that something really good’s going to come out of this election. And it has less to do with individuals – whoever wins – but the process is going to force everyone involved in the process to talk about things that matter.
Yes, Iraq is forefront. But there are all kinds of “have” and “have not” issues arising. There are an awful lot of people in this country – right now as we sit here – who are working eight hours a day, five days a week, and are not making enough money to house themselves and their families, educate their families. And the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in the United States of America is going up all of the time. That is a huge issue.
Education has a lot. The biggest issue everybody says, knee-jerk, “Education is a big issue.”
Well if it’s such a big issue why aren’t we fixing it? There’s not one thing in the way. We have all the resources. The United States of America can educate every child in America beautifully without even thinking about it. We have the resources. We have the people. We’re smart enough to do it. God knows we have the resources. Because educated people tend to be better citizens, better everything. And it really does raise all the votes and all of that.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.