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.
Jim Lehrer: I’m the anchor and Executive Editor of the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. And I’m a novelist.
Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Jim Lehrer: Well the 30s. I was born in 1934. And you’re right. The Depression was on. I can legitimately consider myself a child of the Depression. Nobody had anything. And so when you’re not used to having something, when you do have something, you appreciate it a lot more. And because everybody was in the same boat, there was also a kind of an affinity of misery. And as a consequence, there was no misery. In other words, if everybody is suffering the same way, the same thing, it was a kind of, “We’re all in this together.” And I felt that was me as a kid. Then World War II came. We lived in Wichita, Kansas; where they built the B-17s and the B-29s. My mother, in fact, worked on the assembly line of the B-29s as a bar coder at a Boeing plant in Wichita. And World War II, we thought that the Japanese were going to bomb us any moment – because we had the Boeing plant there – after Pearl Harbor. But what it did for me is, the war was very present. Even though it was physically very far away, it was very much a part of our lives. And my dad had been a Marine in the 1920s. I decided right then and there that someday I would grow up to be a Marine, and so did my older brother. And as a matter of fact that’s what happened. But all that stuff kind of began there. World War II was similar to the Depression in that there was a togetherness about it. And it wasn’t “him” and “her” and “me” and “them” and “they”. It was all of us at war, all of us doing the best we could to beat the bad guys and to protect ourselves from the bad guys.
Topic: The lessons of suffering.
Jim Lehrer: So I think frankly I am fortunate. I know that sounds strange; but I am fortunate that I did have the Depression and World War II in those early years. Because of those two day-to-day experiences, I have never ever been somebody who took anything for granted because it was part of my growing up and part of my formation into who I am today I think, that it all began with wondering if we were going to have enough money to have dinner tonight; whether or not somebody next to me, or some member of my family, was going to die in the war. It heightened everything. It heightened awareness; heightened interest; heightened the intensity of life. And I still feel that.
Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?
Jim Lehrer: Well I am one of those people who can honestly say; I’ll bet everybody can say this; I was influenced in my early years by individual teachers who said things to me, who did things for me, who explained things to me, who taught me things that, at the time, I had to be receptive for whatever reason. I happened to like what I heard from a teacher. In grade school in Wichita, Kansas, I wrote a little description of a character. And the woman – her name was Ms. Litton – had me read it out loud. I was in the fifth grade. And she laughed and everybody laughed. And I thought it was just marvelous to think that I could make people laugh with something I’d written. And it had an impression. Later on when I was a sophomore in high school, the biggest thing that ever happened to me happened then. A similar experience.
Question: When did writing first spark your interest?
Jim Lehrer: I’d written a paper for a sophomore English class, and it was about Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities”. They called them “themes” then, but it was a paper. And the teacher gave me an “A”, which I richly deserved. It was superb. But more important she wrote up in the left-hand corner, “Jimmy, you’re a very good writer!” And it meant everything to me. There were those early days with the other teacher and all that. My mother was a big reader, and my brother and I were both big readers because my mother was a big reader. And that sophomore year also, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I was going to play shortstop for what was then called the Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers. But I wasn’t a good enough player and coach told me that. And I knew it. I didn’t have to be told. But at any rate, I met some sports writers who came to our baseball games. And this was in Beaumont, Texas. And the thing with the theme – the “Tale of Two Cities” theme – about the same time I realized that I wasn’t going to be a good ball player and I couldn’t play ball, I just thought, “Wait a minute! Maybe I could be a sports writer.” And so I told my mother. I remember I just went home and told my mother, “I’m going to be a writer.” I went back to the school the next day, found the faculty advisor and said essentially, “Here I am.” And now I was a sophomore in high school. And I’ve just been doing it ever since. And I had another experience; I went to a tiny junior college the first two years of college in Texas. And I wanted to go to Missouri to a famous journalism school. I’d never set foot in the place before, but I got the catalogs and all that and decided I wanted to go to Missouri to journalism school the last two years. The first two years junior college; second two years get a degree in journalism. And I applied and I got a letter back from University of Missouri that said, “We can’t accept your credits. It’s a school we’ve never heard of. Forget it.” And the dean of the school; there was only 300 students in the school; the dean of the school said to me, “Jimmy, do you really wanna go to the University of Missouri?” And I said, “Yes sir, I really do.” And he said, “Well, are you willing to roll the dice for it?” And I said, “Well what do you mean?” And he said, “Well I’m gonna write these boom booms a letter and tell them that this kid can do this. And you send any test you want down here. We will give it to him under any circumstance you want. Under the condition, if he passes them, you will admit him as a junior.” So some guy in Missouri said, “Okay” and called his bet, called his bluff and said, “Okay. We’ll do it.” So I took five examinations – English grammar and history, mathematics, all the others, the whole thing – and I aced them. And I was admitted into the University of Missouri as a high junior, even. And here again, my three stories are linked because these are three people who helped me at crucial times in my life. And I’m not saying, “Oh well, if Ms. Litton back in the fifth grade hadn’t said that; if people hadn’t laughed, I wouldn’t have been a writer. I would have been a journalist. And the same thing at Beaumont high school in Texas or at Victoria Junior College in Texas.” All I know is that because of what those three people did, good things happened.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.