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: What do you believe?
Jim Lehrer: At the risk of sounding corny, I don’t know too many bad people in public life or in private life. I didn’t know any bad people when I was a kid, when I was growing up.
I was in the Marine Corps for three years. I didn’t know any bad people there.
Right up to this very day, I think instinctively, I think I assume the best rather than the worst. Maybe that’s why I’m still a practicing journalist--because you have to be an optimist to be a journalist. If you didn’t think the problems of global warming, or the Iraq war, or clean water, or crime, or drugs, or HIV could be solved; if you didn’t think they could be solved, you couldn’t be a journalist. You couldn’t do stories about them. You’d be depressed all the time about all the awful problems.
Somebody said, “You journalists are such cynics.”
And I said, “No. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s no such thing as a cynical journalist. You can’t be cynical and be a journalist. You have to be an optimist. And I’m very much an optimist. And it’s always been that way, and it’s true in my journalism. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m interviewing somebody; I don’t judge them as people or even on what their views are. I’m there to let other people make those judgments. Think of that.
It would be really hard to sit on television – live television – and interview somebody that you thought; I don’t do that. I don’t allow myself that luxury. It could be that this guy is a jerk, and you may prove it in a few moments on television; but I don’t assume that. And I don’t make those judgments.
And the same thing applies in my novels. People; because none of us are all evil. I mean, there are some people who do evil things, including us, including me, you know? And we also do good things. And I always assume the good. As I say it sounds corny, but that’s just how I am.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.