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: 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.
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.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.