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.
Question: Do you feel a sense of purpose?
Jim Lehrer: It’s crucial. It’s essential for me. I think it’s essential for every human being. We all have it in us to want to give back; to want to serve; to want to have our best, rather than our worst.
For instance, I’m a big believer in mandatory national service, which is not a very popular view.
For instance, after 9/11 the young people of this country rose up and said, “What can we do?” And what did we say? The big “we”? They didn’t get an answer. They still haven’t gotten an answer! There’s no ordinary, organized, routine way for Americans to serve, not only to serve people who need service, but also to get the glow and the good feeling that comes from service. And I’ve served
My three years in the Marine Corps changed my life. In viewing that; just about everybody I knew before I went into the Marine Corps looked exactly like me, talked like me, thought like me. I had never ridden on an airplane before. All my travel had been in Texas, and Kansas, and Oklahoma on buses and stuff like that. And suddenly here I am in the Marine Corps on an airplane. I was suddenly responsible. I was a platoon leader. I was responsible for other people – their safety, their comfort. And the guy on the right, the guy on the left, we were all dependent. And it didn’t matter what he looked like. We were all together.
And the lessons of service; of what it does to your sense of self; what it did for me and what it; and everybody I talked to; talking about just the Marine Corps and the military. But service itself is a really satisfying experience. But some kids say, “You’ve gotta volunteer.” You’re going to tell some kid who can barely afford to go to school that he’s got to go volunteer? It sounds great; but he lives in a home with an income of $20,000 a year, and he’s supposed to volunteer too in addition? No! The kid’s gotta work.
And most volunteer service is performed by upper middle class Americans who can afford. Their parents can afford for them to volunteer. And so that’s why I’m a big believer in mandatory. It could be military option where everybody could choose what they wanted to do. We could figure out a system similar to the G.I. Bill. We could give schooling and credits and all that sort of stuff.
Because here is the problem. We talk about shared experience in the news. We have so few shared experiences now as Americans. We do live on our little places. And I’ve been fortunate because, not only because I was a Marine, but also I’m a journalist. I’ve seen all kinds of people. But I’ve also seen all kinds of people who have never seen all kinds of people. And they’re all clichés. And to me there’s no such thing as a cliché about an individual, whether it’s a racial cliché or a gender cliché. I’ve worked and lived with all kinds of people.
And if you have mandatory national service; it could be a Peace Corps; it could be a neighborhood corps; police corps; it could be a teacher corps, whatever.
The federal government could be the instrument, but it could be in conjunction with volunteer organizations and with private enterprise and all that.
But everybody has to serve – boys, girls, all kinds, whatever your capabilities are physically or mentally – for a couple of years. And I think; suddenly we would all be together forever.
You see, my three years ended it for me. In other words, it opened my eyes forever, you know? Those clichés never came back, and they never will for me. And I just wish that everybody had that experience.
I didn’t mean to make a speech here, but it’s really important to me.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.