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 inspires you?
Jim Lehrer: Well it all goes back to when I was a kid. When I made the decision when I was a sophomore in high school, the decision was to be a writer. And I have been writing fiction since I was a teenager.
I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to be a reporter. But I also wanted to go into my imagination. I wanted to write stories – made up stories. And I got very much into Hemingway. I was a Hemingway-generation person.
Hemingway said, “You wanna be a writer? Get a job on a newspaper. It will force you to deal with the English language every day in some semi-coherent way. Keep food on the table. And if you really pay attention, you’ll meet all kinds of people that can later be characters in your novels or whatever fiction you’re writing. And most importantly you will be confronted with all kinds of human dilemmas in journalism that you can later use automatically when you come to write fiction."
And that’s certainly what’s happened to me.
Question: Do you have a creative process?
Jim Lehrer: I write a little bit on my fiction every day. It’s just what I do. Yes I have my day job. I do that too; but I do both things every day. And I have for years.
I don’t get up in the morning and say, “Am I gonna write today?” The only thing I think about is what I am going to write, not if I’m going to write.
I think probably what’s happened to me – and it’s glorious, and I’m so lucky to be able to do this – is that by writing fiction, I am free to let my imagination go. And any points of view that I have – I’m not talking about political influences, whatever it is – I can put it in my fiction, my characters. I can do that.
As a consequence, because I have the fiction, nobody should ever have to watch the NewsHour and say, “Who is Jim Lehrer? And what’s he really like? And what is his. . .”--you know?
I don’t want people thinking about that. I want them to pay attention to what I’m saying. And not who I am or what my views are. “Is he really sad,” or “Is he really happy,” or any of that sort of stuff.
And to keep my personality – my “persona” is probably a better way of putting it – away from what my purpose is, which is to present the news. And I think I’m freer to do that because I have my fiction.
It's an unlikely event that somebody’s interested and looking into the deep recesses of my mind and soul about some of my fundamental beliefs about human nature or whatever, read my fiction. Don’t watch the NewsHour. And I’m lucky to have those two things.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.