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: Who are we?
Jim Lehrer: Well, at the risk of sounding political – and I don’t mean this politically at all – I think some of the awful things that have happened in the country [USA] recently are the result of our not having shared experiences as citizens of all races, creeds, ages, sizes, abilities, whatever.
We go to war, just a certain number of people do the fighting for us. And the rest of us aren’t even affected. On Iraq, I asked the President of the United States [George W. Bush] in an interview I did. I said, “Mr. President, you’ve said the war against terror is the single most important thing that’s come into this country, for the United States of America, in centuries. But have you not asked all of us to participate?”
“Oh well, you know . . .”
I don’t mean to put the President down; but the thinking isn’t that you have to sacrifice when there’s a situation that arises like war, or a Katrina.
Katrina; Remember how everybody rose then, too? They say, “Oh, well what can we do about Katrina?” Go to New Orleans today. Go to the shoreline of Mississippi today. Misery is still there. We don’t follow up. We don’t feel responsible for New Orleans. We don’t feel responsible for Iraq one way or another.
Question: How do you make sense of what you see today?
Jim Lehrer: Some people would argue – I’ll let the politicians argue this – some of them would argue that if we didn’t have a volunteer military, we’d never have gone to war in Iraq because the public argument would have kept that from happening.
I’m not so sure. I don’t know. But who knows what might have happened?
The more of us who are involved in all of these big events; it’s cumbersome as hell--because democracy is always cumbersome, it’s complicated.
But three guys can’t get in a room and decide to go to war. You just can’t do that. It’s going to take all kinds of new forms of communication, and leadership – leadership, leadership, leadership – to get all these things done.
But to answer your question, I’m not upbeat at all about where we are with our country right now. Some of the things we have done as a country, as a nation, as a people, disturb me. Because I think we’ve done some things. Things have been done in our name. As far as I’m concerned, we did it.
Question: What is America’s place in the world?
Jim Lehrer: I’m an American. I’m responsible for what happens in my name, and that’s how I feel about it. It’s one of those things that really bothers me.
I hate it that we couldn’t get our act together and help those people rebuild in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I don’t understand why we had to take military action against Iraq in such a way that caused the calamity that has resulted.
There are people in the world who hate us. I mean really hate us. You say “America” or “American"; we’re a red flag to a lot of people in the world. And it really disturbs me because we’re basically really good people. We have got to be given an opportunity to demonstrate our goodness. Our goodness has got to be called upon all the time. It can’t be haphazard. That’s the big lesson; the last several years leading up to this very moment; that if you don’t ask of the good, the good may not happen. And you get what you expect. And if you expect the best, then you have the means by which to call everybody to task. And you must absolutely need to encourage people, and to encourage us all to do better. And I don’t think we’re doing that. And that bothers me more than anything.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.