On Civic Duty
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.
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 got to 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 got to 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.
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 sa¬¬¬¬crifice 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.
The Depression touched everybody. World War II touched everybody. These calamities that I’m talking about do not touch everybody automatically, just by their very nature. What I’m suggesting is – the variable here is – that the country, the leaders of our country – the leaders being the population – must accept and be encouraged to accept the fact that we are all touched by calamities.
We didn’t have to be in the Depression, or be in World War II to understand that this was our calamity; that Iraq was our calamity. Darfur is our calamity. When there is a calamity, we have a stake in it. And we have a responsibility.
The whole society, every element – family, school, church, whatever, as well as the political system; primarily the political system – has to be built on that. And the people who are running for office; Presidents of the United States; candidates for President of the United States, in my opinion, every one of them – I don’t care if you’re a left-winger, or a right-winger, or a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent – should tell the people the very worst and say, “Okay. I can fix this. But I can’t do it alone. Here’s what you can do.” And ask people to help and be very specific about it. And sometimes you may have to pay more taxes. “Oooooooo! Well okay. Alright.” Sometimes you may have to do this.
It’s got to be a culture.
The politicians argue and debate about how they’re going to resolve these things, and how everybody is going to be affected about it and what they can all do about it. Rather than; right now politicians tend to talk in terms of; they want to make everything so simple and so easy. None of this is simple and easy. And to act like we can go to war and only touch a few people in the volunteer military and their families. That’s what happened. And now it’s not working. And it’s beginning to touch more and more people. And the more and more people get touched, the more and more questions get asked, and the more and more everything becomes more and more difficult.
You have to get involved. And there are all kinds of ways you get involved.
If you take anybody in American; that there’s a day, and then there’s a week, then it’ll never happen. But every American must – in my opinion – feel, “Okay, we are now going to elect a new President. We are now going to deal with how we’re going to exercise our military power.” We this, we this, we that, we, we, we, we, we!
There’s all kinds of studies. Sociologists talk all the time about; we’re an “I” society. I did this. It’s only me, me, me, me and me. And there is no we, we, we.
I think, to touch on something I’ve said before, I think there’s a big “we” in all of us. It has to be utilized. It’s a goldmine waiting out there for us to be mined and used.
And part of the process, of course, is to be informed and to work at it. Find out what the issues really are. It’s all there. If somebody says to me, “Oh well, I don’t even know what’s going on about it. I mean nobody ever; the media doesn’t . . .”
And I said, “What is it the media hasn’t told you?”
“Well they haven’t told me about it.” And he tells me everything about this particular story.
And I say, “Well if the media didn’t tell you, how did you find out about it?”
“Oh well, actually I, uh, heard about it on NPR.”
So I say, “Oh! I guess the media did tell you.”
But at any rate, my point is that the thing that leads to activism in anything – whether it’s political activism or any kind of activism – is knowledge, is information. If somebody says to you; you live in a neighborhood and somebody comes knocks on your door and says, “We’re going to build a 7Eleven store right next to your house,” and you’ve never been active about anything in your life, suddenly you’re an activist. You don’t want to keep that 7Eleven store next to your house.
But you can keep moving that back and back. You go to the state capital and the state government. They want to pave all the pastures north of Goodland, Kansas or something like that.
“Oh my gosh! Hey! I’m an activist.”
But the information--you have to find out things first. You have to care enough. And somebody has to tell you about it. And out of that knowledge/information comes concern, and comes action, and comes resolution and togetherness.
Recorded: July 4, 2007.
Jim Lehrer talks about duty, shared experience, and what it means to serves one's country.
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