The Writer’s Center in Bethesda is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year, and what better way could there be to mark the occasion than a program with the premier journalist, author, and television news anchor Jim Lehrer? Very few journalists have his reputation for honesty, clarity, and in-depth analysis, and last evening Lehrer proved again how much he deserves that reputation.
The program began with an introduction by The Writer’s Center Executive Director Joe Callahan, who described the Center as a nonprofit, independent, literary organization, which seeks to cultivate the creation, publication, presentation, and dissemination of literary work. Callahan then introduced Jim Lehrer and gave a brief summary of Lehrer’s many previous awards, including television Emmys, the National Humanities Medal, the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s Medal of Honor, and honorary membership on the Board of The Writer’s Center. Lehrer then stepped up to the podium and Callahan presented him with The Writer’s Center Lifetime Achievement Award.
In his trademark casual, plain-spoken, self-deprecating, and humorous style, Lehrer gave an overview of his early life and his writing career. He came to journalism in what might be considered to be an odd way. As a 16-year-old high school sophomore in Beaumont, Texas, Lehrer desperately wanted to be a professional baseball player. While his ultimate goal was to be the shortstop for the then Brooklyn Dodgers, he quipped that, “Pee Wee Reese already had the job.” Unfortunately for Lehrer—but fortunately for journalism—his coach told him that he wasn’t good enough for professional baseball and suggested that he become a sports writer instead. From there it was a short leap to becoming a news writer.
Lehrer’s professional career began with the Dallas Morning News in 1959 and continued to the Dallas Times-Herald where he reported on the Kennedy assassination. Lehrer moved from print journalism to broadcast journalism at a local Dallas television station, where he served as editor and on-air host of a nightly news program. He moved on to PBS in Washington, DC, where he and Robert MacNeil covered the Senate Watergate hearings, and later became co-anchors of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. Lehrer is also the author of more than twenty books—fiction and nonfiction—and three plays.
For the second part of the program, Lehrer stepped away from the podium and was joined by Washington Post Book Editor Ron Charles for an informal, one-on-one interview. The two journalists sat in easy chairs, center stage, bathed in a soft spotlight. Lehrer described his approach to journalism by listing the “rules” that he abides by, such as “All journalists should be written about at least once and be misquoted at least nine times during their careers.” and “Even politicians deserve to be treated fairly.” He also said that one of the keys to his success was “not taking himself too seriously.”
Lehrer explained he had suffered a heart attack at the age of 49 and decided to reassess his life. He listed the things that gave him the most anxiety, such as cocktail parties and doing business over meals, and made a commitment to delete those things from his life.
Lehrer is well known as the moderator of twelve televised presidential candidate debates, and, in fact, was dubbed the “Dean of Moderators” by fellow journalist Bernard Shaw. So, it was not surprising that Charles concluded the interview with a question about Lehrer’s assessment of the 2016 presidential campaign. Lehrer responded that he was always an optimist and believed in the ability of the electorate “to come to the right conclusion,” but he is deeply concerned about the current election season. He spent his entire professional career seeking “factual reporting” and “civil discourse” in political life, but he laments “the unsourced crap” that is permeating all forms of media today and believes that the discourse is “the most uncivil he has ever seen.” Still, he reminded the audience that sometimes “good can come from chaos” and pledged to try to retain his optimism.
We found An Evening with Jim Lehrer to be a lively, fascinating, riveting, educational, uplifting, and thoroughly entertaining program. Kudos to The Writer’s Center for including this program in its 40th Anniversary event series!
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.
An Evening with Jim Lehrer was presented on Thursday, March 24, 2016 for one night only at the The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. For future presentations at The Writer’s Center, check out their Workshop and Event Calendar.