Lehrer To Broadcast at Commencement

NewsHour host will bring 50 years of journalism experience to the podium

After 20 years of putting presidential candidates on the spot, celebrated broadcast journalist Jim C. Lehrer will command the spotlight today when he reports to graduates of the Class of 2006.

Lehrer is the current anchor of the long-running “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on the PBS network, a role that is underscored by nearly half a century of hard-hitting political reporting.

A ‘JUMP START’

Born in 1934 during the Dust Bowl, Lehrer was raised in the Midwest, and by age 18, he had set his sights on being a professional writer.

After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1956, Lehrer enlisted in a three-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. Upon returning, he began his professional career working for The Dallas Morning News, and he later joined the staff of The Dallas Times-Herald. At 34, Lehrer became the paper’s city editor.

“My decision to be a journalist was a decision to be a writer,” said Lehrer, who has also penned several novels, short stories, and plays. He added that working as a daily reporter was a “jump start”—an experience that allowed him to interact with different people, glean material for his story plots, and “always keep moving.”

As a Times-Herald reporter on the federal-law beat, Lehrer covered former president John F. Kennedy’s 1963 campaign tour in Dallas, Texas—an assignment that placed him just miles away from Kennedy’s assassination that same day. Lehrer would later author the formerly anonymous tribute engraved on a memorial erected at the site of the assassination.

In the early 1970s, Lehrer moved his family to Washington D.C., where he became a public affairs coordinator for PBS. He called the move a “natural transition,” adding that he “was already politically aware and politically interested.”

‘MIND-SEARING’

Lehrer teamed up with journalist Robert B.W. MacNeil to cover the U.S. Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. The duo anchored the hearings live on PBS for 47 days and subsequently scored an Emmy Award.

The Watergate coverage resulted in an enduring professional relationship between the two that blossomed during their 20-year collaboration on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.”

MacNeil, who designed and ran the show with Lehrer, said his colleague harbored the “kind of intelligence that instantly goes to the heart of any issue, whether it is some personal quandary...or an issue of a professional nature.”

“He has an instantly self-adjusting moral compass and understands issues very rapidly,” MacNeil added.

Following MacNeil’s retirement in 1996, the show adopted its current title.

“I have the fortunate situation where I’m allowed five nights a week to practice the kind of journalism I want to practice,” Lehrer said. “I am not answerable to anyone, and my mistakes are my own.”

Lehrer is also a household name come election time, having moderated 10 of the nationally televised debates in the past five presidential elections.

He described moderating as a “mind-searing” yet “exhilarating” experience that involves great discretion, adding that “I have scars on my psyche I can show you.”

“If you mess it up, you can, in fact, influence who wins the election,” Lehrer said. “As long as people aren’t talking about me when [the debate] is over with, it’s a good thing.”

THE GOLDEN EGG

As a celebrated writer, Lehrer has published 15 books, three plays, and two memoirs. He said that he uses fiction to air out his views and satirize aspects of “bad conduct among us all.”

MacNeil said that Lehrer was “extremely creative, with more ideas than any of us.” He likened his former co-worker to a hen, joking that “if you reach under Jim Lehrer, there’s a warm novel that’s just been laid.”

His 16th book “The Phony Marine” will be published later this year, and another novel is in the works for next spring.

Lehrer was honored with the National Humanities Medal in 1999 and has been awarded with various honors in journalism. He and his wife Kate have three daughters and six grandchildren. He will be giving today’s Commencement address and receiving an honorary degree from the University.

—Staff writer Ying Wang can be reached at yingwang@fas.harvard.edu.