The Insider: ‘NewsHour’s’ Lehrer A(orta)-OK

Jun 29, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Eight weeks after undergoing aortic valve replacement surgery, Jim Lehrer was back at the anchor desk of public broadcasting’s “The NewsHour” June 26. The Insider spoke with him the following morning about why he’s feeling almost two decades younger after eight weeks of proving to himself that his brain still works, exercising and indulging in some couch-potato pleasures. He also explained why a corporate underwriting crunch is good for “NewsHour” and why, for those viewers who want to see what’s happening at the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions this summer before the talking heads begin nattering, the gavel-to-gavel coverage on public broadcasting stations is the place to go.
The Insider: To start with the obvious question: How did it feel to be back at work?
Jim Lehrer: It feels good. You’re always a little nervous about these kinds of things. Can I still say “Good evening”? Can I still smile, do all those things? There’s a groove to doing daily television. I started back toward the groove last night and I feel good about it. I’m taking the first step toward the groove and I’m doing great.
The Insider: What was the significance of returning on a Thursday instead of earlier in the week?
Mr. Lehrer: There was no real significance. I‘m trying to make myself as comfortable as possible coming back. I thought the most comfortable thing I could do would be to run a discussion with Mark Shields and David Brooks, which is Friday. But before I did that, I thought, well, maybe I’ll just come back and be just a pretty face. Go one day where I can see if I can make the chair work and the TelePrompTer and make sure the lights don’t blind me and that sort of stuff.
The Insider: You are 74. What age do you feel right now?
Mr. Lehrer: Oooh, I feel about 56.
The Insider: You had surgery, but what have you been doing as part of your rehab that makes you feel good?
Mr. Lehrer: First of all, I wanted to make sure—because this is heavy surgery, as you know, it’s tough stuff, it’s rough, it’s very invasive—the first thing I wanted to make sure once I came to and realized I was alive and that I hurt, but other than that, I wanted to know if my mind was still working. In other words, was the blood still getting to my brain? In order to do that, I tested myself by fooling with my books. As coincidence would have it, my next novel had just arrived [from] Random House, and they wanted me to check the copy edits. It was an easy way to test: Did I remember writing this book?
The Insider: Was there anything that came as a surprise to you?
Mr. Lehrer: No. No. It was delightful. I mean, it was an easy thing. It was all written down in front of me. That didn’t take very long. Then, my next novel, it turned out my editor had done his first read, so I needed then to go to a next draft. I was able to remember that book. And work on it here and there, not heavy-duty. Obviously, you have to be interested in the news or you couldn’t do this line of work as long as I have. I found I still cared about who was going to be the next president of the United States and whether there’s going to be peace in Iraq and all those kinds of things. I just wanted to make sure that mentally I was working. And I was, at least as I’m talking to you now, with no discernible drop in my mental capabilities. Daily journalism is daily journalism. Daily live television journalism is a separate and special category. I had to make sure that I wanted to do it and I could do it, and I felt I could, and that is why last night was so important. I don’t feel like an old man. I’m back physically to where I was before the operation. I’m about 99.9%, let’s put it that way. I exercise an hour every day. That always makes me feel good in the brain, as well as the body. I’ve lost some weight, which I needed to do. It’s a helluva way to lose it, but nevertheless I have. I’m just feeling good. I’ve got a terrific family that has supported me all the way through this. It makes me feel good about who I am and that I got through this. Not only did I get through it, I more than survived. That’s the bottom line. I’m doing better than I was before. That’s why I feel 56.
The Insider: When you were keeping up with the news, did you watch any newscasts or news outlets you don’t usually watch?
Mr. Lehrer: I watched the network nightly news programs. In Washington, there’s a 6 o’clock feed [of “NewsHour”] and there’s a 7 o’clock feed. Occasionally I would dip into the other nightly news programs, but not on a regular basis, but I didn’t watch them as a way of judging them, but I very seldom ever get to see them, because I’m usually on the air myself and by the time I get home, I’m not interested in any more of this. It was a nice thing to watch the other broadcasts.
The Insider: Did you spend any time watching cable news?
Mr. Lehrer: Only when there were major news events. I’m not a cable news watcher, except when there are major news events. For instance, Tim Russert’s death and the events surrounding Tim’s tragedy. I watched cable television then. But as a general rule, I am not a regular viewer of cable television news. When the primaries were hot, I watched some of that. I am not a habitual cable news watcher, because I’m in the business. I don’t need some cable television guy to tell me about what I’ve just seen on the wires.
The Insider: Speaking of Tim Russert, the name of Gwen Ifill, who’s a senior correspondent on “NewsHour,” has been very much in play as a possible successor to Mr. Russert on “Meet the Press.” Is there anything you can or would like to say?
Mr. Lehrer: Gwen’s terrific. I’m from the “more power to you” school. We want very much — she’s very much a part of our family, the “NewsHour” family with “Washington Week,” the PBS family — I hope she doesn’t want to leave the family, but I can certainly understand, with her skills, why NBC could be or might be interested in her. But I have no inside information about that.
The Insider: Any guilty pleasures you indulged in while you were recuperating?
Mr. Lehrer: My wife and I have not stayed up with a lot of regular television. We have three daughters and one of them keeps telling us — she’s the one who told us several years ago, “Mom and Dad, there’s this thing on television called ‘The Sopranos.’ You’ve got to watch it.” I said, “What’s it about?” She said, “It’s about a Mafia family.” I said, “Gimme a break.” I’ve seen all the “Godfathers.” I thought “Goodfellas,” Nick Pileggi’s book and that movie, was terrific. She said, “Watch it.” So we watched it and we got hooked beyond anything. We became fanatics. The same thing happened with “Friday Night Lights.” We had never watched “Friday Night Lights.” Same daughter said, “You’ve got to watch while you’re recuperating.” So we signed up for Netflix. We’re in the middle of “Friday Night Lights.” We’re both of us hooked. “The Tudors,” the same way. So all of that, plus all kinds of old movies. A lot of movies we’ve already seen. I’m writing a book now that takes place on a train, so I’m watching every train movie: “Murder on the Orient Express,” “North by Northwest,” all that sort of stuff. We’ve had a ball watching all kinds of stuff, all the old “Thin Man” movies with Dick Powell and Myrna Loy. It’s been a bonanza of decadence.
The Insider: Anything you can share about plans for PBS’ coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer?
Mr. Lehrer: We’re going to be there every night. All the prime stuff, we’re going to go gavel-to-gavel with most of it. We’ll have our full team there, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez and Margaret Warner. Mark Shields and David Brooks are going to be there. Our presidential historians. Right from the halls, full blast.
The Insider: Any other details? As unusual as this primary season was, is this going to follow the playbook?
Mr. Lehrer: We will take some special routes, some special stops here and there. We’re going to play the story as it lays. Our mission, we feel, is to give people a feel, the real words, all of the words that are spoken of consequence at the conventions, and to add context. That’s the business we’re in. We’re not there to facilitate fights. If there is a fight, we’ll cover it, but we’re going to cover it the way we cover everything. The last several convention cycles, we’ve been there big-time. A couple of times we even collaborated with NBC, but now they have MSNBC, so we don’t collaborate with them anymore. We’re big at the conventions. We essentially tell people, “Hey, you stick with us and you won’t miss a thing that matters. But if you don’t stick with us, what you will miss is context and some discussion about what it means.” The beauty of television, the purpose of television, one of its purposes, is to bring you there and let you hear it and witness it yourself. Then you do the talking about it. I do think you have to do both, but if you just start with the talk, in my opinion, you’re eliminating one of the major purposes of live television. You’ve got to get the mix right and you’ve got to understand it’s a double mission.
The Insider: What’s the prognosis for “NewsHour’s” corporate underwriting? Is it being battered by the overall economy and the stock market roller-coaster ride?
Mr. Lehrer: This is not a good period for all of that, but we’re always, we’ve never had what you’d call a great period for funding. There’s always something going. Some people on the staff, their eyes roll when I say this, but being a little hungry is good for us. It’s always been good for us. You’re a little more careful about how you spend your resources. You’re a little more creative in terms of making your resources stretch. All of those kinds of things are good for us. Years ago, when we first started, a friend of mine who shall remain nameless, a commercial television guy, said, “Jim, don’t ever let them give you too much money.” I see this guy, he’s still around, I say, “Hey, hey, hey, I followed your advice.”
The Insider: I’m guessing your commercial broadcaster friend is in much the same situation now. He doesn’t have to worry about being given too much money these days.
Mr. Lehrer: Oh, absolutely. It’s reversed now. We are more settled, not in terms of corporate underwriting, but more settled in our purpose. We don’t have to wake up every day and try to figure out who we are. Those poor folks, because their resources are shrinking, and they’re panicked by competition now, they’re waking up every day and saying, “Now tell me again what it is? Are we there to give the headlines? Or are we there to do in-depth? What is it?” And they’re exploring it, and I feel for them because they’re good people.
I’m not trying to evade your question. The thing about corporate underwriting specifically, yes, it’s difficult right now. But we’re working on it and we’ve done our own trimming, nothing draconian, but we’re making do. And I believe with all my heart and soul, this has nothing to do with me, that there will always be a program like ours on the air. The country needs it. There are enough people who support it. There will always be enough people who support it and enough people who will watch it to make it a going Jenny of some kind and on some level, so I am not in a state of panic.
The Insider: A “going Jenny”?
Mr. Lehrer: That’s a Southwest Texas expression. It’s a car. An old car is a Jenny that has broken down and been fixed and now it’s a going Jenny. It’s an old bus expression, too. A going Jenny is a bus that’s working, is running, is on the road, moving.

One Comment

  1. Good post, thanks

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