Jim Lehrer was more than a writer of novels!


News anchor also wrote plays: There’s nothing wrong with writing plays. Shakespeare did it a lot!

That said, we were surprised by Thursday’s report about Jim Lehrer’s new play. We didn’t know the newsman wrote plays, though we knew all about his novels.

Laura Bennett handled the history in the New York Times:
BENNETT (9/11/13): Mr. Lehrer’s career in television news has made him famous. But far less well known is that he has always loved writing for the theater, and that he is the author of four plays. (He also has 21 novels to his name.) His first play in two decades opens at the National Geographic Society here on Thursday: “Bell,” a one-man show about Alexander Graham Bell.


Growing up in Wichita, Kan., Mr. Lehrer decided he wanted to write fiction. In college, he studied playwriting, but after a short stint in the Marines, he became a journalist. Then in 1983, after watching the Redskins, he had a heart attack. His doctor advised him to make two lists: things he most enjoyed, and tasks that ate up his energy and time.

So Mr. Lehrer sat down with a notepad. He hated flying between Washington and New York. He was done with business lunches. But he knew what he loved: his family, and writing fiction. Finally, he thought, he’d like to try his hand at a play. The first script he finished was “Chili Queen” in 1986, about a small-town chili parlor. Then came “Church Key Charlie Blue” in 1988 and “The Will and Bart Show” in 1992.
It wasn’t just the 21 novels. He also wrote three plays!

There’s nothing wrong with writing novels, as Jane Austen proved. Still, it has become increasingly hard to keep up with the news as the news has been “democratized.” And we'd assume that writing 21 novels takes a lot of time.

(We could be wrong about that.)

Un-oh! As the news became “democratized,” the discourse came to be dominated by all kinds of shaky assertions, bogus claims and ridiculous Standard Press Corps Tales. It’s hard to get clear on all the bogus claims floating about, some of which are flatly false, many of which are only grossly misleading.

It’s hard to get clear on claims of this type even if you have a staff. We’d assume it’s even harder to do if you’re writing 21 novels.

We only say this because Lehrer sometimes seem a bit clueless about even some famously bogus claims in The Big Golden Book of Standard Press Corps Tales. In recent years, he keeps repeating the famous old groaner about Nixon winning that first debate among people who listened on the radio. He also keeps suggesting that Gennifer Flowers was a figure of rectitude.

As he worked on all those novels, was Lehrer keeping up?

Whatever! Observing the rules of the game, Bennett profiles Lehrer as a patient, civil person who doggedly seeks the truth. Beyond that, she lets him advance his ongoing rehab campaign concerning events of last year:
BENNETT: In the society’s Grosvenor Theater, Mr. Lehrer, 79, had the same patient air he brought to “PBS NewsHour” and the 12 presidential debates he moderated: the quiet civility, the eagerness to listen.

“Jim has a passion for complete ideas,” said Jeremy Skidmore, the director of “Bell.” “ ‘NewsHour’ was unique in that they didn’t want to do interviews that were sound bites. And as a playwright, Jim wants to sit with an entire section of Bell’s life before he moves on.”

Rick Foucheux, who plays Bell, once aspired to be a news anchor himself. “When I watch Jim, I see the reason he went that direction and I didn’t,” he added. “He’s got that natural curiosity to figure out the way the world works.”

Mr. Lehrer said he has no plans to return to television, especially given the bruising he endured after moderating the first presidential debate last fall, for which he came out of semiretirement. His wife, Kate, warned him not to: Twitter could be brutal. His style of polite discourse was no longer the norm.

“She had told me, you know, you could get hurt,” Mr. Lehrer said. “And she was right.” He shook his head. “It’s something that I did not have to do. But I convinced myself I had to.”
Poor Lehrer! He was badly mistreated by Twitter! His style of polite discourse was no longer the norm!

Within the guild, everyone knows to say these things about Lehrer. He's a patient, civil man who is eager to listen. Why did he become an anchor? Because he has that natural curiosity to figure out how the world works!

In some sense, in most contexts, those portraits may all be true. But even now, 53 years later, Lehrer doesn’t seem to know what happened in that first Kennedy-Nixon debate. And in his books and his public appearances, he still pretends he doesn’t know why Candidate Gore refuses to speak with him for public consumption about the 2000 debates.

(We don’t know why Gore keeps refusing to be interviewed by Lehrer. But we can make a pretty good guess; Lehrer keeps playing dumb.)

We’re sure that Lehrer is a good decent person among his family and friends. That said, he played a remarkably inappropriate role in the presidential debates of 1996 and 2000, with a bit of his stance lingering on in 2004. Oddly enough, he described his peculiar conduct in the Clinton-Dole debates in his own book, Tension City, in 2011. But he’s still largely playing it dumb about the Bush-Gore debates.

We think Lehrer showed very bad judgment in those crucial sets of debates. Rather plainly, he was part of the insider cult which had come to resent and dislike Clinton and his chosen successor, Gore. Good God! In the second debate in 1996, he tried to get Candidate Dole to talk about Gennifer Flowers, he weirdly reveals in his book. (Gennifer Flowers!) In 2000, we’d have to say that he behaved rather badly all through the Bush-Gore debates.

In his book and his public appearances, he pretends he doesn’t understand the complaints about 2000. The key word there is “pretends.”

Judging from what he himself has written, Lehrer got himself tangled up in the cult which believed that Clinton and Gore had large “character” problems. Our view? Maybe if he hadn’t spent so much time writing novels (and even three plays), he might have had a clearer grip on the real events of the world.

We know, we know! You’ve never heard anyone say that Lehrer did something wrong in those debates. That is exactly the problem! No one but us will ever tell you, including, it seems, Laura Bennett.

On Thursday, Bennett typed the same familiar old piddle about Lehrer’s civil ways. And she let him advance the claim that he was criticized unfairly in 2012. By Twitter, it now seems!

This is very familiar stuff. As we’ve told you about mainstream news: it's novels, all the way down!

Visit our incomparable archives: This summer, Lehrer discussed his role in various presidential debates. For our review, click here.

In 2011, when Lehrer’s book appeared, it fell to Gloria Borger to pretend that his various stories weren’t bogus. For our first reaction to the book, click this.

In October 2012, we did a longer series about Lehrer's book and his past work in presidential debates. For part 6 in that series, just click here. All six reports can be accessed in the margin to the right.


  1. This is a truly excellent analysis. Literary criticism itself speaks volumes of the value of plays in addition to novels in forming our literature, if nothing else. Those who have turned Broadway into a showcase of musical versions of cartoon strips or cat blogging
    will haunt the producer. Too bad our theaters attract nothing but tourists. I wish Bob could put a stop to that.

  2. proudcodpiecewearingamericanSeptember 14, 2013 at 5:33 PM

    id never read a book by a tv news celebrity, most all print news celebrities, and celebrities in general for that matter.

    it annoys me that they crowd out truly worthy authors.

  3. Fine and telling analysis.

  4. So brief service in the Marines can divert a playwright to journalism and watching the Redskins induces heart attacks?

  5. You know, this is exactly what I have been thinking. You put it so well.

  6. When you spread yourself so thin, you don't do anything really well. Lehrer is a good example of that. Of course, he may also be a good example of someone with very little talent (in either novel writing or news analysis).

  7. Part 6 of the 2012 Leher expose was devastating, so thanks for the link. But I liked Part 5 better. It's analysis was crisp, the conduct reprenehsible, and the commentary thread following it offers real insight into the influence Somerby wields.


  8. "the commentary thread following it offers real insight into the influence Somerby wields."

    LOL! You are absolutely demonic.

    (For the record, 12 of the 15 comments following Part 5 of last year's Lehrer series came from advertising bots. And this was about three weeks before the election when political blogs were humming.)

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