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What Is Jim Lehrer Up To These Days?

September 13, 2013

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When I was a teenager I watched the MacNeil/Lehrer Report on PBS.  On my local station it aired at 6:30 P.M, and it was unlike any other news program I had seen.  There was one topic covered, and it was dissected from all sides for 30 minutes.  I can still recall the program dealing with the findings of an airline crash that examined a long bolt and the ways it had not worked.  There was more information to be had in those half-hours than anywhere else on TV.    NewsHour on PBS still can lay claim to that same end result.

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Jim Lehrer is no longer the news interviewer that we all knew him to be as we grew up.  Instead the passion that Lehrer has for living life allows him to expand with the talents he has employed for a long time when not in front of a camera.

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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.       

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.”

I’ve always said I’d like to be known as the novelist or the playwright who also did television news.” he said. “I’m very proud of what I’ve done. But let’s face it: What I’m doing now is more creative. And people don’t know anything about it.”       

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.       

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Lehrer relaxed on the sofa in his sunny living room. Along one wall, leather-bound copies of his plays — a gift from his wife — sat alongside an Arthur Miller anthology. Besides a new novel about the Kennedy assassination, “Top Down,” coming out next month, he is tinkering with another play — this one about the media. But he knows one thing for sure: He is done with TV.       

“I worried at first: Is he going to be happy being off the air?” said his wife, next to him. “And he’s just been delightfully happy.”       

Mr. Lehrer nodded, grinning. “I’ve had no withdrawal at all.”

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