Despite the do-si-do dance of vehicles vying for entry to the Hilton Anatole on Friday, April 14, around noontime, things were hustling inside the hotel complex. In the Chantilly Ballroom, Amal Clooney was packing the stiletto crowd in for the New Friends New Life Wings Luncheon.
At the opposite end of the building, a large group of hotel guests checked in early for their rooms. Bypassing the folks with luggage were more than 600 local familiar faces heading to the upstairs Imperial Ballroom for the VNA’s Legends and Leaders Luncheon.
As the luncheon guests made their way down the hallway leading to the ballroom, tales of traffic hassles seemed to rumble. So much so, that by 12:06 word was passed that the start time of high noon had been delayed because of “a 30-minute wait outside.” But once in the ballroom guests doffed off the problems of the day and settled back into catch-up conversations like a college reunion. Perhaps the conviviality was due to the fact that everyone either knew or felt like they knew the day’s “legend” — award-winning veteran journalist Jim Lehrer. Peppered throughout the crowd were Hugh Aynesworth, Caroline Rose Hunt, Bob Brackbill, Debbie Francis, Lyda Hill, Lottye Brodsky, Janie McGarr, Regen Fearon, Ruth Buzzi and husband Kent Perkins, who had made the trek from their Stephenville ranch to Dallas.
By 12:11 an organizer asked if one of the production team could flash the ceiling lights to let folks know that the program was getting ready to start. Only problem was that the Imperial Ballroom lights had been flickering all morning. A member of the Murray Media called over the chap with the chimes and had him play the tune into the mic. Between the light show and the chimes, the room was starting to become a sensory experience. But it worked.
Within a couple of minutes, emcee Scott Sams introduced Rabbi Nancy Kasten who gave the invocation, and lunch was served. For this the house lights were brought up and the conversations ranged from the fact that 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 daily to an Emmitt Smith party the night before. Seems the event had been scheduled to take place in the area surrounding Tony Tasset’s “Eye.” But due to the rain, it was moved across the street to The Joule’s ballroom.
As the ballroom’s ceiling lights flickered like a chorus of lightning bugs, one organizer’s fingers were turning blue because they were crossed so tightly. Seems the issue of the two mega-luncheon events ending at the same time had been addressed weeks earlier. The game plan was to stagger their endings with New Friends New Life finishing first. But there was now a touch of concern that perhaps the NFNL had also delayed their start time. Not to worry, though.
As it was, author/journalist Rena Pederson and Jim didn’t take their places in easy chairs on stage until a little after 1 p.m. for a chat. Before talking about his lengthy career, the 81-year-old reviewed his health experiences that included having a heart attack in 1983, cataract surgery (“I can now read agate print and see from here to the Rocky Mountains”), getting a hearing aid, lifestyles changes (“When traveling, I leave a little earlier. It’s to cut down on the stress”) and aqua jogging.
He then recalled his days in Dallas working at the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News, when he worked with then DMN Assistant City Editor Bob Miller, who was in the audience. In remarking about the differences of the days of manual typewriters and today’s high tech, Jim recalled, “Everyone was a writer. We argued about phraseology and who had the best leads.” There was also a competitive spirit between reporters at the two daily papers.
Moving on to his days at KERA, he admitted that he joined the station for “all the wrong reasons.” It seems that he and his wife/novelist Kate Lehrer had agreed that when they had enough money he would quit his job as city editor at the Times Herald. That came about when his first novel “Viva Max” provided him with a landfall of $45,000.
But a call from Robert Wilson changed those plans. When Bobby heard that he was quitting, he asked Jim to be a consultant for KERA’s start-up news program called “Newsroom.” Jim was amazed. He got “paid more for working three days a week than working at the paper.” At that time Jim had been making $82.50 a week, while Kate, who was teaching school, was making $90 a week and got three months off in the summer.
In putting together the team for the local news program, he “hired nothing but newspaper people because that’s all I knew and there was no such thing as TV journalists.”
By 1:17 p.m. Jim was recalling tales of his 37 years at PBS. One memory was his interview scheduled with President Bill Clinton. The morning of the interview, he toddled out to get the morning paper and there was the lead story about the President’s supposedly having had an affair with an intern. Jim’s comment to his wife, “Oh, golly gee, sweetheart.”
While the other national news anchors (Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings) were all in Cuba for the Pope’s visit, Jim had the story of the day. Why, ABC even wanted to air it live!
Despite the fact that “you could hear a pin drop,” the interview took place with Jim asking, “Mr. President, there’s a story in the Washington Post that said you had an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Is that true?” The President responded, “There is no improper relationship.” Jim prodded. The President stayed with his statement.
Jim admitted that he was pleased with the interview, until Kate reported that their daughter Amanda had called and pointed out that Jim was talking in the past tense and Clinton was responding in present tense. “That’s an interview I’ll never forget.”
Speaking of U.S. Presidents, Rena asked him which had inspired him the most. Jim responded, “Do you think I’m gonna answer that?” Then he added, “I never interviewed one where I walked away thinking that was an accident.”
When asked about the current presidential campaigns, Jim described them as a cross between a “game show, reality TV and second-level pep rallies.”
Having moderated 12 presidential debates, he was disappointed in the lack of civility in the most recent debates, but he admitted that it was still good to see the candidates in a comparative situation.
Regarding the media’s coverage of presidential candidate Donald Trump, he suggested that when Trump started, serious journalists reported it and didn’t take him seriously, but not Lehrer: Trump “was successful as a candidate, so he had to be covered. He said things that were newsworthy. And by then they…by that I mean us…the media were caught.”
Chuckling he admitted that “The media…it sounds like a venereal disease. ‘I’ve got the media.’”
Getting back to the state of Trump and the “media,” Jim said journalism has three sides —
- analysis and
In the case of Trump, Jim said the analysis and opinion parts of journalism “raked Trump over the coals. Everything he said was dissected.”
Rena asked Jim (aka the “Dean of Moderators”) if he would moderate any future debates, to which Jim said, “No,” but he was now on the Commission on Presidential Debates.
In closing, Rena asked about Jim’s next book. He opted not to answer, saying, “It’s bad luck to talk about fiction ahead of time.” But with a twinkle in his, he added, “It has to do with a gun.”
By 1:30 p.m. the luncheon was over and the guests left, satisfied that Jim was still a great interview, even if he wasn’t doing the interviewing.