Jim Lehrer, who died yesterday at age 85, had a million friends. I’m speaking of the ones he knew personally, not the untold millions who gratefully tuned in to him on the NewsHour at night to watch the news as it ought to be presented—soberly, unassumingly, intelligently, but with an occasional flash of wit. My wife, Martha, and I were members of both sets of millions, and we were lucky enough to find ourselves many times in his capacious, welcoming home in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
How did we get there in the first place, maybe 35 years ago? Jim and his much-adored-by-everyone wife, Kate, both wrote novels, and I wrote about books. Furthermore, I wrote about books for a newspaper, a medium that Jim was probably able to romanticize, having escaped the grubby world of newsprint some years before. Once we arrived at their house, we would find ourselves in the most amazing company. Not just Jim and Kate themselves, but also the sorts of people who would appear on his show: senators, cabinet officers, famous jurists, publishers, novelists, historians, print columnists, and other TV journalists. All of them his friends.
It could have been intimidating, but we were so warmly and naturally received that we looked forward to these occasions with excited expectation. Once, many years ago, at a large buffet dinner for which tables had been scattered throughout the house, a middle-aged couple and a young man waved to us to join them at a small table. It turned out to be a Supreme Court justice and his wife and son. Luckily, the justice was eager to discuss new books, something that, because of my job, I knew about. Another time, fairly recently, we were at a small dinner at which, over dessert, a former Fed chairman gave an extended analysis of the economic moment, and we watched with amusement as his friends around the table gently mocked him for his seriousness.
The last time we were in Jim and Kate’s house, I was talking to Jim when a member of Congress approached. She mentioned that she was hurrying off to read the Mueller Report, which had just been released, but Jim stopped her to say, “Do you know Bob Wilson? And his wonderful magazine, The American Scholar?” She acknowledged that no, she did not know me, but, good politician that she is, claimed intimate knowledge of the magazine. Jim was always talking up the Scholar, which, given the source, was tremendously heartening.
In the hours since I learned of his death, I’ve remembered so many other kindnesses of this sort that Jim extended to Martha and me. We tried hard to reciprocate their many invitations, but the first time they came to our house, to a housewarming in fact, they got caught in a massive traffic jam on the way home. (On my newspaperman’s salary, we lived far from the city.) He always ribbed me about how impossibly distant our house was, and yet over the years they would hazard the interstate and show up.
When I had at last written a book of my own, Jim was there with a blurb so fulsome that it might have made my mother blush, if only she had been alive to read it. More meaningful still, the next time I was at their place, he led me by the elbow into the living room. There, on one of the miles of bookshelves throughout the house, was a copy of my book. “Just remember,” he said to me as he tapped the spine, “they can’t take this away from you. Your book will always be on a bookshelf somewhere.”
Only weeks ago, my youngest son asked Jim if he would write a letter on his behalf. Both Sam and I were nervous about imposing on Jim in this way, but we should not have been. Jim wrote back within a couple of hours, putting us both at ease:
“Sam, I would be delighted and honored. (I consider any son of your parents to be a kind-of-stepson/cousin-once-removed of mine.) Send me whatever I need to get it done.” And then his usual sign-off: “Onward! Jim.”
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