One November day awhile ago, I was dispatched by Publishers Weekly to Washington, D.C. to interview the famous newsman Jim Lehrer, who just had a novel out. My editor insisted the interview take place at his home not far from the National Cathedral, not his office. This to create a feeling of intimacy, including details about all the bus memorabilia he collected in honor of his father, a bus driver, etc. Lehrer kindly complied, rushing from his office in Arlington, VA, where he was preparing to interview the Assistant Director of the FBI.
Sitting in his pretty, unwashed living room, Lehrer gave the impression of having stopped on a dime. Lehrer’s famous face, as ordinary and noble as a farmhouse on a Western plain, composed itself in a look of alert waiting. His way of being with me, forthright and decent, was a lesson in how to conduct interviews–and also in how we can be with one another.
Lehrer was used to living in the present moment under intense scrutiny. He was used to asking questions designed to draw out the truth without shouting or intruding, without the questions screaming for attention themselves. He recalled driving his daughters to one presidential debate he was moderating: “I told my girls in the car, if people remember the questions, I haven’t done my job.”
It was excruciating to watch the trampling of time limits, the ignoring of questions to “stay on message,” the blatant lying, in the last presidential debate Lehrer tried to moderate. I felt like I was watching a decent man witness the seeming loss of our ability to have a civilized (not to mention honest) exchange in this country.
But this is beside the point today. The point is this singular memory that Lehrer shared. He worked as a young newspaper reporter in Dallas in the late 1950s and 60s. On November 22, 1963, he was dispatched to ask the Secret Service man in charge of security President Kennedy’s motorcade whether the President would be riding with the bullet-proof bubble-top on his limousine on or off. As fate would have it, it was a beautiful day.
“Take off the bubble top!” Lehrer heard the man command. Later, inside the Dallas police station, the shattered agent whispered the same words to Lehrer again. Lehrer wondered how many times the poor man had thought of those words since. May he have found peace.
Our lives are made of moments, some indelible, but each dependent on causes and conditions beyond fathoming. What happens to others and to ourselves, what arises in a moment, binds us to each other and to a greater whole.