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Will We Ever See Jim Lehrer's Unfinished German-American Novel?

Laurence Jarvik

Posted on January 24, 2020 10:26

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A few years ago, at a German Embassy reception, Jim Lehrer told me he was writing a book about the German-American experience, inspired by his own family history. I hope his manuscript might be published posthumously, since it sounded fascinating...and relevant to current debates over immigration and American identity.

News of PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer's death at age 85 yesterday came, somehow appropriately, in the middle of Presidential impeachment hearings--45 years after his coverage of the Senate Watergate Committee made him a household name across America.

I interviewed Robin McNeil for my book, PBS: Behind the Screen, and he had nothing but praise for Lehrer's integrity. Subsequently, I met Lehrer on a number of occasions. Despite my published criticism of PBS, he was always polite, decent, and willing to talk.

He was put on-air because executives thought that the ex-Marine from Texas--selected by Fred Friendly as "balance czar" for PBS headquarters--might balance liberal Canadian McNeil sufficiently to rebut Nixon Administration charges that the network was out to get the President.

Following Nixon's resignation, Lehrer hosted the nightly news, first with McNeil, then solo, until retirement in 2011. A Renaissance Man, he also made television specials, moderated Presidential debates, wrote novels, memoirs, plays, and screenplays.

Despite helping to bring down Nixon, over the years the mild-mannered newsman came to represent principles of fairness, balance and objectivity to the point that the New York Times attacked him for it in his obituary:

"The approach had its drawbacks. An extended presentation of authoritative voices offering conflicting viewpoints left some viewers dissatisfied, if not confused. Many found the technique elitist and dull, and even some critics called it boring — or, worse, a willful refusal by Mr. Lehrer and Mr. MacNeil to make hard judgments about adversarial issues affecting the public interest."

Lehrer may have been committed to fairness because his German heritage made him sensitive to dangers of extremism.

A few years ago, at a reception at the German Embassy, he said he avoided going to Germany because of mixed feelings following WWII. After retirement, his wife had insisted, and he discovered that he enjoyed the German landscape, people and culture. He noted that "Lehrer" means 'teacher' in German.

His trip inspired him to begin a novel about German-Americans in NY's Yorkville neighborhood set in the 1940s, dealing with the issue of identity. 

Lehrer's family forbears were Socialists who fled Europe to join a Utopian community in New Jersey. They eventually migrated to the Midwest, and he moved from Kansas to Texas, so never lived in NYC. But it was a center of German-American life, and the German-American Bund--a pro-Nazi organization active until Pearl Harbor.

Lehrer's proposed novel, he explained, would follow German-Americans coping with the coming of World War II in different ways, contrasting Nazi sympathizers with anti-Nazi socialists, communists, liberals, and patriotic German-Americans.

In a way, German-American experiences in the 1940s are similar to dilemmas faced by Muslim-Americans after 9/11, so it sounded absolutely fascinating.

Unfortunately, the book has not yet come out.

I hope Lehrer did not find the subject matter too difficult, and that it might be posthumously published, to learn from his perspective about the significance of American identity during wartime.

 

 

 

Laurence Jarvik

Posted on January 24, 2020 10:26

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Source: NYT

President Richard M. Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee adopted articles of impeachment against him.

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