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Books by Jim Lehrer: it's now quite a stack

Paging Jim Lehrer. He's got another novel in hand. Photos: Ed Bark

Many people are seldom at a loss for words. Few can put them on the paper with the ease of Jim Lehrer.

"I can't even imagine what writer's block is," says the 73-year-old proprietor of PBS' longrunning The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. "It's just from so many years of having to deliver and just doing it automatically. I kind of think with my fingers as much as I do with my head . . . I always have one or two books going at a time."

As proof he's in Dallas on Halloween touting his 17th novel, Eureka. It's the humorous/poignant story of a 59-year-old Kansas insurance company CEO who impulsively buys an antique cast iron toy fire truck for the marked up price of $12,350. He then further reverts to childhood lusts with purchases of a Kansas City Chiefs football helmet, a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun and his ultimate means of escape, a 1952 Cushman Pacemaker motor scooter.

At 228 pages, it's another breeze of a read from a native Kansan who cut his journalism teeth in Dallas at The Dallas Times-Herald, The Dallas Morning News and KERA-TV's groundbreaking Newsroom program. He wrote his first novel, 1966's Viva Max!, while in Dallas, and his second, We Were Dreamers, nine years later during the formative years of his national PBS partnership with Robert MacNeil.

Since 1989, his fictional works have hit bookstores at the rate of nearly one a year. Another one, a World War II novel titled Oh Johnny, is already in its final editing stages for longtime publisher Random House. Otherwise he's been soloing on NewsHour since MacNeil retired from television in 1995.

"I need deadlines, and I make deadlines," Lehrer says. "I never miss a deadline. For me it's translated beautifully into my fiction writing."

Ideas come easily to him, although they sometimes marinate while Lehrer takes other brainstorms to the bank. Eureka begins with its protagonist, Otis Halstead, making his out-the-blue buy of the miniature fire truck at a hotel antique show. In real life, Lehrer is a noted bus memorabilia collector who found his latest cast iron treasure, "an old Pickwick night coach," at a Washington antique show.

"As a favor to a friend of my wife, we went to the damn thing. It was at a big hotel ballroom," Lehrer recalls. "The bus cost several hundred dollars. And that was the impetus for the book."

He's still first and foremost a news gatherer, though, and has straight-ahead opinions on a number of topics. For one, he doesn't mind the ongoing, seemingly endless series of candidate-crowded presidential debates.

"I don't give a damn if somebody gets up and asks, 'What's your favorite color?' " Lehrer says. "You at least see their body language, see them reacting to each other. Yes, the audiences aren't that big, but there are excerpts that are used all around the news world. So I think they're terrific."

Still, he doesn't want to pad his record of moderating far more of them than anyone else once the parties finally anoint their nominees.

"I don't want to do any more debates," Lehrer says unequivocally. "I've done my duty for my country. I've done 10 of these things, and they're scorching to the soul. So I'd just as soon not do any more."

Halloween also happens to be former CBS News mainstay Dan Rather's 76th birthday. His recent $70 million lawsuit against CBS, in which Rather claims to have been made a "scapegoat" in the now infamous "Memogate" scandal, has Lehrer more than a little perplexed.

"It doesn't make sense to me. It's a mystery," he says. "I don't know him that well to even speculate (on his motives), but it stunned me."

Lehrer says that Rather might have saved his CBS Evening News anchor job and much of his reputation by immediately telling viewers that the network would investigate intense allegations that it had televised a fraudulent story on George W. Bush's questionable National Guard service during the Vietnam War era.

"Instead he said, 'We stand by that story.' C'mon! Human beings make mistakes. Not through malice, but just because something didn't quite get together right. But what he did was almost kind of defy people, and also defy human nature . . . You don't stand up for things until you check 'em out. I hated it for Rather, because if he had played it differently, he could have had his cake and eaten it, too."

Lehrer remembers a notable mistake he made as a cub reporter at The Dallas Morning News. In writing an obituary, he got the deceased's name confused with the funeral director's. A stern editor didn't mince words, as Lehrer tells it.

"I was told, 'Little boy, the most important thing in this newspaper are the obituaries. And you'd better get the names right or we ain't got a job for you.' "

He didn't need that job for long. Lehrer long has operated at the highest echelons of TV news. His novels have a twinkle, but he's generally perceived as a news traditionalist whose PBS program has never diddled with the hard news of the day. That said, he's pretty much OK with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams hosting his network's Saturday Night Live this weekend.

"It doesn't bother me. It probably should," Leher says. "He is a very funny guy, he's got this whole different side to him and it's all right to show that. If he comes out there and makes political jokes or anything like that, and the wrath comes to him, then he deserves it. If he comes out and just hosts the thing, I don't have a problem with that."

What if it were Katie Couric, though? Would the reaction be entirely different?

"Oh my God, yes," he says. "If Katie Couric did that, they would be all over her like a blanket. 'Oh my God, this is going to destroy the CBS Evening News!' It's a double standard, and it's not fair to her. We'll see if Brian can get away with this. But Katie Couric cannot."

Lehrer says he doesn't watch Couric much, but "my understanding is that it's become a straight newscast again. I've always felt that it was very stupid for the people running CBS to try to do big changes at once.

"They should have let her sit in that chair and just do what (predecessor Bob) Schieffer did, and establish her as a serious anchor of a serious news program. But they decided to kind of jazz it up a little bit. They forgot that there are 30 million people watching these newscasts. If they want to be entertained, they're going to go to the circus. They just got it all wrong, and she's paying the price for it."

One more thing. Lehrer believes there's still an audience for unfettered, unsweetened hard news reporting. Audiences for cable's loudest shouters, including Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor and MSNBC's Hardball, are still lower than the two-and-a-half million to three million viewers drawn to NewsHour, he says.

"Everybody's got a damned pink iPod with their name on it," Lehrer adds before nonetheless praising today's technology as "fabulous." But he cites "increasing evidence that people want that first story straight as an arrow. Before they start shouting and making jokes, just tell us what the (bleep) happened."

Lehrer says he constantly urges PBS stations to partner with local newspapers for a substantive nightly news program that also could be available on the Internet.

"I push this wherever I go. They don't have to mount a huge staff. All they have to do is make a deal with the newspaper."

Whatever happens, Lehrer is notably content and obviously prolific. There are still audiences for both his fiction and his old-school approach to TV news. They exactly fit his lifelong passions -- creating characters who "become very real" and reporting stories that often are all too real.

"I"m just so fortunate," he says. "Couldn't be happier."