I am not a fan of name-droppers. You know who you are. You’re the folks who — such as a legendary former Amarillo oilman who shall remain nameless — tell you how they gave a piece of their mind to “Barack,” George W.” or the “king of Saudi Arabia.”
But I’ll excuse the individual here. He and I had a wonderful visit nonetheless.
Back to name-droppers. I’m about to commit that sin. I’m going to drop the name of a public television icon: Jim Lehrer.
I have watched him over many years on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, which morphed into the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and which now is broadcast simply as the PBS NewsHour.
But more than 20 years ago, my path crossed with Jim (if you’ll excuse the first-name-only reference).
I was working in Beaumont back in the 1980s and early 1990s. I cannot remember precisely the year it happened, but my encounter with Jim occurred this way:
I was walking across the newsroom of the Beaumont Enterprise, where I worked as editorial page editor, when I noticed a gentleman standing in front of the newsroom secretary’s desk; she was on the phone and this fellow was waiting for her to finish her conversation. I walked past the desk and stood at the elevator around the corner from the desk. I could see the secretary, Marie, but I couldn’t see the gentleman. I caught her eye and whispered — apparently in a tone that was just a touch too loud — “Is that Jim Lehrer?”
The gentleman standing at the desk responded: “Yes it is.”
My jaw dropped, my face flushed and I walked back around the corner and extended my hand. “Hello, Mr. Lehrer. I’m John Kanelis.” We shook hands and he asked me where the newsroom library was located. He was in town doing work on a book he was writing and wanted to check out some historical background he wanted to include in the book.
Jim then told me he attended Beaumont French High School for a couple of years; his dad’s job forced him to move frequently when Jim was a boy and he ended up in Beaumont for a time. Our newsroom library had some clips he wanted to read. We went to the library and spent the better part of an hour talking about ourselves and each other and our experiences living on the Gulf Coast.
The greatest takeaway from this encounter was the discovery that Jim Lehrer is a different person than the one he portrays while offering news analysis on public television. He is garrulous, very funny, charming and courteous. It’s not that he is dour and crabby while on the air. But when one gets a chance to meet an individual you “know” only through what you see on a television screen — and then get a glimpse of the real person in the flesh — it’s worth noting the positive impression that individual makes.
I’ll admit to being a little star-struck by the encounter, given my own love of public policy, politics and respect for the journalism heavyweights who report on it.
But as I’ve watched Jim Lehrer deliver the news and interview newsmakers on public TV, I think of that newsroom encounter, recalling the moment I got to see the other — more human — side of someone who’s so familiar to so many Americans.