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On the road to success


By Jim Lehrer

Putnam, $22.95

Reviewed by Pauline Mayer

Jim Lehrer, co-anchor of the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, begins and ends this pleasant memoir with anecdotes about buses. Collecting bus memorabilia is an obsession with Lehrer _ homage to his father, Fred, who made a living (though never a good one) working for various Kansas and Texas intercity bus lines.

In 1946 Fred Lehrer went into business for himself. He bought three decrepit buses, including a disastrous 1938 Flxible Clipper, and was bankrupt within the year. The experience left Jim Lehrer, then a child, with an abiding sympathy for small business owners, an abiding passion for intercity bus lines, and an abiding respect for the grace with which his parents handled their bankruptcy.

Lehrer's college-educated mother came from "a royal family of the Church of the Nazarene." His hardworking father, the son of an alcoholic free-love Socialist plumber from Germany, never got beyond the eighth grade. This unlikely pair excelled as parents, inspiring and encouraging Lehrer and his one brother, who grew up to be a Baptist minister.

The failure of Fred's bus line was a landmark event in Jim Lehrer's life. Another was his heart attack of December, 1983. When Lehrer was hospitalized with chest pains he firmly believed himself at death's door. Both his mother and father had "walked into a hospital" with seemingly non-lethal ailments "and came out dead six weeks later." Very much alive and well six years after his bypass surgery, Lehrer celebrated by treating himself to a 1946 Flxible Clipper bus "just like the one my dad could not afford to buy for his little bus line in Kansas . . . "

After college, Lehrer joined the Marines as a second lieutenant. Despite "mental harassment and physical brutality and screamed profanity and other kinds of awfulness . . ." Lehrer relished his three years in the Marines. In fact, he advocates compulsory national service for all young Americans.

It was a hard-bitten muckraker in Texas who taught Lehrer the "glorious joy" of a newsman's life. Lehrer's account of his rise from cub reporter on the Dallas Morning News to co-anchor of the acclaimed NewsHour is a course on the pleasures and pitfalls of journalism, filled with witty and gritty asides.

He touches on the art of grubbing for local-color stories, the power of reporters to destroy lives, the power of newspaper owners to distort news, the "rabid evenhandedness" sought by both Lehrer and Robert MacNeil from the start of their association, the Nixon White House's attempts (thwarted by the Watergate scandal) to take MacNeil and Lehrer off the public airways, and the luck and gumption that enabled the two to triumph over this and other near defeats.

Chancy though it was, Lehrer's professional survival was never as chancy as his physical survival. Because he believed "we Lehrers died in hospitals" he refused to acknowledge, until almost too late, his heart attack of 1983. Fortunately he ended up in the hands of physicians who were competent, caring, and would change forever Lehrer's feelings about doctors. Moreover, bypass surgery changed his lifestyle. The reckless, junk-food addicted, chain smoker became a health-conscious, diet-conscious, non-smoker. Lehrer's surgery also resulted in the creative effort of which he is most proud, his television documentary, My Heart, Your Heart, which, according to viewer response, saved scores of lives.

Like the memoirs of fellow newsman Charles Kuralt, Lehrer's is a feel-good book by a man happy with his lot. Jim Lehrer has much to feel good about: his success as a newsman, his triumph over his heart attack, his secondary careers as novelist (the "One Eyed Mack" series) and playwright. He treasures his co-workers on the NewsHour, and such distinguished and supportive friends as Eudora Welty. He writes with love and appreciation about his wife and three daughters.

Lehrer's devotion to his roots is touching. The last, two chapters of A Bus of My Own concern his sentimental purchase of the old Flxible Clipper bus. The gesture was both a tribute to his father and also a reaffirmation of life after the heart attack.

This is, in fact, a life-affirming book, and a charming one, by a celebrated journalist whose family values of hard work and decency have brought him fame, fortune, and contentment. It seems that, like Jim Lehrer himself, Horatio Alger is still very much alive and well.

Pauline Mayer is a writer who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif.