When my twelve-year-old daughter asked Jim Lehrer to sign a copy of his novel No Certain Rest for her, he cast a quick glance at me, then offered her kind smile. “Did you really read it?” he asked. I suspected that he thought maybe I had coaxed her into asking for an autograph.
“Oh, yes,” she replied, passing him the book. “I read it because I like Antietam.” The book, about an NPS archeologist who finds the remains of a murdered Civil War soldier near Burnside’s Bridge, was a good archeological/forensic mystery grounded on the battlefield.
“You do?” Jim asked, amused. “What do you like about it?”
Steph began to tell him why she liked Antietam, and the two soon fell into a lively exchange.
It was 2005, and Lehrer was a guest of honor at a lunchtime function hosted by St. Bonaventure University’s journalism school, where I was (and still am) on the faculty. Lehrer, the long-time host of PBS’s NewsHour, had been a regular fixture in my living room for a decade and a half by that time. My grandparents had watched him every evening, which in turn got me into the habit. To have the chance to finally meet him in person was a career highlight for me, made all the more wonderful when I realized how friendly he was.
We stood in the hallway outside a large event space at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Newspaper columnist Dave Barry, another of the day’s honorees, stood next to Jim, and we had introduced ourselves to him, too. Although Barry is one of the most effective—and most beloved—humorists of modern times, the piece of his writing I best remember is a poignant column he wrote on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, “On Hallowed Ground,” linking the event with Gettysburg. Dave listened in as Jim and Steph swapped stories about times they’d been on the battlefield. Finally, he leaned in and offered one the sort of quips that have made his writing so funny—I can’t remember what he said, exactly, but it poked a little fun at Jim. We all had a good chuckle.
Jim got the last laugh, though. “My book is better than Dave’s” he inscribed in Steph’s book. Steph laughed, so Jim showed it to Dave and gave Steph a wink. Dave laughed, too. It was a moment of genuine good humor.
I recalled this story yesterday when I heard news of Jim’s death at the age of 85. In a time when journalism is under siege, broadcast media’s credibility is particularly low, and many people don’t want to believe any reporting they don’t already agree with, Jim remained a representative of the profession’s highest possible standards. He embodied everything a broadcast journalist should be: fair, insightful, steady. He was someone you were glad to have in your living room every night, not as cozy company but someone with whom you could have a good, serious discussion with. He wanted you to know things. Journalism was a responsibility, but so was being an educated citizen.
My first reaction, when I heard the news of his death, was literally, “Oh, no!” My second reaction was to remember with a smile his good humor on the day he and my daughter talked about Antietam.
On a ridge overlooking Burnside Bridge—the focus of the Battle of Antietam—souvenir hunters find the unmarked grave of an unknown Union officer.
Don Spaniel, an archeologist in the National Park Service, is called in to examine the remains. He soon discovers that the officer was murdered and that his identification disk could not possibly belong to him, since its rightful owner is buried elsewhere. So who was this officer? Where did he come from? And why was he killed?
Spaniel’s obsessive investigation leads not only to his reliving the horrible carnage that occurred at Burnside Bridge over a century before, but to the true identity of the Union officer and the reason why another body resides in his grave in a small New England town.
In a swift narrative deftly combining the past with the present, Jim Lehrer has created an engrossing story that will appeal to a wide variety of readers.