My News (half) Hour with Jim Lehrer

I’d been kind of nervous all last week in anticipation of my opportunity to interview Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour. Thanks to Paul Nagel and Rich Cornell (see my April 18 entry), I had a chance to meet him at his hotel in downtown Minneapolis. He was in town as part of his current cross-country tour.

Jim Lehrer (photo by Steve Date)

Rich is making a documentary about Paul Nagel and Lehrer is Paul’s friend. Rich wanted to get him into the film, but he was going to be in Europe this weekend when Mr. Lehrer would be in town. Rich asked me if I would interview him for the film and I jumped at the chance. I told MinnPost about what I was doing and they said they’d love to get something, too.

So I was feeling some pressure. Me with my limited experience, marginal camera and mic, no lighting — not to mention my generally bumbling ways — interviewing a broadcast news icon. The man has moderated 11 presidential debates for God sake!

I met Paul at his apartment and we walked the 5 or 6 blocks down the Nicollet Mall together to meet Lehrer at his hotel. I had a 30 minute, 3:00 appointment — they squeezed me in between a radio interview and a speech at the University of Minnesota Friends of the Library meeting at Coffman Union. Mr. Lehrer arrived in the lobby at about 2:50. He gave me a big smile as we shook hands and said to me, “I know who you are, but who’s this guy?” (pointing to Paul). He then asked if he could have a couple of minutes to run up to his room because he had spilled something on his shirt. I immediately liked him.

Paul Nagel and Jim Lehrer share a laugh at a reception for the University of Minnesota Friends of the Libraries dinner at Coffman Memorial Union. (photo by Steve Date)

The manager of the Marquette Hotel was kind enough to let us use an area of the bar to tape the interview. Being the newsman and orator he is, Mr. Lehrer did wonderful, effortless monologues about Paul Nagel, the news business, moderating presidential debates and his upcoming visit (today) to the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing, Minnesota. He was just as honest, eloquent, and gracious as the the man we’ve seen on PBS since the ’70s. We managed to chit chat a little about our common interest in the state of West Virginia and I (presumptuously) gave him a copy of my movie, “Welcome to Coalwood”. He told me that I was way ahead of most first-time writers and filmmakers because I had actually finished something.

I then went over to the reception at the University of Minnesota to get a few still photos and shoot a little video of both of them in action with the crowd. All in all, it was an exhilarating and exhausting day. What a thrill! I’ll never forget it.

Jim Lehrer talks with some of the patrons at the Friends of the Libraries reception. (photo by Steve Date)

Paul Nagel and Jim Lehrer (photo by Steve Date)

Here’s my two-part interview with Jim Lehrer for MinnPost.

I met Paul Nagel yesterday

Like many truly great people, Paul C. Nagel is quiet and humble. He’s also witty and eloquent. I could go on, but since I’ve only spent an hour with him, I suppose I should leave those kinds of words to those who know him best. My friend Rich Cornell is one of those people. He’s been a friend of Dr. Nagel for many years and is currently making a documentary film about his life.

Rich Cornell and Paul Nagel

I have to admit that two weeks ago I had never heard of Paul Nagel. But when Rich asked me if I wanted to meet him and and then Paul invited us to his Minneapolis condominium yesterday, I was fully aware of how special the opportunity was.

Paul has lived his 80-something years to the fullest. Born in Missouri, he earned a Ph.D. in History at the University of Minnesota in the late ’40s. He became a professor of history, a college dean (University of Missouri) and then was named Director of the Virginia Historical Society. He wrote several scholarly books in the ’60s and ’70s, but by 1980 had decided to leave academic life and and write history books that had an appeal to the general public. His most well-known book is one about John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life - Paul Nagel's best-known book

Here is a partial list of his books.

George Caleb Bingham: Missouri’s Famed Painter And Forgotten Politician (2005)
German Migration to Missouri: My Family’s Story (2002)
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997)
The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family (1990)
The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters (1987)
Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family (1984)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1798-1898 (1980)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1776-1861 (1980)
Missouri: A Bicentennial History (1977)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality 1778-1898 (1971)

Rich’s documentary film will be finished in a few months, but first he wants to do a couple more interviews with people who know Paul. Through the years, Paul has become friends with a lot of well-known people, not only in the academic and literary world, but also in politics and the news media.

Rich has asked me to interview one of those people for him because he will be out of town for a few weeks and will miss the opportunity. I don’t want to mention the person’s name yet, because it’s not 100% set to go and I don’t want to jinx it. But if it works out, it will be very cool.

Rich Cornell and Paul Nagel chat in Paul's living room

My hour with Paul Nagel yesterday is one I’ll never forget. We chatted like old friends, even though he didn’t know me from Adam. He wanted to know about my children, and really perked up when I told him my daughter, Emily, went to the University if Virginia and had a summer job as a tour guide at Monticello. He visited Charlottesville often when he lived in Richmond. I was quite touched by the interest he showed in me and my family.

Dr. Paul C. Nagel

Paul is a big person in all the important ways, and I’m grateful to Rich for sharing him with me. When we shook hands as I left, he said, “I’m so glad we had the chance to meet. Now I hope we can become friends.” I smiled all the way home.

(post script to this post — Jim Lehrer (PBS News Hour) was the special friend of Paul’s that I was fortunate to interview. Read my post about that experience here)