Much has been written in the last few days about the legendary journalist Jim Lehrer, who died on January 23 at the age of 85. Let me add a very personal note.
I would not have been a U.S. congressman from Texas for 26 years if it hadn’t been for Jim.
From June 1970 to June 1971, I was a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes in Dallas following graduation from Georgetown Law School. Jim and Judge Hughes were old friends from his days covering the federal courts as a newspaper reporter. The public affairs show “Newsroom” debuted on the local PBS affiliate KERA-TV about the time I started my clerkship and was an immediate hit viewed by most of the movers and shakers in Dallas. Jim was the moderator and driving force behind this show.
Like Jim, I had been a print reporter and was a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. I loved his show, and judge Hughes put in a good word for my interest in being on the air with Jim following my clerkship. Jim decided to take a chance on me, and I joined his incredible group of reporters for the next seven months before starting work for a Dallas law firm.
At that time, all the local commercial television stations in Dallas had meager news coverage and did nothing in depth.
Before long, virtually everyone in the Dallas power structure tuned in to “Newsroom” because its coverage of local news far exceeded anything else on television. Everyone on Jim’s talented team had been print reporters and no one had ever appeared on television.
Those seven months on “Newsroom” paved the way for my successful political career. The people who counted in town knew me from appearing with Jim every night and, quite frankly, I was the benefit of Jim’s reflected glory.
Seven years after appearing on “Newsroom,” I was elected to Congress by defeating an incumbent congressman in the Democratic primary. When I moved to Dallas after law school, I knew almost no one in town even though I had grown up in nearby Ft. Worth.
Almost immediately after leaving “Newsroom,” I started having political opportunities that would never have come my way if I had not sat around the table with the extraordinary Jim Lehrer on television five days a week.
After spending several years in Texas party politics, in 1978 I ran again against a Democratic congressman in a primary and won 55 percent of the vote and was off to Washington on the first of my 13 terms.
Jim hired me for “Newsroom” because I was an experienced print journalist who had covered Congress for Congressional Quarterly before entering law school and he needed someone to cover the federal courts.
Jim Lehrer was a star from the moment he first sat in front of a television camera in Dallas and the finest, most objective journalist I have ever known. We are all better for his extraordinary career. And I will be forever grateful for the introduction he provided to me to the political community in Dallas.
I don’t think that was his intention when he hired me, but I don’t believe he was disappointed with the result.
I firmly believe I would never have had a lengthy and productive career in politics if it hadn’t been for my friend Jim Lehrer.
Martin Frost served as a representative from Texas in Congress and is a past chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.