WASHINGTON — Jim Lehrer is sitting in the second row of a nearly empty auditorium watching a rehearsal with a pen poised over a script open on his lap. He marks up the text with a newsman’s precision, squinting intently at the page. As the scene onstage comes to an end, he leans back to ponder.
“It’s such a magic moment,” he says to an actor. “It doesn’t have to be rushed.”
Lehrer’s career in television news has made him famous. But far less well known is that he has always loved writing for the theater, and that he is the author of four plays. (He also has 21 novels to his name.) His first play in two decades opened at the National Geographic Society here on this week: “Bell,” a one-man show about Alexander Graham Bell. It runs through Sept. 21.
In the society’s Grosvenor Theater, Lehrer, 79, had the same patient air he brought to “PBS NewsHour” and the 12 presidential debates he moderated: the quiet civility, the eagerness to listen.
“Jim has a passion for complete ideas,” said Jeremy Skidmore, the director of “Bell.” “‘NewsHour’ was unique in that they didn’t want to do interviews that were sound bites. And as a playwright, Jim wants to sit with an entire section of Bell’s life before he moves on.”
Rick Foucheux, who plays Bell, once aspired to be a news anchor himself. “When I watch Jim, I see the reason he went that direction and I didn’t,” he added. “He’s got that natural curiosity to figure out the way the world works.”
Lehrer said he has no plans to return to television, especially given the bruising he endured after moderating the first presidential debate last fall, for which he came out of semi-retirement. His wife, Kate, warned him not to: Twitter could be brutal. His style of polite discourse was no longer the norm.
“She had told me, you know, you could get hurt,” Lehrer said. “And she was right.” He shook his head. “It’s something that I did not have to do. But I convinced myself I had to.”
Playwriting has been a kind of respite. Shortly after he stopped hosting “NewsHour,” in 2011, he got a call from the National Geographic Society asking if he was interested in writing a play about Bell, the society’s second president, in honor of the organization’s 125th anniversary. Lehrer was hesitant; he didn’t know much about the man except that he’d invented the telephone.
But he began researching. “And I realized,” he said, “Bell was actually annoyed that people called him ‘the telephone man.’ He was much more than that.”
Lehrer learned that Bell designed an early plane called the Silver Dart, and that he developed a metal detector in an effort to find the bullet lodged in President James Garfield’s stomach. The more he read about Bell, the more he identified with him.
“I’ve always said I’d like to be known as the novelist or the playwright who also did television news,” he said. “I’m very proud of what I’ve done. But let’s face it: What I’m doing now is more creative. And people don’t know anything about it.”
Growing up in Wichita, Kan., Lehrer decided he wanted to write fiction. In college, he studied playwriting, but after a short stint in the Marines, he became a journalist. Then in 1983, after watching the Washington Redskins, he had a heart attack. His doctor advised him to make two lists: things he most enjoyed, and tasks that ate up his energy and time.
So Lehrer sat down with a notepad. He hated flying between Washington and New York. He was done with business lunches. But he knew what he loved: his family, and writing fiction.
Finally, he thought, he’d like to try his hand at a play. The first script he finished was “Chili Queen” in 1986, about a small-town chili parlor. Then came “Church Key Charlie Blue” in 1988 and “The Will and Bart Show” in 1992.
On a recent afternoon, Lehrer relaxed on the sofa in his sunny living room. Along one wall, leather-bound copies of his plays, a gift from his wife, sat alongside an Arthur Miller anthology.
Besides a new novel about the Kennedy assassination, “Top Down,” coming out next month, he is tinkering with another play, this one about the media. But he knows one thing for sure: He is done with TV.
“I worried at first: Is he going to be happy being off the air?” said his wife, next to him. “And he’s just been delightfully happy.”
Lehrer nodded, grinning. “I’ve had no withdrawal at all.”