Jim Lehrer, the somber and thoughtful television news anchor who helped build “PBS NewsHour” into an authoritative yet accessible voice of public broadcasting, died Thursday. He was 85.
Lehrer, the show’s co-founder, died “peacefully in his sleep at home,” Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of “PBS NewsHour,” announced in a statement. “I’m heartbroken at the loss of someone who was central to my professional life, a mentor to me and someone whose friendship I’ve cherished for decades.”
The broadcaster died at his home in Washington, according to PBS, but no cause of death was specified. Lehrer had retired in 2011 after anchoring the show for 36 years. He also appeared 12 times as a presidential debate moderator.
He and Robert MacNeil founded the PBS program in 1975, an outgrowth of their 1973 coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings on PBS. They viewed broadcast journalism as a public service — to provide a greater understanding of events and issues that shaped the nation’s social fabric and its citizens.
The program, first called “The Robert MacNeil Report” and then “The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” became the nation’s first one-hour TV news broadcast in 1983. With an in-depth look at the issues, the retitled “PBS NewsHour” continues to stand apart from today’s opinion-fueled cable newscasts and the evening broadcasts on NBC, ABC and CBS, which largely air truncated stories in an attempt to cover the headlines of the day in a mere 22 minutes.
Politics, international relations, economics, science, even developments in the arts all received lengthy, detailed coverage.
“We both believed the American people were not as stupid as some of the folks publishing and programming for them believed,” Lehrer wrote of his and MacNeil’s approach in his 1992 memoir, “A Bus of My Own.” “We were convinced they cared about the significant matters of human events.... And we were certain they could and would hang in there more than 35 seconds for information about those subjects if given a chance.”
He conducted interviews with presidents and numerous foreign leaders, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the 1980s. Among his most memorable interviews was one with President Clinton in January 1998.
Lehrer was the first person to question the president after news of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky broke. Lehrer earnestly began the question by stating that Kenneth Starr, then an independent counsel, was investigating whether Clinton had suborned perjury by encouraging the former White House intern to lie under oath during a civil deposition. Lehrer then asked: “Mr. President, is that true?”
After Clinton denied that he had an “improper relationship,” Lehrer pressed further. “You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?”
“Jim set the gold standard for broadcast journalism in our nation and devoted his life to a vital public service ― keeping Americans informed and thereby strengthening our civil society,” Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and chief executive of Washington public broadcast station WETA, said in a statement. “Through his extraordinary insight, integrity, balance and discipline, Jim earned the trust of the American people, and his important legacy lives on at ‘PBS NewsHour.’”
The poker-faced Lehrer moderated his first presidential debate in 1988 and was a frequent consensus choice for the task in subsequent presidential contests.
“In an increasingly fractured, polarized environment, the major party nominees trusted him with moderating general election debates because they knew he was knowledgeable, nonpartisan and fair,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Pennsylvania. “And that’s a real tribute to his objectivity and fairness.”
He also anchored PBS coverage of inaugurations and conventions, dismissing criticism from other TV news organizations that the latter had become too scripted to yield much in the way of real news.
“I think when the major political parties of this country gather together their people and resources in one place to nominate their candidates, that’s important,” Lehrer told the Associated Press in 2000. “To me, it’s a non-argument. I don’t see why someone would argue that it wasn’t important.”
Lehrer endured criticism for being so low-key in the big televised events. After a matchup between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, late-night TV show host David Letterman cracked, “Last night was probably the first and only time that Jim Lehrer [was] the most exciting person in the room.”
But the real-life Lehrer — who had a tradition of buying a new tie for good luck before each debate — was more colorful than the version he projected to viewers at home. He was a playwright in addition to being a novelist. His debut novel, “Viva Max!,” was made into a movie starring Peter Ustinov. He did a whole series of novels about the adventures of an Oklahoma politician known as the One-Eyed Mack.
He wrote 20 novels and several plays.
James Charles Lehrer was born in Wichita, Kan., in 1934. In addition to titling his memoir “A Bus of My Own,” he collected bus memorabilia — from station signs to an actual 1946 Flxible Clipper bus, a nod to his lean upbringing. His parents once owned a modest bus line that transported passengers from farm communities in rural Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas that were too small for Greyhound.
After graduation from college in 1956, he served three years in the Marines — and later called the experience so valuable he thought all young people should take part in national service.
“I had no close calls, no rendezvous with danger, no skirted destinies with death,” he wrote. “What I had was a chance to discover and test myself, physically and emotionally and spiritually, in important, lasting ways.”
He went to work from 1959 to 1970 at the Dallas Morning News and the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald. Lehrer jumped to television on a Dallas nightly newscast. He went to Washington in 1972 to work for the Public Broadcasting System and teamed up with MacNeil to cover the Watergate hearings. After that, the pair launched their program.
Their show eventually was renamed “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.” After MacNeil retired in 1995, it became known as “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” In 2009, he removed his name from the title of the show.
Lehrer -- who had suffered a heart attack in 1983 and in April 2008 underwent heart valve surgery -- then began his gradual exit. He later told the Los Angeles Times that in 2009, he began making plans for his succession at the show. He retired two years later, bringing an end to the longest run of a national anchorman.
“It seemed like a natural time to go,” he told The Times.
He is survived by his wife, Kate; daughters Jamie, Lucy and Amanda; and six grandchildren.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.