Jim Lehrer, Respected Anchorman for PBS, Dies at 85

Jim Lehrer speaks prior to the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012  - Getty -H 2020
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Kansas native unpretentiously delivered the news for 36 years, working for two decades with Robert MacNeil.

Jim Lehrer, the unflashy and never fashionable anchorman who delivered the news to public television audiences for 36 years before his retirement in 2011, has died. He was 85.

Lehrer, a former newspaper reporter and editor in Dallas who spent more than two decades working alongside Robert MacNeil at PBS, died Thursday at his home in Washington, PBS announced. (Watch a tribute to him here.)

"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," said PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff. "I've looked up to him as the standard for fair, probing and thoughtful journalism, and I know countless others who feel the same way."

Lehrer moved to Washington in the early 1970s to become the public affairs coordinator at PBS and a correspondent for the National Public Affairs Center for Television. It was there that he met MacNeil and would soon begin one of the most esteemed partnerships in broadcast journalism history.

They first teamed up to cover the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, and their live coverage earned them an Emmy. In 1975, the pair launched the half-hour The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which Lehrer once joked "was the worst title in the history of television." The show, which focused on longform journalism, covering a single story at length and in depth, collected more than 30 awards, including a Peabody, a DuPont and several Emmys.

The program in 1983 became The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, the nation's first hourlong evening news program. Rather than concentrating on a single topic, the broadcast provided comprehensive coverage and analysis of the day's important stories. And when MacNeil retired in October 1995, the show was renamed The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, with Lehrer as the sole anchor.

In 2009, the show's name changed to PBS NewsHour as Lehrer considered retirement, and he left the program as a regular contributor in June 2011 after some 8,000 broadcasts.

"I've always seen this as a preserve of serious news," Lehrer, reflecting on his nearly four decades behind the NewsHour desk, told The Washington Post. "It's not magic, and it's not saintly. We've been doing it for 36 years, and we'll continue doing it. Others won't. That's their problem."

MacNeil said upon the news of Lehrer's retirement: "Jim has been able to bequeath the most precious commodity in journalism: the enormous trust and credibility he has inspired over the years. … It starts with fairness. Jim's sense of fairness is distilled in the personal guidelines he works by as a journalist."

Lehrer was born in 1934 in Wichita, Kansas. He received an AA degree from Victoria College in Texas and a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri. Shortly after graduation, he joined the Marine Corps.

In a 2006 commencement speech at Harvard, Lehrer attributed his interest in world affairs to his time as a Marine: "I am grateful my country forced me to serve my country. Not for my country's sake but for my own. In that diverse company, I learned to be responsible for others. I learned to be dependent on others. I learned there was more to life than me, me, me, me."

Lehrer began his journalism career as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times-Herald. He was assigned to cover the arrival of President John F. Kennedy at Dallas' Love Field on Nov. 22, 1963, and with a chance of rain, he noticed the Plexiglas bubble on the president's limousine — set to take part in a motorcade through downtown — was up.

"The Secret Service agent who was standing at the top of the ramp I happened to know," Lehrer recalled 50 years later. "And I said to him, 'Mr. Soros, I see the bubble top is up. Rewrite wants to know if it's going to be up during the thing.'

"And he looks up at the sky — I will never forget this. He looks up at the sky, and it's clear. … He yells down at an agent with a two-way radio, and he says, 'Check it downtown? What's it like downtown?' The guy goes, blah, blah, blah, blah.

"And then he says, 'Clear downtown.' And the agent that I'm talking to then yells to the other agents who are in charge of the motorcade, 'Lose the bubble top.'

"So they take the bubble top down."

(MacNeil, as a White House correspondent for NBC, was with the motorcade and phoned in the breaking news that Kennedy had been shot, though he and Lehrer didn't formally meet for another decade.)

When suspect Lee Harvey Oswald was hauled in to a Dallas police station, Lehrer shouted out, "Did you shoot the president?"

"What I took away and have taken away — and it still overrides everything that I have done in journalism since — what the Kennedy assassination did for me was forever keep me aware of the fragility of everything, that, on any given moment, something could happen," Lehrer said. "When I later became city editor of [the Dallas Times-Herald], I had a rule that every phone that rang in that newsroom got answered, because you never knew who was on the other line."

Lehrer later shifted to TV news in Dallas, working as the executive director of public affairs, on-air host and editor of a nightly news program on KERA-TV.

Lehrer was a prolific writer, publishing 20 novels, three memoirs and several screenplays. His last book was 2013's Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination.

His 2011 memoir, Tension City, focused on his experience as a moderator of presidential debates (he oversaw 12 since 1988). His last stint came in 2012, when he came out of semi-retirement for the debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

"Jim Lehrer embodies the best, timeless ideals of journalism," said Mark Hamrick, president of the National Press Club, which awarded Lehrer the prestigious Fourth Estate Award in 2011. "He is a remarkable example of how one can be both selfless and supremely successful and universally admired."

Survivors include his wife, Kate, daughters Amanda, Lucy and Jamie and six grandchildren.

One of the last anchormen of the "Cronkite Age," Lehrer preferred to be known as a newsman rather than a journalist, a term he said was too pretentious. He also followed what he described as his "skivvy shirt rule."

"You comb your hair, knot your tie and don't do anything to distract the viewer from the news," he once said. "You don't want anyone thinking, 'He's wearing his skivvy shirt.'"