With his long-time professional partner Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer forged a unique journalistic brand during the U.S. Senate Watergate Hearings in 1974, a watershed moment in American history that led to the resignation of then President Richard M. Nixon over allegations of illegal political activities sanctioned by the White House. Modest and unprepossessing in his demeanor but dogged in his pursuit of the truth, the Texas-raised, Marine Corps-hardened Lehrer helped change the shape of broadcast journalism and public television as one-half of the news reporting equation of the long-running "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" (PBS, 1976-1983) and its subsequent reincarnations as "The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour" (1983-1995) and "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" (1995-2009). Despite a reputation for reporting the facts with unsparing accuracy, Lehrer's ethical integrity earned him the trust of Washington, D.C.'s inner circles. Between 1988 and 2012, he was called upon to mediate twelve presidential debates, earning along the way the nickname The Dean of Moderators. At the time of his 2009 retirement from full time news anchoring, Jim Lehrer could claim a spotless record as a paragon of broadcast journalism, never wavering in his adherence to verifiable fact and never permitting a media event to degrade into a media circus.
James Charles Lehrer was born on May 19, 1934, in Wichita, KS. Lehrer's father Harry Frederick Lehrer, an ex- Marine and former bookkeeper for Santa Fe Trailways, founded his own bus line in 1946, based in the central Kansas town of McPherson. By the time Fred Lehrer declared bankruptcy 13 months later, his youngest son Jimmy and wife Lois were the only drivers on staff at their Kansas Central Lines. The failure of the business put the family on the road, first to Independence, KS, where Jimmy Lehrer entered middle school, and then to Beaumont, TX in 1948. At Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio, where his father managed a bus depot for Trailways, Lehrer edited the student-published Jefferson Declaration. His first serious ambition was to be a sports announcer, inspired as he was by the men who called the local baseball games.
Because his brother was already enrolled at the University of Texas, Lehrer's parents sent him to the less expensive Victoria College, a two-year junior college in Victoria, TX. Lehrer's father had been transferred there by Trailways and gave his son a night job as a ticketing agent to offset the cost of tuition. Volunteering for work at the campus newspaper, The Jolly Roger, Lehrer was made editor on the spot because no one else wanted the job. Solely responsible for the paper's content, he wrote copy, laid out the pages, delivered the finished edition to the printers and picked up published copies to hand deliver. Lehrer obtained a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1956. The day of his graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, following the example of both his father and older brother. At the tail end of the Korean War, he served as an infantry platoon leader with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines in Southeast Asia.
Shortly before his discharge from the Marines in the summer of 1959 and while stationed at Parris Island, GA, Lehrer was put in charge of the weekly Corps newspaper The Boot. Back in civilian clothes, he found work with The Dallas Morning News, initially as a night rewrite man and also writing obituaries and weather reports. In 1961, he became a courthouse reporter for the The Dallas Times-Herald. As was true of a number of Texas newsmen of this era, Lehrer's first big story was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Lehrer spent six months covering every viable angle on the national tragedy. He also contributed the anonymous inscription for architect Philip Johnson's John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial, erected in downtown Dallas in 1970. During his tenure with The Dallas Times-Herald, Lehrer rose to the position of city editor and once interviewed Elvis Presley.
Having turned to writing fiction and drama in his off-hours, Lehrer's first novel was published in 1966. The wry satire about a Mexican general who invades contemporary Texas to retake the Alamo was adapted by director Jerry Paris as the feature film "Viva Max!" (1969), starring Peter Ustinov. Having made various guest appearances on the Dallas public television station KERA, Lehrer was hired in 1970 as the station's director of news and public affairs and to anchor its evening news program. The experimental format found Lehrer seated in a swivel chair surrounded by a panel of print journalists who would report on stories for which they could not find a home with their own newspapers. In 1972, Lehrer accepted a position with the Public Broadcast System in Washington, D.C. Partnered with veteran broadcast journalist Robert MacNeil, Lehrer covered the U.S. Senate Watergate Hearings. In 1975, he became a regular contributor to PBS' "The Robert MacNeil Report" broadcast from New York City. In 1976, the name of the program was changed to "The MacNeil-Lehrer Report" (1975- ).
The half-hour "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" was an instant sensation with followers of hard news, commanding respect from the industry and garnering for its hosts dozens of prestigious awards, among them a 1977 Emmy and a 1978 Peabody Award. Bumped up to a 60-minute format in 1983, the program was retitled "The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour." The name of the program would change once more, in 1995 with the retirement of Robert MacNeil, to "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer." Stricken with a heart attack in 1983, Lehrer turned misfortune into news with "My Heart, Your Heart," an award-winning expose of the causes and wages of heart disease from his personal perspective. During his convalescence, Lehrer also returned to writing fiction and in 1988 published his second novel, Kick the Can, the first in a series of mysteries. In 1986, his play "Chili Queen" was mounted in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.
Balancing his novel and playwrighting with his duties as a journalist, Lehrer moderated eleven televised presidential debates between 1988 and 2008, earning in the process the nickname the Dean of Moderators. Having undergone open heart surgery in 2008, Lehrer retired as host of "The News Hour with John Lehrer" the following year. The program he had helped debut was renamed "PBS News Hour," though he continued to appear as a weekend news analyst and to play an active part in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. He still moderated presidential debates and was on hand for the first of three between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. But unlike his previous efforts, where he moved things along with a steady hand, Lehrer lost his grip on the debate when both candidates repeatedly rolled over him. Lehrer asked rather vague questions that led to open-ended answers, with both candidates going over their allotted two minutes. When he tried to reign them in, both Obama and Romney interrupted the "Dean of Moderators" and proceeded to extend their answers. A good deal of the post-debate press focused on Lehrer's poor performance, with the former anchor receiving some of the worst press of his career. Lehrer responded to the criticism by stating it was his job to stay out of the way, but by then it was too late - the perception that he had completely lost control had taken root and was cemented by a hilarious sketch on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ).
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Wrote for <i>The Dallas Morning News</i> and then the <i>Dallas Times-Herald</i>
First big story, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963
Wrote first novel <i>Viva Max!</i>; adapted by director Jerry Paris as feature film in 1969
Named city editor of the <i>Dallas Times-Herald</i>
Moved to Washington, DC to serve as the public affairs coordinator for PBS
Teamed up with Robert MacNeil to provide continuous live coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings for the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT)
Published first memoir <i>We Were Dreamers</i>
Appeared as correspondent on "Robert MacNeil Report," which premiered on Thirteen/WNET New York
Program name changed to "The MacNeil-Lehrer Report" (PBS)
Bumped to 60-minute format, program retitled "The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour"
Began moderating televised presidential debates; earned nickname the Dean of Moderators
Penned second novel <i>Kick the Can</i>
Wrote second memoir <i>A Bus of My Own</i>
Following MacNeil's retirement, headlined "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer"
Inducted into the Television Hall of Fame
Retired as host of "The News Hour with John Lehrer" after undergoing open heart surgery; appeared as correspondent for retitled "PBS News Hour"
Published book about presidential debates titled <i>Tension City</i>
Moderated his 12th nationally televised presidential debate, held in Denver, CO