Befitting the tone of his program, he’s unsentimental about the whole thing. “We’ve got a great team in place,” he said Thursday, sitting in his Arlington office, crammed with a formidable collection of bus memorabilia (a hobby that harks back to his father’s failed effort at running a bus company). “I’m proud of this — I’m on one of the most graceful glide paths to departure that anyone could have set up.”
In an age of eroding attention spans, Lehrer, 76, has been a throwback to the more deliberate Cronkite Age of anchoring. He still writes his copy and still acts as executive editor of the program, overseeing its daily lineup of stories and talking-head interviews. The program (and companion Web site) seems like an extension of his personality: modest and unflashy, with a grown-up’s take on the day’s major events.
For his part, Lehrer never did the fashionable anchor thing. No wading in hip-deep floodwater. No jetting off to the hurricane or royal wedding. While commercial newscasts changed — more health news! more soft features! more Kardashians! — “NewsHour” has evolved. Slowly.
“I’ve always seen this as a preserve of serious news,” Lehrer said. “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.”
Lehrer’s longtime collaborator and partner in “NewsHour’s” production company, Robert MacNeil, offers an even blunter take: “The joke we’ve always had is that we have the courage to be boring, to do things that other people in TV considered boring. Our feeling is that we don’t want to be assaulted by TV, or shouted at, and neither do our viewers.”
Lehrer set his succession in place about 18 months ago. He said he asked himself, “How do I depart in a way that protects the institution, prevents unpleasantness among the people involved and keeps the continuity?” Answer: He took his name off his show, a shockingly unegotistical move designed to rebrand the program for the post-Lehrer era. Now, instead of “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” it’s “The PBS NewsHour.”
The name change coincided with a bigger anchoring role for the journalists — uh, newspeople — who will inherit Lehrer’s mantle: Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Jeffrey Brown, Ray Suarez and Margaret Warner, who will continue anchoring on a rotating basis. Lehrer will remain involved in the program’s “editorial direction.”
Lehrer started as a newspaperman in Dallas 52 years ago after three years in the Marine Corps. He sold his first of nearly two dozen novels — a caper called “Viva Max!” that imagined a Mexican general with the ambition to retake the Alamo. When Columbia Pictures bought the book for a movie starring Peter Ustinov in 1969, Lehrer pocketed a $40,000 advance and thought he was on his way to becoming a full-time novelist.