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Lehrer Known as Earnest Voice Dedicated to Neutrality

The debate will be the PBS journalist's 10th as moderator. Critics fear he may be too low-key.

September 30, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Jim Lehrer, the poker-faced anchor of public broadcasting's nightly news program, has moderated more presidential debates than anyone -- tonight will be his 10th. This time, he may be watched almost as closely as President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.

Lehrer was criticized by operatives from both parties in 2000 for not speeding up the conversation between Bush, then the governor of Texas, and Vice President Al Gore in the second of three debates between the two. A former Democratic pollster said Lehrer moderated the encounter like "some kind of sherry hour" at Harvard.

He might have been content to concentrate on his much-praised news show, his collection of bus memorabilia and his books -- he is the author of 14 novels, two memoirs and three plays.

Instead, he is back for another round.

As he has for every debate he has moderated, starting in 1988, Lehrer has purchased a new tie (if history is any guide, its color will be in the wine or burgundy family), solicited question suggestions from colleagues at PBS and squirreled himself away for hours at a time to wade through background material.

Lehrer also brings to his task an unusual dedication to neutrality: He stopped voting in 1964 to wall off his personal beliefs from his professional duties.

Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairman of the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, said there was little doubt among planners in selecting Lehrer as the moderator for the first of the three Bush-Kerry matchups.

"He's the premier person in this area," Fahrenkopf said. Asked if the commission was concerned by the criticism of Lehrer's 2000 performance, Fahrenkopf said, "We figured the rest of you in the media were jealous."

Lehrer seems a throwback to a more civilized era, when quiet discourse characterized news. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania calls him "relentlessly polite."

"In an era of shout television, he is the custodian of old journalistic values," she said.

His informational style of interviewing pervades the "News- Hour with Jim Lehrer."

"His philosophy is that our viewers are smart enough to assess the guests for themselves," one colleague said. "Our e-mail shows he is right. Our viewers don't need a moderator to pound a point down their throats."

The 70-year-old Lehrer has refused all pre-debate interviews, telling colleagues that the spotlight belongs not on him but on the candidates. In interviews after previous debates, he often dismissed his own role.

In 2000, he said: "If somebody gets up from an interview and they can remember my question but not the answers, that is a failure. I know how important this is, but it's not about me."

Born in Wichita, Kan., James Charles Lehrer graduated from Victoria College in Texas and the University of Missouri.

After three years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, he worked for 10 years as a newspaperman in Dallas, and then as host of a local experimental news show on public television.

He came to Washington in 1972 to work for the Public Broadcasting System, teaming with Robin MacNeil in 1973 to cover the Senate Watergate hearings.

Soon the two launched the first 60-minute evening news program on television -- "The MacNeil-Lehrer Report." MacNeil retired in 1995.

Lehrer suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1983. Afterward, he rearranged his life. "I decided not only what I would do with my life, but what I would not do," he told an interviewer in 1997. "Once I got rid of the 'nots,' I had time to do what I want to do."

He takes a daily nap. He writes books, squeezing in time between news meetings and on weekends. And he collects.

Lehrer's office is filled with bus stuff. His father owned the Denco Bus Co., a small firm that served cities in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma too small for Greyhound.

Nearly every inch of his office is taken up with a bus sign, a model bus or some other tribute to a different time in American history, much of it purchased on EBay. He has been known to imitate a conductor, the names of small-town routes rolling off his tongue.

Every morning at 10:15, the senior correspondents and producers gather in his office to review the previous night's broadcast and plan for the day's show. (Lehrer recently criticized his own performance in interviewing Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.) Every so often he cuts the meeting short, saying an EBay auction of a bus item of his liking is about to end.

"Jim never lost his sense of self," said former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla), who is president of the University of Oklahoma. "He never developed an overgrown ego; he never lost his ability to go to any place in small-town America and be himself."

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