Lehrer, 85, died “peacefully in his sleep,” according to PBS.
He had suffered a heart attack in 1983 and more recently, had undergone heart valve surgery in April 2008.
For Lehrer, and for his friend and longtime colleague Robert MacNeil, broadcast journalism was a service, with public understanding of events and issues its primary goal.
“We both believed the American people were not as stupid as some of the folks publishing and programming for them believed,” Lehrer wrote 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.”
Tributes poured in from colleagues and watchers alike, including from Fox News’ Bret Baier, who called Lehrer “an inspiration to a whole generation of political journalists- including this one”.
Dan Rather said “few approached their work with more equanimity and integrity than Jim Lehrer.” And Jake Tapper of CNN called Lehrer “a wonderful man and a superb journalist.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him a “champion for truth and transparency”.
Many Americans knew him best for his role as debate moderator. For seven straight presidential elections, he was the sole journalist sitting across from the candidates for the first debate of the general election campaign. In 1996 and 2000, he moderated all of the debates – five of them – and a vice presidential contest to boot.
He told The Associated Press in 2011 that his goal was to probe the candidates’ thinking and avoid “gotcha” questions. He felt his best debate performance was in 2004, with George W Bush and John Kerry, not because of anything he did, but because the candidates were able to state their positions clearly.
Lehrer was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1934, the son of parents who ran a bus line. In addition to titling his memoir A Bus of My Own, he collected bus memorabilia – from station signs to a real 1946 Flxible Clipper bus.
After graduation from college in 1956, he served three years in the Marines, later calling the experience so valuable that 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 is survived by his wife, Kate; three daughters: Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and six grandchildren.
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