By Tyler Aquilina
January 23, 2020 at 02:44 PM EST
Carol Guzy/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

Jim Lehrer, the renowned journalist and news anchor who presented the PBS NewsHour for 36 years, has died. He was 85.

Lehrer died peacefully in his sleep at his Washington, D.C. home on Thursday, PBS announced. A cause of death has not yet been disclosed. He is survived by Kate, his wife of six decades, three daughters, and six grandchildren.

“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,” current NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff said. “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 began his career as a Dallas newspaperman, where he covered the Kennedy assassination for the Dallas Times-Herald, before relocating to Washington to join PBS in the 1970s. He rose to prominence through his coverage of the Watergate Senate hearings with his longtime associate and friend Robert MacNeil. The pair went on to work together in public television news for two decades, beginning with The Robert MacNeil Report (shortly to become The MacNeil/Lehrer Report when Lehrer became co-anchor), which would cover a single news story in depth on each episode.

MacNeil and Lehrer co-created the program that would become PBS NewsHour in 1983, with an eye on competing with the broadcast networks’ nightly news shows. MacNeil retired in 1995, leaving Lehrer the sole anchor until his own retirement in 2011. The pair interviewed such notable historical figures as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, Fidel Castro, and most American presidential candidates from 1976 onward.

Lehrer was also known to viewers nationwide as a moderator of presidential debates, beginning in 1988. He ultimately moderated 12 debates — more than anyone else in American history — including every presidential debate in 1996 and 2000. (Chris Parnell memorably played Lehrer in the 2000 Saturday Night Live debate sketch that birthed the word “strategery.”)

Widely respected for his in-depth reporting and balanced presentation of controversial issues, Lehrer maintained a strong credo of journalistic integrity. Among his oft-repeated “rules”: “Do nothing I cannot defend,” “Assume the same about all people on whom I report,” and “I am not in the entertainment business.”

Lehrer was also a prolific writer, authoring 20 novels, three memoirs, and several plays, spanning genres from murder mysteries to thrillers to farces. He received numerous awards and honorary degrees throughout his career, including multiple Emmys. Before becoming a journalist, he served in the Marine Corps for three years, following in the footsteps of his father and older brother.

Many fellow journalists paid tribute to Lehrer on social media. “In the trenches of electronic journalism over the decades, I met a lot of people. Few approached their work with more equanimity and integrity than Jim Lehrer,” longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather wrote on Twitter. “He was a gentlemen, and a helluva journalist. He will be missed.”

Several also recalled his affinity for buses; he was known at PBS for collecting intercity bus memorabilia, a mark of his father Henry’s career as a bus station manager. “I did a piece for CNN in 1983 about a stunt driver who jumped and crashed old school buses,” ESPN’s Keith Olbermann tweeted. “Phone rings. ‘Is this Keith? My name is Jim Lehrer…’ Asked for a VHS copy of the story. A week later it’s him calling again ‘can’t thank you enough!'”

You can read more tributes to Lehrer below.

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