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The extraordinary legacy and unique voice of Jim Lehrer

It is impossible to quantify Jim Lehrer’s influence on this news program, American journalism, presidential debates or the lives of so many of us. He was an extraordinary journalist, writer, collaborator and friend. Robert MacNeil, Lehrer’s NewsHour co-founder, longtime Lehrer friend Justice Stephen Breyer and Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA, join Judy Woodruff to remember him.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On this day he died, we want to take some time for personal memories of Jim, as a journalist, a writer, collaborator, and friend.

    Robert "Robin" MacNeil, of course, is the co-founder of this program with Jim and his longtime friend and former co-anchor. He joins us from New York. Sharon Percy Rockefeller is the president and CEO of WETA, the public television station we are broadcasting from. Her work with Jim and Robin goes back to the very earliest days, when they covered the Watergate hearings. And Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is a longtime friend of Jim's.

    And we welcome all of you.

    We know it's hard on this day. It's hard for all of us. And so we especially appreciate your being here.

    Robin, take us back to the early days, when you and Jim first got to know each other. He came from his newspapering in Texas, and you came from your background in network television news to work together.

    Tell us about that.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Well, it was amazing how quickly, within a day or two, we became friends.

    Then we discovered we each had a tiny daughter in the same kindergarten in Bethesda. And that friendship grew so intimately and quickly that it was rather astonishing.

    It grew to the point where, within a year or so, we put it in our wills that, if anything happened to either of us, the other would look after the little children. Well, time moved on, and we didn't need to observe that.

    But Jim was just instant friendship, and we — our backgrounds were so different, but they melded in a very curious way.

    And I remember very well, in his beaten-up old Volkswagen, driving back from the Watergate hearings every night, and each of us turning to the other and saying, can you believe we're getting paid to do this?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Anyway, he was — and, as I said earlier, it — Jim taught me a lot.

    I grew up in a television background where you kind of loaded up your questions with enough information on foreign affairs to — as though you were a secretary of state in waiting.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Robert MacNeil:

    And Jim — Jim just said: Well, tell me about it, or why doesn't it work, or what does that mean, and wasn't afraid to ask very simple questions.

    I learned a lot from him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Robin, was it — what was it about his journalism?

    I mean, for people — I mean, there's folks, younger generation today, who maybe didn't see a lot of Jim or know a lot of Jim. What was it about his journalism?

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Well, I think he came, as I did, from a generation where the role, if you were going to be a serious journalist, if not overserious journalist, where you paid respect to the facts and respect for the institutions that you were covering, whether you disagreed with the way they were being run or not, and respect for the people who gave their lives to government service and the armed forces and everything else.

    That has changed enormously. And I think Jim was the kind of personification, in the way he observed these values in his journalism, of so many things that are being mocked or trashed today in our current political and journalistic situation, that he is truly of another generation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It does feel like a different time.

    But, Sharon, you got to know Jim and Robin, what, in the 1970s, when they were working on the Watergate hearings.

    What was it about the team and about Jim?

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    Well, I was asked, luckily, to go on the WETA Board of Trustees.

    I lived in West Virginia at the time, but the founder of WETA called me and said: "We need you."

    And I hadn't met her. I didn't know anything about it. But she said: "Come immediately."

    The Watergate hearings were just starting. And we had a community board which didn't know that much about politics. My dad had been a Republican, my husband a Democrat, so they thought I knew something about politics.

    Well, I did, but I didn't know anything about presidential impeachment hearings.

    And so it was the very early days, when no one knew where it was going. And I don't think Robin was in Washington that time, but I talked to Jim, or — and both of them over the years. We got to be good friends, because we believed in the same mission. We knew this was utterly important.

    The newspapers were doing a good job, but we wanted — but people were watching television, and they were riveted. They were hooked. As it was unfolding, history was being made. And we didn't have a clue what was going to happen the next day.

    We aligned ourselves as a team. And we saw that our place in the world of journalism was important, and we were going to do it right and get it right.

    And I would figure out how to pay for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And those are things we still believe today.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What was it about Jim Lehrer, though, that you saw in this team in the beginning?

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    Mm-hmm.

    Well, he loved Washington. He knew a lot about Washington. We were both very directly-spoken people. I'm pretty quick with words. And Jim was quick with words. So, we'd sort of get to the point fast. We always just got along because we believed in the same values.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Justice Breyer, you have known Jim Lehrer as a friend. He obviously was covering you over the years.

    Tell us about your friendship.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    He was a good friend.

    I was thinking today, what is it about him? I mean, you have said he was a Marine. And he was. And you saw it. I mean, he was definite. He was strong. He was patriotic.

    He was a builder. You have said that. He built this organization, and I think around a central idea, which is so much him. And the central idea is what other people say, not what the newscaster says, and our job will be to bring out from them of different points of view, what they're thinking.

    And he stuck to that. And you have.

    And I think that was the thing. He was interested in everything. I mean, he was interested — did you know that, when he was young, in fact, he memorized all the train schedules from Kansas?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we used to hear him recite some of them.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    Yes, and the…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    And the bus schedules.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    The bus schedules, the train schedules.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    He wrote mystery stories.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    He was interested in everything and everybody.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    Right.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    And you would draw him very easily into a conversation about anything at all.

    He didn't say, this is about me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    Always, it was about something else that drew him out.

    And he had a comic side. I mean, it was a kind of subtle comedy. When we were in Italy one time, I — visiting. We were visiting some friends. And he was very late, he and Kate.

    And I said, what did — well, he said: "I was caught in Bologna riding up and down the escalators, and I couldn't figure out how to get off the escalator."

    Now, we didn't know.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephen Breyer:

    Was that something he made up?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephen Breyer:

    He was a kind person. He was a generous person.

    Joanna, my wife, wrote a book about her profession, which is working with very sick children.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    And she was going to appear on television. And she didn't like public speaking.

    He spent time, rehearsed her and rehearsed her, and said, be natural, normal, and, above all, appear as if you have never been rehearsed.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sharon, you — having known Jim all these years, you know his family. You know his humor. You have watched him in action.

    Great with people, with friends.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    Absolutely, in every way, starting with his wife, Kate, a wonderful novelist.

    They had a terrific partnership, three daughters. But, when they were together, you could tell they were a happy couple and devoted to each other. And she helped him with her — his writing, and he helped with her writing, I think. Maybe she didn't let him help him (sic) too much.

    But it was — he was a very well-rounded human being. And he was all business at work. And I don't mean tough or mean, but I mean to the point, concise, laconic, in a way, but just, let's get this job done, because the mission is so important. We need to do it right, without doing it self-righteously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And picking up on that, Robin, that's really Jim.

    Jim gave work his all when he was at work, but he had a very full life outside of television and the "NewsHour."

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Yes.

    We talked a lot back and forth from New York to Washington when we weren't on the air, and, mostly, we didn't talk about the news. We talked about the books we were writing or hoping to write at the time.

    Jim — Jim is an extraordinarily intelligent man. I think he's the brightest man I ever worked with. And he had not only a penetrating intelligence, but also a moral intelligence. He had a way of cutting through to the moral equation in any situation, political, in terms of friendship, and the kind of man you trusted, as I trusted him.

    I could tell him anything, and did, things I wouldn't tell other people. And he and I had — I don't know what secrets he had for me, but I had very few secrets from him. And it was really a remarkable thing.

    That moral intelligence, it goes to the central part of Jim, which I think is exemplified — and it's pretentious — by the advice that Polonius gives to Laertes in "Hamlet," to thine own self be true. Thou canst not then be false to any man.

    And if that isn't a good motto for today, I don't know. And Jim embodied that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That makes me think, Justice Breyer, thinking about Jim, he's one of those people who would — could spot a phony a mile away. I mean, he had a kind of a radar in terms of reading what was right and what wasn't.

    We talked about the Marines and how that mattered in his life. That probably had something to do with it.

    What about his Kansas roots? I mean, his father Jim was a — he — Jim had a love of buses. We talked about that.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    Well, he wrote a very good crime novel about somebody who lived in a — I think it was a train station, wasn't it, somewhere in Kansas.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    He also wrote a most moving memoir called "We Were Dreamers."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    In fact, his first book after the novel he published first of all.

    But the — "We Were Dreamers" is an account of his brother and he with the two parents running the small feeder bus line in Kansas during the Second World War that connected with the main Trailways stations. It is all Jim, and it's very honest and very moving.

    When there was enough money in the ticket box on the bus, they'd stop at a restaurant, and his dad would say, "OK, the sky's the limit."

    Whenever Jim and — sat down with us at dinner or family or with a few couples, Jim would sit down and say, "OK, the sky's the limit."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephen Breyer:

    That picks up something, because he — it's hard to communicate how much fun he was to be with.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Yes.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    And it's partly because he was so interested in everything, and he did have a great sense of humor. And…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he was surprising in that way.

    He used to tease me about having left PBS for a while to go to work at one of the cable channels. He would tease me that I had gone to work for the Home Shopping Network.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephen Breyer:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He never — he never let go of that one.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    He couldn't believe you would leave, Judy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    The other side of it…

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Judy, he was the best man at — when I was married in 1984.

    And, in his toast, he said: "It must be love. Who else would marry a 54-year-old man with braces?"

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephen Breyer:

    And it isn't just the jokes. But look at how each of us, when we're thinking of him today, is smiling.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Exactly.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Yes.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    And it's a sad day, and we're smiling because we're thinking of him and his personality and just the fun of being with him.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    And, for all that fun and humor, he had a very serious, with Robin, responsibility.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He did.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    And they created the half-hour show, then the hour show, which the stations didn't really think they wanted, until we convinced them they needed it.

    And, basically, it was a very important enterprise to run, to lead, and to keep the respect for.

    So, when the day came that he finally decided, I think, to just no longer be on the air, he came over to see me in my office.

    And I said: "Jim, I will come to you."

    I always go to his office. He doesn't come to my office.

    He said: "No, no, I'm coming to you."

    I had no idea what it was about.

    He said: "Sharon, do you want the 'NewsHour'?"

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    I said, "Yes."

    This was a five-second transaction, but I knew what that meant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That was an important…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    You're going to care about it as much as we do. You're going to put your heart and soul into it. You're going to be an advocate. You're going to be a defender. No matter what goes on, you're going to carry on Robin's and my legacy.

    He didn't say those words, but that's exactly what he meant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It mattered…

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    And I hope I'm doing that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It mattered so much to him.

    And there is the legacy. We're talking about the great — the love of life that Jim Lehrer had. But he does leave a profound legacy, the man who moderated more presidential debates, Justice Breyer, than anyone else, 12 debates, who left a legacy of journalism that I think — that endures and will endure forever.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    I hope people watch the recordings of those debates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, for sure.

  • Stephen Breyer:

    And they watch how he did it.

    I mean, he left, I think — he contributed a lot. He contributed to his family, whom he loved. He contributed to his friends and associates, which is obvious. And I think he contributed a great deal to the United States of America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he cared about this country, Robin.

    That — maybe that goes back to his being a Marine. He loved this country. He would almost get teary when he talked about what it meant to him to be an American.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    It took me — it took me, as a Canadian, a long time in this country to finally come around to becoming an American citizen.

    Canadians kind of identify themselves as, well, we're not American, but we're great friends of America.

    I think the America I became a citizen of was one that I knew through Jim Lehrer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there's no greater compliment than that.

  • Sharon Percy Rockefeller:

    What a tribute.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a tribute.

    Thank you all. It means so much that you're here, Robert MacNeil, Justice Stephen Breyer, Sharon Rockefeller.

    Thank you.

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