Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer were both in Dallas the day President Kennedy was assassinated, but they didn’t meet one another for another 10 years.
MacNeil and Lehrer, whose nightly news report was synonymous with PBS for decades, likely crossed paths at Love Field, where JFK landed; at the hospital where he died; and at the police station where Lee Harvey Oswald was taken after he was arrested.
A decade later, the two lived in Bethesda, Md., had young daughters at the same school and were covering the Watergate hearings, which would change their careers by helping to strike their partnership on PBS’s “NewsHour.”
“We traveled to and from the Watergate hearings, usually in his car, and we got to be very good friends,” MacNeil told The Hill at a lunch where the two veteran anchors reminisced over their careers.
MacNeil and Lehrer are filming specials for PBS to mark the two milestones. Their recollections on the Watergate scandal, marking its 40th anniversary this year, air on Friday. Their special on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination will be in November.
Before MacNeil and Lehrer, there was no reporting on PBS.
But that changed with the Watergate hearings, which investigated the 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Washington office complex.
The first incarnation of the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” lasted 30 minutes and was hosted by MacNeil from New York. Called “The Robert MacNeil Report,” it aired after the broadcast network newscasts.
Lehrer came on board a bit later to anchor the network’s coverage from Washington, and the title became “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.”
“We were different enough but had the same journalism values,” Lehrer said of their work together.
MacNeil, a native of Montreal, retired from PBS in 1995. Lehrer, born in Wichita, Kan., retired as anchor in May 2011, though he has continued to contribute analysis and moderate presidential debates.
Both men have written several books — both fiction and non-fiction — and have new titles coming out this fall: MacNeil’s Burden of Desire will be published in September while Lehrer’s Top Down debuts in October.
The two argue their public television show is responsible for the staple of today’s cable news networks: the talking head.
“We introduced to television the concept of the talking head,” MacNeil said.
Their news program would become known for its in-depth reporting on one topic. To complement that, they would host a discussion with journalists and analysts, usually three or four of them sitting together at a table.
For all the stories the two have covered over the years, they agree their most-memorable one was JFK’s assassination.
“After the Kennedy assassination, then came two more assassinations, then Watergate and then the Vietnam War,” said Lehrer, who worked fro the Dallas Times Herald at the time.
MacNeil was a White House correspondent for NBC News and was in the press bus when Kennedy was shot. MacNeil ran out of the bus to find a phone and call the network.
“I went into the Texas book depository,” he recalled. “As I did, a young man was coming out and I asked him where’s the phone?”
That young man may have been Oswald. Historian William Manchester came to that conclusion in his book The Death of a President.
MacNeil recalled that Oswald, when recounting his day to authorities, said as he left the book depository, he ran into a young, blond Secret Service agent who asked him where a phone was.
“Well, I was young, gray suit, White House press pass, shorter hair cut,” MacNeil said.
Manchester speculated that Oswald mistook MacNeil’s press pass for an official government badge and thus called him a Secret Service agent.
Decades later, MacNeil isn’t sure it was Oswald, but he doesn’t rule it out.
“I was so focused on finding a phone,” he said.
In 1970, the city of Dallas erected a memorial to Kennedy, and Lehrer was chosen to write its inscription, which reads in part: “It is not a memorial to the pain and sorrow of death, but stands as a permanent tribute to the joy and excitement of one man’s life. John F. Kennedy’s life.”
“Most important thing I’ve ever written in my life,” Lehrer said of it. “It’s still there.”