Jim Lehrer: ‘I have no regrets about saying what I did, or about changing my mind’

By Gail Shister 

Read my lips. No more debates.

Jim Lehrer didn’t use those words, but he might as well have. Lehrer’s November pronouncement that he would never host another presidential debate, like George H. W. Bush’s 1988 promise of no new taxes, turned out to be far from absolute.

With one major difference, according to PBS’s Lehrer. “There were consequences for him. There are no consequences for me.”

Lehrer will moderate the first Obama-Romney debate, Oct. 3 in Denver. It will be the 12th such event for Lehrer, 78, who last year retired as anchor of “NewsHour.” (For the first time since 1972, he won’t be the face of PBS at the national conventions.)

When members of the Commission of Presidential Debates asked Lehrer to re-consider, he said, Shermanesquely: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.” When the group pitched a new debate format, however, ‘never’ became too long to wait.

Despite the 180, Lehrer insists his conscience is clear.

“I have no regrets about saying what I did, or about changing my mind,” he says. “I am a regret-free person. I meant it when I said it at the time. I had no idea there would be a new format. Life is an ever-changing windstorm, and I’m a part of life.

“I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I want to moderate a presidential debate.’ There was a long, long buildup. I didn’t change. The circumstances changed. I wouldn’t have considered it for any other reason.”

The selection of Lehrer, along with that of CBS’s Bob Schieffer, CNN’s Candy Crowley and ABC’s Martha’s Raddatz has drawn heavy criticism from blacks and Hispanics for its absence of racial diversity. Others have accused the moderators of being too liberal and/or too mainstream.

To Lehrer, with half a century in the news business, it’s all background noise.

“I have enough to worry about with the debate itself,” he says. “People are going to say things – they always have and they always will. I cannot let it affect me. Fifty years in daily journalism conditions you to things like this. I’m staying grounded and going about my business.”

Nonetheless, Lehrer acknowledges he was distressed by an Aug. 17 New York Times report that said “NewsHour” staffers at an editorial meeting were ‘stunned’ to learn of his appointment. Co-anchor Gwen Ifill was described as ‘livid’ by unnamed sources who were there. Ifill confirmed she was ‘disappointed.’

The article “was very upsetting, no question about it,” says Lehrer, somewhat testily. “Then I moved on. It’s foolish of me to worry about it. That’s an internal problem that says a lot about the people there. It’s for the direct supervisors of ‘NewsHour’ to deal with.

“I’ve devoted my whole life to people saying what they want to say. You play in the public arena, things are going to happen that you wish didn’t happen. … I was not at the meeting. I don’t even know if it was accurately portrayed. I’m not interested in pursuing it anymore.”

“NewsHour”‘s Judy Woodruff denies there was any backlash about Lehrer at the gathering. When a staffer read the announcement off Drudge on his Blackberry, “there was momentary surprise,” she says. “Everyone had been told that Jim had taken himself out of the running.”

When ‘NewsHour’ executive producer Linda Winslow immediately confirmed the news, “we were all excited about it,” Woodruff says. “They chose our guy, our executive editor. He’ll do a fantastic job. It’s terrific for Jim, terrific for ‘NewsHour’ and terrific for PBS.”

“Gwen’s happy for him, too. It’s totally understandable that she’d be disappointed.”

Lehrer, meanwhile, is deep in debate prep. He intends to play it low-key. “The best moderators are the invisible moderators,” he says. “It isn’t about tactics or showing how clever and smart you are. That’s not the world I live in.

“The most difficult question you can ask somebody is ‘Why?’”