On a sunny August morning, Robert MacNeil, co-host of PBS’ MacNeil/Lehrer Report, pulls his car up to a gas station in Rye, N.Y. on his way to a sailing trip on Long Island Sound. A truck driver in grubby blue overalls peers curiously from his rig, then ambles over and grabs MacNeil by the hand. “You know something,” he says, “I’m sick of all that one-minute garbage on the network news. But you guys—you guys have substance!”
Substance indeed. Since MacNeil, 51, and his partner, Jim Lehrer, 48, tentatively pioneered the one-issue-per-show news format seven years ago, MacNeil/Lehrer has become one of TV’s most respected programs, drawing a nightly audience of 4.5 million. Last month the pair announced plans to expand the show to an hour next year—if individual stations agree to make time available—and AT&T has already pledged $10 million toward the project. “We started MacNeil/Lehrer under the assumption that it’s very easy to produce heat on TV, and very difficult to produce light,” says MacNeil. The show’s success, he believes, proves there is a broad audience for what the program provides: a dispassionate in-depth look at everything from Mideast politics to nuclear waste. “We’re accessible,” says MacNeil. “We don’t appeal exclusively to an elitist audience. In fact, one-third of our viewers have a high school education or less.”
Not everybody shares MacNeil’s enthusiasm. Village Voice columnist Alexander Cockburn, writing in Harper‘s, characterized the MacNeil/Lehrer duo as “the tedium twins,” and slammed the “self-righteously boring” MacNeil (whom he gratuitously described as resembling “Kermit the Frog in old age”) for what he regarded as a dreary insistence on impartiality. MacNeil has heard such criticism before. “If I were more certain of myself and had more of the preacher in me, I’d be quite happy to give moral lectures,” says MacNeil, who considers himself a liberal. “In my 20s and 30s I had a more committed view. But that usually came from ignorance. Our evenhandedness is one reason why people like us.”
The son of a Canadian naval officer who later became a diplomat, MacNeil grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, certain he would go to sea—until he flunked part of his naval college entrance exam. “When that happened, the bottom dropped out of both my world and my father’s,” he recalls. (His younger brother Hugh is now commander of NATO’s Atlantic standing naval force.) After an abortive attempt at acting, he took off to London to write plays, and found a job writing newsbriefs for Reuters wire service. “I really imagined the day would come when I’d have a play produced in the West End, and I would leave the Reuters job,” he says. “But that kind of Walter Mitty fantasy never happened. Eventually the imperatives of journalism took over. It became a little Pac-Man that munched up everything in its way.”
After five years with Reuters, MacNeil moved to NBC as a correspondent, covering the Berlin crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy and other pivotal events of the ’60s. In his recent memoir, The Right Place at the Right Time (Little, Brown and Co., $13.95), he recalls rushing up the stairs of the Texas-School Book Depository seconds after JFK was shot and encountering a man who was probably Lee Harvey Oswald on the way down. MacNeil became moderator of public TV’s Washington Week in Review in 1972, hooked up with the Kansas-born Lehrer to cover the Watergate hearings for PBS (“We’re best friends now,” he says), and the pair went on-air in 1975.
Recently separated from his second wife, MacNeil lives alone in a sublet brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His extracurricular passion is sailing, which he recently indulged in on a week-long cruise from Nantucket to Maine aboard his 35-foot sloop Mirage, accompanied by three of his four children, who range in age from 11 to 25. “Sailing is a complete change of pace for me,” he says. “It’s totally absorbing—you can’t think about anything else.” Not that he wants to escape MacNeil/Lehrer; he finds the work as stimulating as ever. “I have yet to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh my God, do I really have to get up and do that again today?’ ” he observes. “Perhaps it’s my response to the male menopause. It’s the one way that I can stay a few laps ahead of the panting youths coming up on the inside lane.”