Guest Commentary: Howard K. Smith: TV news’ courtly rebel

Feb 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

After his death Feb. 15, The New York Times simply wrote, “Howard K. Smith, Courtly, Outspoken Voice of Radio and Television, Is Dead at 87.”
I always attributed his courtliness to his Southern upbringing, but his outspoken voice was more of a complexity to me.
Of all “The Murrow Boys” described by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson in their 1996 book, Smith was the most outspoken, not because the others-William Shirer, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Richard Hottelet, Larry LeSueur, Bill Downs and David Schoenbrun-lacked passion. They did not. And in many ways and on many subjects, they displayed their passion in their broadcasts.
I think that what made Smith seem more controversial than his colleagues was simply that his courtliness beguiled his listeners-and later his bosses at CBS-into believing this indeed was a Southern gentleman who kept his political and emotional fires carefully banked.
That was the view I had of him when I was a student at Northwestern University from 1946 to 1950, when I carefully set aside every Sunday afternoon for the CBS Symphony Orchestra radio broadcast. At the intermission, Howard K. Smith would come on with a commentary from London.
That was the same view of him that I had when, as a graduate student at the London School of Economics, I met him and was graciously entertained by him and his wife, Bennie, first at their flat on Hallam Street and later in their stunning house in Regents Park.
In those days, there was no hint of the trouble to come when he returned to the States in 1961 to become chief correspondent and general manager of the CBS Washington bureau. Edward R. Murrow was gone, serving as John F. Kennedy’s director of the United States Information Agency, his power greatly diminished at CBS even before he departed. CBS News was not what it had been.
It was Birmingham, Ala., and Bull Connor, that city’s police commissioner, and the city’s segregationist policies that flamed the fires within Smith that had been so seemingly banked while he was abroad. It was Smith’s wish to end a documentary on Birmingham with a quote from the British statesman Edmund Burke-“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”-that ended his career at CBS. The president of CBS News, Richard Salant, muzzled Smith, and William Paley, who created and ran CBS at the time, in effect invited Smith to leave, which he did, moving over to ABC News.
Controversy followed Smith at ABC, especially his program in 1962, “The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon,” following Nixon’s defeat in his race to replace Gov. Pat Brown of California.
And there was more controversy later stemming from his ardent support of American escalation of the war in Vietnam.
We differed on the war, the difference stemming from Smith’s presence in England as a Rhodes Scholar during the pre-World War II period of appeasement of Adolf Hitler and my own view that our policies in Vietnam had nothing to with appeasement. They simply were not in our national interest.
The last time we met was September 2000, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the first Nixon-Kennedy debate. On hand that night in the WBBM-TV studio where the first debate had taken place were Smith, the moderator of the debate; Don Hewitt, our director and producer that night in 1960; and me-the only surviving reporter of the panel of four who asked the questions.
Our differences were not mentioned. All I remembered that night and all that I remember now that he is gone is how important he was to me when I started out in journalism and how much the broadcast journalism he exemplified has vanished and will likely never be seen again.#
Sander Vanocur hosts “History’s Business” on the History Channel. He was a stringer for CBS’s London bureau from 1954-55, when Howard K. Smith was bureau chief. Mr. Vanocur was at NBC News from 1957-71.