Guest Commentary – David Brinkley: Reluctant Celebrity, News Pioneer

Jun 16, 2003  •  Post A Comment

David Brinkley died a few weeks before his 83rd birthday, after a long and fruitful life and a very distinguished career. But it was sad. It was sad for David, who always resented growing old. It was sad, in another sense, for all of us. It was a reminder of the glorious days of network television news, when people like him were not only popular but trusted.
Then Vietnam came and television news showed America what it did not want to see, and 24-hour all-news cable came, and the definition of news disappeared. On Oct. 29, 1956, when NBC first telecast “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” we knew what news was. The problem was how to get it in one place so people would understand it. The idea that news had stars was strange to us.
The Brinkley I knew, and worked with all those years, always thought of himself as young. He didn’t like fame although he didn’t mind fortune. During that wonderful political year of 1960, when he and Chet Huntley first became famous, he went out on his own, as he liked to do, to cover the West Virginia Democratic primary race between Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.
Another of our reporters would report the story that night while David would talk to people, observe the candidates and fill his notebooks with small facts and bits of color. But when he followed a discreet 10 yards behind Humphrey as he was shaking hands and politicking down a main street in Wheeling, he drew a bigger crowd than the candidate. David never covered politics that way again. It was like him to draw into himself.
But politics remained his special love and talent. That same year, among the Republicans, New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller, an extreme Cold War hawk, decided that the almost certain Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, was not tough enough on the Soviet Union. They had a public spat and Nixon was forced to come around to Rockefeller’s position. A few weeks later, during the party’s convention in Chicago, live cameras showed Rockefeller bringing Nixon to the New York delegation meeting in a Michigan Avenue hotel.
As they stood there, arm in arm, David said, “If that isn’t love, it will have to do until the real thing comes along.”
Years earlier, when a Democratic Congress and a Republican White House had a long and unseemly public quarrel over renaming the majestic Boulder Dam for Herbert Hoover, David Brinkley suggested it would end the noisome fracas if Hoover changed his name to Boulder. But these were not jokes. He was witty, not funny. He could skewer a situation with a word, the right word.
David Brinkley played the trombone; he liked jazz; he was a skilled cabinet maker. He was something of an Anglophile, an admirer of Winston Churchill, at ease in the presence of the mighty. After all, as a beginning reporter, he had been in the Oval Office, where Franklin Roosevelt used to talk to reporters.
In October 1956, he and Huntley ended the wartime cliche of the ex cathedra news anchorman dispensing truth in a voice from the well. We agreed that the audience was as smart as we were and we should address them as such. That first year, when the ratings were terrible and we faced cancellation, we decided not to change. Somehow it worked.
(At one of the political conventions where he first made his name, David was asked to explain for a foreign audience an upcoming floor demonstration for one of the candidates-snake dances, balloons, funny hats and waving banners. He held nothing back, listing all the silliness and faked exuberance of this American political institution, but concluded, “Somehow it works.”)
David could always get more into a sentence than most people. He thought reporters preened themselves too much, and that both the press and its public had exaggerated notions of its power. History, he once pointed out, provides many examples of generals seizing power and putting journalists in jail. But it provides no examples of reporters seizing power and putting generals in jail.
In these last years, we were in touch, if at all, only by letter. I never asked him what he thought of all the news outlets television provides today compared with the 15 minutes a night with which we made do. But he did once say: “The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were.”
David Brinkley looked at the world the rest of us looked at, but he had a sort of laser vision that enabled him to see what the rest of us couldn’t. Many newspaper obituary reports ended with, “Goodnight, David,” part of the famous ending of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report.” He hated it.
Reuven Frank, a former president of NBC News, was executive producer of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” from its inception until 1965.