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People Top 5
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- July 27, 1992
- Vol. 38
- No. 4
The Seasoned TV Journalist Delivers a Tart Take on Presidential Politics in a Bizarre Election Year
Sitting back in his office in shirtsleeves and suspenders, his rangy legs extended, Brinkley rails at Washington with a sourness that's surprisingly intense. After 49 years as a broadcast journalist, he might sound like an old crank—if so many Americans didn't suddenly agree with him.
He doesn't loathe all politicians. "Winston Churchill is my hero," he says. "I believe he saved the world with his oratory." Just last Monday, from his anchor spot beside Peter Jennings at the Democratic National Convention, he observed that Barbara Jordan, the former Texas Representative who had set the place roaring, "can scorch the wallpaper with her speeches." But generally Brinkley disdains the rhetoric of Democrats, Republicans or anyone else in "this bizarre election year, where we have one candidate nobody knows and two candidates nobody wants."
Still, he likes covering the conventions, which he's done since 1952. "It's a nice change from our regular routine," he says with a laugh, referring to the public affairs show he hosts Sunday mornings on ABC, This Week with David Brinkley. Launched in 1981, This Week has provided Brinkley, 72, with the perfect vehicle in the autumn of his renowned career. With Sam Donaldson playing Get the Guest and George Will offering surgically precise and grammatically impeccable mots the show has put some zing into Sunday-morning news. Brinkley acts as the rudder. "David has seen it all," Will says. "His seasoning and judgment is like the patina on silverware. On the show it would take something like incoming missiles to get him lathered up."
Brinkley acquired most of this patina during his nearly four decades at NBC, particularly on the renowned Huntley-Brinkley Report. The nightly news show, which ran from 1956 to 1970, made Brinkley and the craggy Chet Huntley famous (more so, according to a '60s survey, than Cary Grant or the Beatles) and helped put NBC on the map. CBS veteran Don Hewitt recalls, "We had been king of the hill for years, and then all of a sudden we look up, and there are Huntley and Brinkley, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Actually the duo faltered at the start. Producer Reuven Frank says the show's debut was "the worst single news broadcast in television history." Switching between Huntley in New York City and Brinkley in Washington was a nightmare, given the primitive state of TV technology. Film was missing. Classical pillars in the background appeared to be growing out of Huntley's head.
And there was an internal struggle over those celebrated tag lines: "Good night, Chet," "Good night, David. And good night for NBC News." Frank, who scribbled them on a piece of paper just before the first broadcast, says that "neither Huntley nor Brinkley liked it. They thought it was effeminate, two guys saying good night to each other." Brinkley acknowledges he thought it was "silly and inappropriate. But Reuven Frank rammed it down our throats, and it became part of the language. People still holler it at me on the street."
By the late '50s the show had found its footing; for several years it gave Walter Cronkite a drubbing in the ratings. Viewers liked the way basso straight man Huntley contrasted with the often witty Brinkley. During a congressional dustup over whether or not to change the name of Boulder Dam to Hoover Dam, Brinkley suggested it would be simpler if Hoover changed his name to Herbert Boulder. Ever since his partnership with Huntley, who died in 1974, Brinkley has also been regarded by many as the best newswriter in the business. "He gets more information into 100 words than anyone I've ever worked with," says Frank.
Yet Brinkley wears his fame with some regret. On or off the job, "I can't just poke around in places I find interesting," he says. "It's a real loss." He first realized how well-known he had become during the 1960 primary campaign, when he tried trailing Hubert Humphrey through a West Virginia town. To his dismay, Brinkley attracted a bigger crowd than the candidate. "It was really a shock to David," says Frank. "He decided not to do that kind of thing anymore."
Brinkley has had a solitary streak since childhood. Born in Wilmington, N.C., he was the youngest of five children. But "the next one to me was 20 years older," he says, "so I was essentially a loner who went to the library a lot. I always liked to read." There were tensions at home. Brinkley's father, a minor railroad bureaucrat, was also a winemaker, and Brinkley's mother was a prohibitionist. "The day my father died," he says, "before they got the body out of the house, she was dumping his wine down the sink."
Struck by Brinkley's writing, a high school English teacher suggested he become a journalist. In 1938 Brinkley dropped out of high school in his senior year and took a job at a local paper. After a stateside stint in the Army he worked for United Press in the South. Then in 1943 "somebody at CBS read something of mine and offered me a job," he says. "So I came to Washington. He sent a message out that he had never heard of me and didn't want to see me, and I sent a message back to him to go to hell. I walked over to NBC, got a job in one minute and worked there for 38 years."
Brinkley left NBC in 1981 because of a rancorous feud with then president Bill Small over programming decisions. Though moving to ABC was a "crushing adjustment" at first, he has long since made a home there. "Brinkley can be abrupt or dismissive," says a former This Week producer, "but if he likes you and respects your intelligence, he can be the most generous of friends."
Reuven Frank calls Brinkley "a very, very private man who rarely talks about his feelings." He has three sons—Alan, 40, a historian, Joel, 37, and John, 34, both journalists—from a 1946 marriage to former United Press reporter Ann Fischer; the couple divorced after 22 years. In 1972 Brinkley wed Susan Benfer, now 49, a onetime real estate agent who has a daughter, Alexis, 23, from a previous marriage. "He and Susan are extremely close," says Barbara Walters. "At the l0th-anniversary party for This Week, she and his children got up and talked about him. It was very moving. David said just a few words and smiled, but he was very pleased."
After he finally retires—probably in 3½ years, when his current contract runs out—Brinkley won't sit. An expert woodworker, he says he already makes "chairs, cabinets, almost anything" at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He also likes shooting pool, horse racing and poker. For many years he has been part of a floating card game in Washington that he seems to take seriously. As Motion Picture Academy president Jack Valenti once put it, "While [Art] Buchwald is making a joke and Carl Rowan is cutting up, Brinkley will be sitting calculating the next card...and of course his face is absolutely opaque. Is that son of a bitch bluffing or isn't he? We could never tell."
These days Brinkley's chief outside interest is the book he's writing—"a sort of autobiography," he says. His first book, Washington Goes to War (1988), is the often comic account of a hayseed city suddenly coming of age in the '40s. The new one will rely in part on "a great resource—the mail I've gotten over the years from the American people," he says. "For example, the mail on the Kennedy murder, which is very emotional and moving." As autobiographies go, this could be a self-deprecating one. "What I have achieved is a kind of superficial, temporary, commercialized notoriety," he says. "When I leave here, it will go very fast."
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