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In Memoriam: David Brinkley

June 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: David Brinkley’s life in journalism was a 60-year love affair with telling stories. His career spanned 11 presidents…

DAVID BRINKLEY: Why can’t we exercise more influence there, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: You have some influence.

TERENCE SMITH: …four wars and twenty-two political conventions. His dry, understated style and clipped delivery became his signature.

DAVID BRINKLEY: I guess this convention judging from tonight particularly has done what a convention is supposed to do.

TERENCE SMITH: From his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, he moved to Washington to work for NBC Radio — a heady assignment for a 23-year-old.

DAVID BRINKLEY: We traveled around with the president and we thought we were really something.

TERENCE SMITH: Brinkley soon became a fixture in Washington.

SPOKESMAN: Let’s go to David Brinkley in the nation’s capital.

DAVID BRINKLEY: Today General Eisenhower is back on his campaign train.

TERENCE SMITH: Brinkley’s big break came in 1956 when he teamed with Chet Huntley to anchor NBC’s coverage of the political conventions. He and Huntley were such a success, NBC selected them as co-anchors of the Nightly News and renamed it the Huntley-Brinkley report.

DAVID BRINKLEY: Good night, Chet.

CHET HUNTLEY: Good night, David, and good night for NBC News.

TERENCE SMITH: With Huntley broadcasting from New York and Brinkley from Washington, that sign-off became part of American television folklore.

Their on-air partnership ended with Huntley’s retirement in 1970, but Brinkley stayed with NBC until 1981 when ABC news president Roone Arledge lured him to the network.

ROONE ARLEDGE: We are overjoyed that someone of David Brinkley’s stature is going to join ABC News.

TERENCE SMITH: He teamed up with Peter Jennings to cover politics and became a familiar face on Sunday mornings.

ANNOUNCER: This Week with David Brinkley.

TERENCE SMITH: Brinkley’s show quickly rose to the top of the ratings. Sandwiched between conservative George Will and outspoken Sam Donaldson, Brinkley revealed only a bit of himself, usually at the end of the show in his often, offbeat commentary.

Here’s Brinkley’s take on Internal Revenue Service plans to collect taxes in the wake of a nuclear war:

DAVID BRINKLEY: It says in areas of the country hardest hit, delinquent taxpayers will be given a little extra time. Otherwise, taxes will be collected as usual.

TERENCE SMITH: Brinkley found time to write several books, including, “Washington Goes to War,” in 1988. On the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Jim Lehrer talked to him about the book and his career.

JIM LEHRER: You say you were a reporter. Do you still see yourself as a reporter?

DAVID BRINKLEY: Yes, that’s the only thing I really claim to know how to do. I’ve never done anything else. Getting into television doing your kind of work and the kind I was doing for a long time. Sometimes it’s reporting in a special sense but not running around town with a note pad and talking to people, and putting it all down and coming back: it’s cameras and lights and wires and microphones and technicians and so on. It’s a different kind of field, but essentially journalism has not changed.

TERENCE SMITH: Brinkley retired in 1997 at age 77, having won every major award in journalism and the presidential Medal of Freedom. He signed off with this final commentary.

DAVID BRINKLEY: On this, my last word here on ABC, I quote Shakespeare who said “All’s well that ends well.” My time here now ends extremely well. Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: I’m joined now by Robert MacNeil, the former co-anchor of the NewsHour, who worked with David Brinkley when they were both at NBC. Robin, it’s a pleasure to have you back on the broadcast.

TERENCE SMITH: You worked together for how long?

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Well I was at NBC for seven years in the ’60s, the decade of NBC’s glory in journalism. And two of those were in the Washington bureau where I was colleagued with Brinkley and then two more in New York where I was again a colleague, but a distant colleague of Brinkley’s.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us what he was like.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Well, he was a very private man. When he would be accused of liberal bias, for instance, as he was, it astonished the people who worked with him because none of us really knew what his politics were. Towards the end of his life, he became rather sour on the politics that he’d enjoyed so much over his career.

And he became a rather testy libertarian. I can remember having dinner with him a few years ago in Florida, and he spent the evening complaining about taxes and complaining about limitations on the ability of people to own guns and so on, which certainly didn’t sound like any liberal.

TERENCE SMITH: Was his era, when you look back at it, different in television terms, than today?

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Oh, it was hugely different. Remember that when the Huntley-Brinkley Report began each…even major cities only had two or three television stations, maybe four with an independent or an educational station. They were really giving in the ’60s, the decade of America’s great traumas from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile crisis, to the Berlin Wall to the Kennedy assassination to Vietnam to the Martin Luther King assassination and so on, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, this decade of extraordinary traumas.

Brinkley and Huntley and Walter Cronkite on CBS really gave this new medium of journalism its credibility. In fact, halfway through that decade in 1966, television surpassed newspapers in believability according to the national polls. Brinkley was a major part of that; and part of it was content. He was a very serious disciplined journalist and part of it was his wonderful style, which made listening to him and watching him so entertaining.

TERENCE SMITH: He did have a great style and a great sense of humor, a little bit of which we saw just a moment ago. People were very comfortable with him.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Yes, they were, and I think what they liked was the fact that he had a wonderful ear for the absurdities and the mendacities and what was ridiculous in politics, at the same time, a real respect for the institutions in Washington, a kind of loving, ironic skepticism about them, and he took them very seriously.

So he could mock what was ridiculous, but at the same time admire what worked. It all summed up in a commentary he did one time which became the title of a book published by NBC called “It’s All Crazy, But Somehow it Works.”

TERENCE SMITH: Now when you were in the newsroom with him, was there a prickly side to the David Brinkley that seemed so unflappable?

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Well, he kept himself to himself. He had his own office separate from the newsroom. One saw him occasionally, but he was not a gregarious fellow, unlike Huntley, who was. But his great contribution, one of his great contributions, I think, was his interest in serious, careful writing. I mean, all of his famous end pieces were very carefully written by him. He would think about them, choose the story, and then he would write them in a…most of us write rough and then correct.

He wrote perfectly clean copy, of course, quite appropriate to his delivery style. He never used a teleprompter. He had the copy at some distance from him. He could read further… he had more distance vision than most of us. He could read typed print much farther away than most of us, sometimes even when it was on the floor when he was doing a piece to camera standing up, in an outside broadcast somewhere. He spent a lot of time honing these pieces, but off by himself — in his own little world there. And one saw very little of him.

TERENCE SMITH: He had a great successful second act in his American life. He went on to sort of embody Sunday morning television at ABC. What do you think made his style and manner so successful on Sunday mornings?

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Well, I think a couple of things. For one — and this is ironic — he gave ABC the credibility and the lead position on Sunday when ABC had, until Roone Arledge came along, really been a sort of third and not very competitive network to CBS and NBC. And he brought all his charisma to that Sunday morning program, but also created a new kind with the producers, of course, created a new kind of Sunday morning program, which made the program Meet the Press, which had sort of held the world until then, seem rather old- fashioned and stodgy.

And so the new program created by Brinkley and his colleagues at ABC forced NBC to create a new kind of program, which they’ve done very successfully now with Tim Russert.

TERENCE SMITH: At the end of those programs as we showed earlier he used to have these little bits of commentary. He used to call them his homilies on Sunday morning. And yet there seemed to be a line that he didn’t cross and a distinction between what he had to say editorially and what you might call the opinion journalism that is so prevalent today.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Yeah, I think he was very careful not to cross that line. Well, he did actually cross it a couple of times when he called President Clinton a bore…

TERENCE SMITH: Famously so.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: …on the time of his reelection, which always astonished me, because that was the last word many people would have applied to Clinton. But…I think on the whole he kept his opinions very much to himself and unlike the other journalists on this program who were quite free with their opinions.

TERENCE SMITH: That final rather sour note suggested, as you were suggesting earlier, that perhaps he soured a bit on politicians as well as the game of politics.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Yeah, I think so. He just got crusty and testy I think in his old age. He’d seen too much. I think that was the… and he was fundamentally… Finally it kind of leaked out — what I had never known before — that he was essentially a kind of apolitical libertarian, meaning nonpartisan, not attached to the Republicans or Democrats, a sort of independent, rather testy libertarian.

TERENCE SMITH: And finally, if you look back and you want to label or describe his contribution to the business of television news, what was it?

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Well, he helped — and he was a very significant figure in it — in making television journalism, this new animal, credible in the decade when it most counted, when Americans desperately needed to trust this new vivid entertaining source of information and bring the same degree of credibility… the same degree of trust to it that they had brought over many years to newspapers and then to radio.

And his contribution was to bring all those qualities, very serious writer, serious print journalist, background in print, with his wonderful personality and with his sort of ironic, wry, skeptical way that made it…that gave him a little detachment and endeared him to the millions. I just read in something today that the convention coverage in 1964, that NBC Huntley and Brinkley had 84 percent of the audience. That just doesn’t happen in television anymore.

TERENCE SMITH: So they simply owned it. Robert MacNeil, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you very much.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: Thank you, Terry.