David Brinkley, who died Wednesday night (June 11) at age 82, was the greatest broadcast journalist who ever lived. There are many reasons for that. One is that he had a gift for stating complicated things simply. If there was ever a cliche in his writing (and he wrote all of his own stuff, unlike many in what passes for broadcast journalism today), I never saw it. And I would have seen it, because I was a copyboy at NBC News in Washington in the early '60s and in charge of filing the correspondents' scripts. I read his scripts as if he was giving me a personal writing course.
Some people thought David aloof, but he was merely reserved. That was a character trait of his generation. He thought too much talking about himself was conceit. He also had a wry sense of humor that he used to puncture the pomposity of many politicians for whom he mostly had little regard.
As a kid, I looked for excuses to take him wire service copy just to stand in his presence so that something might rub off on this aspiring journalist. I guess something did, because he told me once, "You write well." No award could have meant more.
Brinkley and the late Chet Huntley were the first broadcast journalist anchors of the modern era. As their executive producer, Reuven Frank, once observed, no one had ever done this before, so they invented as they went along, creating the modern medium.
It wasn't just the volume of stories he covered ("11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television and 18 years of Growing Up in North Carolina," as he subtitled his memoir). It was the quality of his work that delighted a generation.
At the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, David and I were crossing a street and he was mobbed by admirers who wanted his autograph. It was my first whiff of "celebrity journalism," a phrase he detested.
Nearly a decade ago, when I had a show on CNBC, David was a guest. He had just published his wonderful memoir, and I was to interview him about it. I told him he would never know what a personal thrill it was for me, a former copyboy at NBC News, to have him on my show. I mentioned that his late mother kept popping up in the book and that she seemed to withhold her approval from him. I asked him if he and his mother had reconciled before her death.
He said, "No, but not because I didn't try."
"David, she should have been proud of you," I said.
"I thought so, too," he replied, as tears filled his eyes. It was a rare look inside the heart of David Brinkley.
About five years ago, we met for what would be the last time. He had bought a home in Houston (he said it was to get away from the "trophy wives" of his previous Florida residence). He had a driver, not because of ego, but because he was frail and could no longer drive. His mind was as sharp as ever. Over lunch, he recalled events from many years ago. He also discussed the latest news and was as on top of things as ever.
If you are not old enough to remember what Huntley and Brinkley did for TV news, you can read about it in Reuven Frank's book, Out of Thin Air, or go to the Broadcast TV Museum in New York. These guys were ratings champs, and when Brinkley began his "second act" as the host of "This Week With David Brinkley" in 1981, ratings success quickly followed. The show hasn't been the same (or as popular) since he retired from it.
With typical North Carolina modesty, Brinkley once said, "I didn't create anything. I just got here early."
Many, especially me, are glad he did.
Good night, David.