John Leo

Peter Jennings liked to collect ties. He especially liked to collect them from the necks of friends. His neckwear acquisition method was simple. He would praise your tie, over and over, until you caught on and handed it over. He was so relentless about this that I would occasionally ask my wife for advice—shall I wear this tie to dinner with Jennings or just wrap it and hand it to  him on the way in? This made many Jennings broadcast exercises in nostalgia. You never knew when one of your old ties would show and trigger memories of the good old days when you used to own it yourself. The downside was that if  Peter didn’t make a move on your tie, you wondered what was wrong with it.

     For his fiftieth birthday, I prepared a slide show that included embarrassing moments of his career, from emceeing the Miss Canada contest  to his memorable on-air description of Queen Elizabeth’s carriage attendants (“the footmen resplendent in their gold and scarlet behind.”)  But the biggest laugh by far was the slide of Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee that year, running after Peter, who was calmly making off with the poor man’s tie. The explosion of laughter showed that I was hardly the only neckwear victim in his life. Who knew?

          Linda Franke, a mutual friend,  says the basic truth about Peter is that he was a regular guy. When he phoned, there never was as assistant telling you to please hold for Mr. Jennings. He phoned himself, often during commercials on his broadcast, sometimes to talk about the weekend, sometimes ( I think) to make sure you were watching. He occasionally carried regular guyhood to extremes. Linda spotted him once at the local market carrying the groceries of one senior citizen after another to his or her car.  When he and his wife Kayce gave their  Christmas carols party each year in the Hamptons, the guests would always include local people he knew and cared about, including  the carpenter, the plumber and lawn man. This concern and interest in people meant you could never talk to him a cab—he would be peppering the cabbie with questions about his life, the village he came from,  when his family would join him in America and whether he would become an American citizen. He was a true democrat. Everybody, regardless of status, was his equal.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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