Remembering David Brinkley

Posted: Jun 13, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON--To have worked alongside David Brinkley on television is to have experienced what might be called the Tommy Henrich Temptation. Henrich, who played right field for the Yankees when Joe DiMaggio was playing center field, must have been constantly tempted to ignore the game and just stand there watching DiMaggio, who defined for his generation the elegance of understatement and the gracefulness that is undervalued because it makes the difficult seem effortless.

Brinkley, who died Wednesday, a month shy of his 83rd birthday, was a Washington monument as stately, and as spare in expression, as is the original. Long before high-decibel, low-brow cable shout-a-thons made the phrase ``gentleman broadcaster'' seem oxymoronic, Brinkley made it his business to demonstrate the compatibility of toughness and civility in journalism.

He was the most famous son of Wilmington, N.C., until Michael Jordan dribbled into the national consciousness. Brinkley arrived in Washington in 1943, an era when a gas mask occasionally hung from the president's wheelchair and the city--then hardly more than a town, really--fit John Kennedy's droll description of it as a community of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.

It was a town in which the second-most-powerful person was the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, a Texan whose office wall was adorned with five portraits of Robert E. Lee, all facing south, and who said he did not socialize because ``these Washington society women never serve chili.'' Washington had 15,000 outdoor privies and a cleaning establishment that handled white flannel suits by taking them apart at the seams, hand-washing each piece, drying the pieces in the sun, then reassembling each suit. The process took a week--longer during cloudy weather--and cost $10.

By the time Brinkley retired from ABC in 1996, he had covered (in the subtitle of his 1995 autobiography) ``11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television.'' Like Walter Cronkite, the only other journalist of comparable stature from television's founding generation, Brinkley began his career in print journalism. Indeed, Brinkley began at a time when the phrase ``print journalist'' still seemed almost a redundancy.

During the Second World War, Edward R. Murrow and his CBS radio colleagues, such as Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Robert Trout and William Shirer, elevated broadcast journalism. But television took awhile to get the hang of it.

In 1949 John Cameron Swayze's ``Camel News Caravan,'' for which young Brinkley, who had joined NBC in 1943, was a reporter, was carried for 15 minutes five nights a week. NBC's network consisted of four stations, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The sponsor required Swayze, who always wore a carnation in his lapel, to have a lit cigarette constantly in view. Not until 1963 did Cronkite's ``CBS Evening News'' become the first 30-minute newscast.

In 1981, after 38 years with NBC, Brinkley became host of ABC's ``This Week.'' He understood a fundamental truth about television talk shows: what one does on them one does in strangers' living rooms. So mind your manners; do not make a scene. Those thoughts guided Brinkley as he provided adult supervision to others on ``This Week,'' the first hour-long Sunday morning interview program.

How anachronistic the maxim ``mind your manners'' seems in the harsh light cast by much of today's television. How serene, even proud, Brinkley was about becoming somewhat of an anachronism.

Evelyn Waugh's novel Scott-King's Modern Europe (1947) concludes on what can be called a Brinkleyesque note. The protagonist, Mr. Scott-King, a teacher at an English boys' school, is warned by the school's headmaster that the boys' parents are only interested in preparing their boys for the modern world.

``You can hardly blame them, can you?'' said the headmaster. ``Oh, yes,'' Scott-King replied, ``I can and do,'' adding, ``I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.''

Brinkley's backward-looking gentility made him regret, among much else, the passing of the days when it was unthinkable for a gentleman to wear other than a coat and tie when traveling by air. It is, then, an irony of the sort Brinkley savored that he was not merely present at the creation of television as a shaper of the modern world, he was among the creators of that phenomenon. Like the Founders of this fortunate Republic, Brinkley set standards of performance in his profession that still are both aspirations and reproaches to subsequent practitioners.