Farewell Peter

Posted: Aug 15, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 Like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, he did a tremendous amount of charity work, including an annual jazz concert at his home on behalf of the local day care center. Wynton Marsalis  would come out, and so did many of the famous  old lions of jazz. When the great bass  player Percy Heath died. Peter was too sick to deliver a eulogy, so Linda did it for him at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. At Peter’s 67th and last birthday three weeks ago, many of the jazz men made the trek out to the Hamptons, on their own dime,  to say goodbye.
Peter read my column and sometimes wanted to discuss it in detail. This was not entirely out of  friendship. As an enormously curious man, he was interested in how people could start from principles different from his own, and work out an argument that he found reasonable, if not compelling. He was a close follower of  William Safire’s column, apparently for the same reason.

     In recent years, many conservatives got on his case and accused him of slanting stories. The din subsides somewhat when Dan Rather became the primary target and when Jennings expressed outrage, during an interview, that Michael Moore had called President Bush “a deserter” for cutting corners on his national guard service. Sometimes, I think, the conventional newsroom smog drifted into ABC news stories, but Peter always worked hard to be fair.  On the rare occasions I complained to him about media bias, Peter immediately ordered up a story that included conservative objections to mainstream reports. 

    Of all his accomplishments, I admired Peter most for his dramatic comeback. He was  pretty much laughed out of town in the mid-Sixties as a know-nothing pretty-boy anchor at ABC when he nor his network’s news operation were taken seriously. To reclaim the same job a generation later was an outstanding achievement. He was a great reporter and a very good man. I consider myself very lucky to have known him. Rest in peace.