Brinkley's death evokes memories of Father's Days

Posted: Jun 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Anyone born or otherwise arrived since 1970 -and that would be about 68 million Americans -will have missed what others mourn with the death of David Brinkley. Not just the man as journalist, but as a symbol of a generation and touchstone for an epoch nearly gone.

It seems fitting to write of Brinkley's exit around Father's Day, as he and his co-anchor of many years, Chet Huntley, were father figures of a sort in American households during the '50s and '60s, as well as spokesmen for events that defined the era.

As children, my generation bore witness to those events through the eyes and voices of Huntley and Brinkley -the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, protests and the draft.

It was a bumpy ride, and Huntley and Brinkley brought calm and forbearance to American living rooms where families gathered for nightly briefings. Yes, it really was like that.

Those intimate with gravity will recall the tube as a ponderous piece of furniture -a TV tube encased in a wooden cabinet -and often the centerpiece in a living room or den. Families literally gathered because (a) we were families, unhappy maybe, but families nonetheless; and, (b) there was only one television set.

In our household, The News was nearly a sacrament, and Huntley and Brinkley its administering priests. I remember wondering what all the fuss was about -two boring, deadpan men talkingtalkingtalking. Every now and then the picture shifted to display yet another boring deadpan man talking.

Am I allowed to say this? They all looked the same to me, yet parents were reverential in their presence. And serious. I inferred from their demeanor that "news" required a frown in order to be properly received.

I also recall wondering what the heck "Huntley 'n Brinkley" meant anyway. As in, "Quiet, kids, it's Huntley 'n Brinkley." They might as well have said, "It's Armageddon and Apocalypse." I don't think I grasped that those were names. They were just grown-up words like so many others we repeated without understanding, as in: "I pledge a legions to the flag … and to the Publix for which it stands."

Here is what Huntley and Brinkley really meant: We kids would be roasted on a spit in the backyard barbecue pit or thrown into a cast iron pot with the rosin potatoes if we made a sound during Father's despair-filled date with Messrs.

Huntley and Brinkley. The program lasted only 30 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity when all you wanted was to climb on tired Daddy's lap and inhale his remaining oxygen.

Such gratification had to be delayed until we heard the words we did understand: "Good night, David; good night, Chet," as the two newsmen ended their show each evening until 1970, when Huntley retired and Brinkley said, "Goodbye, Chet."

Hence, the acute nostalgia for Brinkley, who died Wednesday night at age 82.

With his passing, we have lost yet another member of the "greatest generation," so memorialized by Tom Brokaw. It isn't only that he is gone, specifically, but that so much is gone that no longer even will be missed: nuclear families, fathers home from work by six, mothers who prepared meals from whole foods.

I realize I overstate here. Just as we sometimes overidealize the good ol' days, we tend to overdemonize today. On the other hand, there was much good about the past that we might profit from resurrecting and much bad today that can't be denied.

As father figures like Brinkley are vanishing from our midst, so are fathers themselves, to the great detriment of America's children, one-third of whom will sleep tonight in homes without their dads. It is striking, and perhaps not coincidental, that trust in American institutions (media, church, the marketplace) has disintegrated apace with the dissolution of the American family.

No grown up can fail to be nostalgic for a time when such was not the case.

When "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" might not mean all was right with the world, but at least Dad was home.