Monday, June 16, 2003

Good Night, David: While I was away, the greatest passed away. I learned politics watching David Brinkley. It was easy to learn, actually, because David said it straight out. He didn't pretend that there was any truth to the "sacrament of public service" myth the Kennedys and others had been pushing as an excuse for careerism. Brinkley knew it was about power, and he never pretended otherwise.

I'm surprised at how many obituaries mention his brief spat with Bill Clinton in 1996. They mention that Brinkley called the president a "bore." Wow. Narcissism is boring. No, what I remember of Brinkley's rambling comments was the impression that he saw Clinton's life in politics as a quest for some kind of approval, the narcissists dream of sustained adulation. By implication, it was a criticism of Clinton's life, his constant pursuit of the quick fix or the short-lived jump in the polls (and perhaps a short-lived jump in the closet with the chubby intern, as well).

"If I was to start today," Brinkley famously said, "I probably couldn't get a job because I don't look like what people think an anchorperson should look like."
That's for damn sure. Brinkley was a homely, odd Southern boy -- stark contrast to the modern, effete, blow-wave anchor, with his pasted-on look of gravity and not a thought in his head other than a slight curiosity what color panties the the news-bunny correspondent is wearing. But what really made Brinkley stand out was his manner of speech. Far from the dried out midwestern monotone of the cable news era, Brinkley had an actual accent, one that became more pronounced with age. And he had a tempo all his own. He took stranges pauses, had unusual emphasis. But this was not Paul Harvey's staccato interruptus. It was a loping Carolina stride, perhaps with a touch of a polio limp: a voice of character.

I've watched some of the old news shows at the Museum of TV and Radio, in New York, and it's odd how the format of evening news is nearly unchanged since the "Good night, Chet" days. The sets are flashier, the suits more expensive. But, for example, until Robert MacNeil retired, he and Jim Lehrer could still be counted on for their nightly echo of Chet and David. The biggest change since then? Sometimes the anchors deliver the news standing now.

The place to see David was on "This Week," which my wife and I watched unfailingly until the man stepped down. Brinkley, I think, talked less than anyone on the show. But he was the conductor of the orchestra. He would bring in George, fade out Sam, add a little more Cokie, whatever the discussion required. Bob Schieffer still runs his show a bit like that on CBS, but nobody watches. Nor do they watch the abomination that became of "This Week" when it was passed to, first, Sam and Cokie, and then to that puffball Stephanopolous. The warhorse Meet the Press rolls on, and Russert is a tough host. But it's a blood-and-guts newschatter show, with an automatic, hit-the-headlines-and-newsmakers guiding force, utterly lacking in style and (sorry, Tim) sophistication. For a Sunday political breakfast, it's red flannel hash in a can and two broken yolks. Brinkley's show was oeufs en cocotte with fresh tarragon.

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