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Good night, David

National | Brinkley's leave-taking a great loss to political journalism

Issue: "The '96 Election," Nov. 16, 1996

The departure of David Brinkley as host of Sunday's This Week program on ABC is not the end of an era, but the end of a profession that was enhanced because of the presence of people like him. He will continue to do taped pieces for the program, but Mr. Brinkley's leave-taking concludes a now-extinct journalistic line. The new crop is composed of news readers who editorialize more than they report and who have agendas, not a calling.

I confess to a large prejudice in favor of Mr. Brinkley. I met him 1961 when I was 18 and a copy boy in the Washington bureau of NBC News. His office was separate from all of the other correspondents, not because he was arrogant but because the Huntley-Brinkley program was a self-contained unit with its own producers, writers, and secretaries. Unlike many modern anchors, Mr. Brinkley wrote all his own stuff. He didn't know it, but he was one of my many teachers. I was in charge of filing correspondents' scripts, and frequently I'd take their work home, to learn about good writing.

He's forgotten our first meeting, but I remember it well. I was in the NBC cafeteria speaking to another correspondent, and he came by, sat down, and said hello. He asked me, "Cal, what are your goals?" I responded smugly, "Someday I'd like to have your job, Mr. Brinkley." He laughed and said, "Maybe you will."

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At a time when surveys show a growing distrust of the major media, I never knew Mr. Brinkley's politics or for whom he voted. I still don't. He once said, "It is impossible to be objective, so we must always try to be fair." He never failed to live up to that creed.

I recall looking for any excuse to visit his office, hoping some of his magic would rub off on me. At the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City, I accompanied him to a meeting outside the convention hall. He was mobbed by people who genuinely admired him and wanted his autograph. Mr. Brinkley always seemed embarrassed by such things. He thought journalists ought not to be celebrities, but he seemed to have come to terms with his fame in ways that never inflated his ego. He is the same today as he was when I met him 35 years ago--decent, gracious, humble, very funny, and uniquely gifted.

How gifted? Consider this magnificent description in his memoir of the political parties' quadrennial conventions: "In the summer after the primaries are finished, we cover both party conventions--each combining the worst features of a cattle auction, a clearance sale of damaged merchandise and a sheriff's auction of recovered stolen goods, and above all a social event and fund-raiser by and for the rich." What else do you need to know after reading a sentence like that?

The 1960s were the best years that broadcast journalism ever had. It was a joy to work for NBC News in those days, because that was the best news division ever. David Brinkley led that team, but he was one of many with talent and experience who cared more about what was in their heads than the coiffeur on them. In our present image-over-substance generation, we shall not likely see his kind again.

Mr. Brinkley is a quiet man, difficult to know intimately, but with a Southern charm and grace that characterize many from his native North Carolina. My two greatest professional rewards were given to me by Mr. Brinkley. One came at a social function shortly after I started writing this column. "I read your column," he said. "You write well." The other was when he appeared on my former CNBC television show--the onetime copy boy hosting his writing mentor.

David Brinkley invented much of broadcast journalism. As he has said, "We made it up as we went along," because no one had ever done it before. Thankfully, he will not disappear entirely, but as he formally leaves his anchor duties, from all of us in the profession and on the receiving end of your talent, as your partner Chet Huntley regularly said, "Good night, David." And thank you.

copyright 1996, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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