By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
NEW YORK, Sept. 20 -- From Royal Canadian Mounties to Yo-Yo Ma, from Bob Schieffer and Brian Williams to Jon Stewart and Alan Alda, they came to Carnegie Hall for a final performance to honor Peter Jennings.
In the vastness of an ornate auditorium Tuesday, every detail of the memorial service for the ABC anchor who died last month was meticulously rendered -- down to the ties from Jennings's closet that his widow, Kayce, gave the 14 ushers because he was always chiding colleagues about their unimpressive neckwear.
"Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel, hastening to point out that he is not gay, said that from the time they first met, "I felt a thrill when I saw him. Not many people had that genuine charisma, that sort of animal magnetism that makes it difficult to focus on anyone else in the room.
"Peter was famously, at times notoriously, attractive to women. Even so, he only married four of them," Koppel said to laughter from the 2,200 invited guests.
He continued in a joshing mode, recalling how Jennings once bought used suits to offset his good looks, but paused for a long moment in mid-sentence when mentioning his friend's two children, Chris and Elizabeth.
After gathering himself, Koppel said: "Even in his last days, he still filled a room."
An extended media family, which had lined up eight deep outside the storied hall on West 57th Street, exchanged hugs and remembrances. There were Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, Larry King and Bill O'Reilly, Connie Chung and Michael Eisner, Al Sharpton and Jann Wenner, and virtually all of ABC News: Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson, Barbara Walters, John Cochran, Ann Compton, Linda Douglass and so many more. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, watched the proceedings from the second of three balconies.
As color photos of Jennings flashed above the stage, the ceremony had the brisk pacing of a television show. From the opening bagpipes to the speakers' brief remembrances, the program was punctuated by offerings from musicians -- Jennings was a huge jazz fan -- including Ma and Wynton Marsalis, who took advantage of Carnegie's impressive acoustics.
Jennings was the face of ABC News for more than two decades, and his death -- along with the recent retirements of CBS's Dan Rather, who was at the service, and NBC's Tom Brokaw -- added to the sense that a television era has passed.
It is difficult to overstate how devastated most ABC journalists were by Jennings's Aug. 7 death at age 67 from lung cancer, just five months after the diagnosis was announced. The delay in the public ceremony -- a private funeral had been held for family and close friends -- allowed the initial shock to wear off, making the event as much a celebration of Jennings's life as a mourning of his death.
The service included references to Jennings's journalistic exploits, such as his being the only network anchor to watch the arraignment of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. But there was a determination by those involved to invoke Jennings with all his quirks and personality tics, not to enshrine him as a plaster saint. With dabs of color and brushstrokes of anecdote, what emerged was the mosaic of a man known for his passion, his sentimentality and his kindnesses, large and small.
When Jennings spoke to a gathering of families of journalists killed in Iraq, said former ABC correspondent Charles Glass, he stayed behind after the speeches to comfort them. "He couldn't let go of their anguish," Glass said.
Four decades ago, Koppel said, they both gave money to a Manhattan panhandler, but Jennings insisted on talking to the man for 10 minutes. Over the years, said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of New York's Coalition for the Homeless, Jennings raised millions of dollars for her organization without fanfare.
Others poked fun at his displays of emotion. Jennings, said "World News Tonight" senior broadcast producer Tom Nagorski, "was the only person I ever knew who got weepy talking about his service on jury duty." He said many at ABC now wear blue bracelets emblazoned with the words: "What Would Peter Do?"
Jennings was "particularly great when he was talking to children," whether on the air or in private, said ABC News President David Westin, because that was "the real Peter, the unvarnished Peter."
Alda reveled in describing how Jennings could be both gracious and blunt. After a dinner party at the actor's home, Jennings stayed behind to help wash the dishes. It was then that he said: "If I were you, I'd send that wine back where you bought it; it's a little off."
Jennings carried a small copy of the Constitution in his pocket, Alda said, and urged him to do the same. Pulling one from his suit jacket, Alda said he had recently come upon a clause giving the president the power to make appointments when Congress is in recess. With his friend's passing, Alda said, "there's a vacancy now no president can fill."
Robert Iger, who is about to become chief executive of Disney, ABC's corporate parent, said Jennings "had that uncanny ability to both entertain and inform" and "owned the world" during his extended broadcast at the turn of the millennium. But more telling, perhaps, was Jennings's advice to Iger as a sports programmer in the 1970s on how to deal with strong-willed ABC News and Sports czar Roone Arledge. "He advised me to simply avoid returning Roone's calls," Iger said.
Jennings is remembered mainly as an on-air presence, but he also wrote two books and, said his co-author Todd Webster, had a great love for words and how they sounded. Webster recalled how Jennings had pronounced a draft chapter for "The Century" a little tedious after taking it home and reading it aloud -- all 12,875 words.
The son of a Canadian broadcaster had cautioned Webster never to use "we" when writing in Jennings's name about Americans. When Webster heard his friend using "we" in 2003, he knew something must have changed -- and soon learned that Jennings had become an American citizen.
Chris Jennings, 23, recalled how "deeply and fundamentally goofy" his father could be, and how "the slightest achievement by his children, or even his dog, would wet his eyes." And the son had some guests dabbing at their eyes when he spoke of how much he treasured their regular canoe trips on Quebec's Black River.
"There is no way to express how much I miss my father," he said. "Each day is, above all, a day without him."