It was Day 90, and Frank Reynolds was at his desk, the ABC studios suddenly quiet in the wake of the nightly news. It was time for the start of a now-familiar routine -- exchanging the somber suit coat for a comfortable blue cardigan, reading the correspondent's scripts, shaking his head at the latest example of Iranian dexterity at logical acrobatics.
"Wouldn't you just like to be inside their heads for a moment?" he says as he reads aloud a couple of rhetorical double-somersaults.
Actually, Reynolds is as close to inside the Iranian story as many people get. Since Nov. 8, when ABC began its series of late-night specials on Iran, Reynolds' pale image has glimmered forth, like some ghost of crisis present, summing up, sorting out, sifting through the headlines, the history and the histrionics. He sits there serenely in the electronic eye of the hurricane, America's media mullah, keeping the country current, beaming his audience 15 to 30 minutes of everything from smiling Canadians and screaming Iranians to illustrated lessons in the Islamic religion before cutting the news junkies off with his distant, detached, "Good Night."
They call that the "tuck-in" down at the studio, and after three months it has achieved the status of ritual. "It's a show we all wish we can stop doing," says Reynolds, whose silver hair and pallor beneath the pancake long ago earned him the nickname, "The Gray Ghost." But it's a show that a lot of people can't stop watching -- and one that even CBS couldn't beat in its attempt at a series of late-night specials last week. With nearly 2 million people tuning in for their nightly fix of the latest in the country's ever-widening circle of problems abroad, there seems to be little question that a late-night news cast will become a permanent part of the ABC lineup.
The hours leading up the broadcast slide by slowly. On the monitor above Reynolds' head, Jill Clayburgh as "An Unmarried Woman" is marinating her marital traumas in white wine, while Reynolds tries aloud to figure out who's on first. "Let's see right now we've got three, no four, power centers going -- there's Bani-Sadr, there's the nuts, I mean the militants, there's the Revoluntionary Council, there's Khomeini."
Meanwhile, the lineup for the broadcast is falling into place -- a piece on the first anniversary of the ayatollah's return to Iran, the arrival of the escapees in Washington, the latest on the Olympic boycott and a piece on American gratitude fo the Canadian caper. An hour before the broadcast, Reynolds will be watching the clock and wondering idly about "An Unmarried Woman" -- "is that one of those made for TV movies?" he asks. What the upcoming broadcast might lack in action it makes up for in continuity. It keeps the crisis visible and the country aware.
Reynolds thinks nothing would dim the country's awareness of the hostages, with or without the daily dose of headlines. "I can't believe Americans would forget them," he says. "This isn't like the Pueblo, that one did kind of recede, but it was different then."
Yes it was different then, as Vietnam and Wategate were different, stories and details in dark questions of guilt and complicity and kept half the country eyeball to eyeball with the other half.
Iran together with Afghanistan, of course, has made all that seem like an aberration, What with phrases like cold war and free world swaggering back into current usage, everyone seems to be glaring in the same direction again. It makes caring about a crisis less complicated. And Frank Reynolds definitely cares.
"Frank feels very close to this story," says David Horwitz, the program's executive producer. "We all get that feeling after a while. There have been times when we've wondered, since the story's been going on so long, whether we've got to the point where we can make a little fun of this -- for instance, doing something on all the different ways everyone was pronouncing (Foreign Minister Sadegh) Ghotbzadeh's name. But it was clear that there was just no way you could introduce any levity into this." w
Reynolds' eyebrows take the place of his hairline at the very idea of humor on the show. "There's a shared feeling in this country about Iran," he says. "It engenders a responsibility and a trust."
In Reynolds, it also engenders an intensity that has brought criticism that he tends to wear his flag on his sleeve. "We try to stay away from disparaging comments," he says, "but I don't attempt to hide my feelings."
In fact, the feelings come out fairly regularly -- in a pursed lip or a raised eyebrow as he watches a correspondent's report with the audience or even in a little homily delivered at the end of a broadcast.
Ghotbzadeh is a particular Reynolds flashpoint. For a while, he tried to see how many days he could go without actually having to mention the man's name. One of his favorite pieces to date is a segment concerning the foreign minister's days as a student at Georgetown University and he veers toward glee when he mentions that Ghotbzadeh failed out of school.
Even segments that would seem to reflect less positively on the home front are found to have a patriotic cast. "One of the things I'm proudest of," he says, "is the effort we made to look into the blanket order by the president to deport the students. Oh, there were the usual rug merchants complaining about their business being off, but then we found a couple of Iranian students who couldn't even cash a check -- no one would cash it for them. It was a way of getting across the idea that we couldn't in this country be acting like Iranians."
Reynolds' own perspective on the world war was first shaped in the small Indiana towns of East Chicago and Hammond, where he grew up and met his wife, Henrietta. "He's always been very intense about his reporting," says Henrietta Reynolds, who remembers him doing local newscasts in high school, as well as a musical request show on which the sound of the big band was most often heard.
His family has seen little of him back home in Bethesda, although the youngest of his five sons, Tom, sometimes sits in on the broadcast. A recent decision to take Tuesday and Thursday nights off has made the schedule more bearable, Henrietta Reynolds says.
A close-knit Catholic family, they tend to lead a quiet life even under less hectic circumstances.His wife describes Reynolds as a great reader who enjoys history and biography, (Kissinger's memories, William Manchester's "American Caesar") as well as Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. Social life consists most often of dinner with close friends, with an occasional play or symphony.
This is his second crack at anchorman -- he held the job from 1968 to 1970 as well, sharing the job with Howard K. Smith. He wasn't back behind the desk again until 1978, when ABC News President Roone Arledge raised him from the ranks. He once described his career to a friend as "Lazarus-like."
When Day 100 hits the air, Reynolds will be in Florida, taking a week off before the New Hampshire primary. At 56, he's been in broadcasting for 30 years, covering popes and politicians, the White House, Watergate, the Mideast and the Midwest, for that matter.
Politics seem to be Reynold's principal passion. He remembers the dates in his life by what campaign he was covering -- Reagan, Muskie, "always the losers, never the winners." He makes the approach of the New Hampshire primary sound like the Second Coming.
He described his job on the specials as that of a traffic cop -- just there to make sure that the correpsondent's reports flow smoothly onto the air. The traffic got trickier when American correspondents got kicked out of the country; the show relied on footage supplied by foreign broadcasting companies with the narrative added by ABC correspondents stationed everywhere from Athens to London.
Correspondents who work with Reynolds give him credit for more than just the traffic cop part of his work. "He's very passionate about stories," says Brit Hume. "He wants to be good. He gets everybody else up."
There are other opinions, of course. Reynolds has a reserve that to some borders quite close to the pompous. That characteristic, combined with the fact that he is not a tall man, has earned him the title of "the little king" among some of his colleagues.
Those in the audience see him from a different perspective, sending him observations, suggestions, their own advice on how the crisis should be handled. The man who brings them the story every night has become part of it to some of them. There are letters from the hostages' families as well, expressing gratitude that the broadcasts continue.
"That's who I think of when I'm doing this," he says. "I don't think of the country. I think of the families." He takes his responsibility to this special audience very seriously. "We don't have to go on every night and say there is no hope either. There was one night when certain developments indicated that there was some hope, and I agonized over whether we should use the word. You have to think of those families."
The broadcast on Day 90 is scheduled later than usual, in deference to the movie. "Is it going to sing?" someone asks Reynolds in the final minutes before he goes on the air. "It's going to hum," Reynolds says.
"Good evening," he says at 12:04 a.m. "Yes, another day of captivity for the 50 Americans behind those locked gates to the U.S. Embassy. . . ."
It all goes smoothly, despite a page of the script that doesn't make it to the TelePrompTer, Reynolds nods approval as a favorite scene, that of the Iranian women marching in protest over the ayatollah's decree that they return to wearing the black chadoor, makes it into the wrap-up on Khomeini's first year in power. The wrap up is a reminder of how much has happened since the ayatollah returned. "It's unsettling," Reynolds says. "Like a constant full moon."
During a commerical, the New York crew announces to its Washington counterparts that they all had bananas for dessert in honor of one of the imports the ayatollah banned when he took power. "Any normal person should be asleep at the hour, they shouldn't be watching TV," Horowitz observes.
Reynolds introduces a segment concerning the six escapees and sits back to watch the celebration at the State Department when they walk in. "Just imagine when we get them all back," he says. "What a party that will be."
Finally it's time for the tuck-in and Day 90 is over. Someone is already wondering about Day 100. Reynolds is heading for the door and for a weekend's rest. It will all be waiting for him on Monday of course, Day 93, and all the Days after that.