Maybe it's the long, wavy hair curling around his neck. Maybe it's the genuinely handsome face or the fact that he looks like a normal guy rather than a cardboard cutout. Most likely, the brown leather jacket has a lot to do with it. And, of course, there's the national desire to find something -- anything -- lighthearted amid the hours of military analysis that have filled the television for the past month.
Whatever the reasons, NBC Saudi Arabia correspondent Arthur Kent has become the evening news idol of the war. Fan clubs have been launched. People magazine has labeled him the "desert hunk." NBC in New York has been carpeted with hundreds of letters offering romantic opportunities, and one woman in the NBC Washington bureau says, "It's just utterly amazing. People call about something else, and then they ask about Arthur Kent."
Kent has been affiliated with NBC since 1986, reporting on the war in Afghanistan, the massacre in Tiananmen Square and the revolution in Romania before going to Saudi Arabia in August. Everyone who has anything to do with Kent wants to make one point very clear: The single, 37-year-old reporter may be cute, but he is a serious journalist doing serious business.
"I think Arthur feels somewhat uncomfortable because he'd prefer to be recognized for his journalistic abilities rather than his wardrobe," says NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. "But I think day in, day out, there will be less emphasis on the sizzle and more on the substance."
NBC executives do point out that "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" has become markedly more popular among women 24 to 54 since the war began, which just happens to be the period in which Kent has become a regular on the program. But he is not just a pretty face and a dashing jacket, not just a handsome man giving a new-found sexual charge to the No. 2 newscast. He's serious. Got it?
Kent is, according to NBC spokeswoman Peggy Hubble, so uncomfortable about all this that he'd rather not talk about it anymore.
"It all is very exciting but there's a lot of serious stuff going on here and it's important for us as journalists not to try to personalize it or interject our personalities," Kent said in a statement given to Hubble when the adulation began to be grow. "It's clear who the real heroes are in this situation when you see the faces of the captured airmen or the soldiers on the line or the civilians trapped in Iraq."
Even Aimee Rosewall, who started the San Francisco Arthur Kent Fan Club, has not spoken to the man, although she has had conversations with Kent's brother and his agent. Rosewall, an editor at NBC affiliate KRON, says her interest in Kent blossomed the Friday after the war began. "We had noticed people were talking about this guy," she says. "I asked a co-worker, 'Gee, are you a member of the Arthur Kent fan club? She said, 'Gee, we really need something to smile about, some levity.' We had been putting in 16-hour days and it was just doom and gloom, like in most newsrooms."
So that weekend, Rosewall went out and ordered 25 buttons with the abbreviation AKFC (Arthur Kent Fan Club, of course) and brought them in to work on Monday. She sold out in 30 minutes.
Rosewall was certain Kent's following was limited to members of the media, but her roommate, who works in the hotel industry, assured her that no, Kent was a larger phenomenon than that. And after word of her buttons got out, phone orders came in from all over the country, from all sorts of people, including two policewomen and one lawyer, who asked if a Kent convention had been scheduled.
The now-classic AKFC, size small, goes for $2. Larger buttons with Kent's face are $3. Rosewall has sold 750 of them. She is, she says, only breaking even (she lost $10 on the first 60 buttons), but there's something about Kent that keeps her going.
"Of all the letters I've gotten, probably every third or fourth letter has said, 'What a great idea, something to smile about at a time of such pain,' " she says. Her mother has suggested that Kent's casual clothes and demeanor have something to do with his popularity. "My mother said, 'Aimee, he looks like a real person in a real environment. He doesn't have Scuds falling behind him while he's in a three-piece suit.' Maybe that's part of it, but he's not the only person over there in normal clothing."
Thus Sam Donaldson, despite his safari jackets, has not been singled out for adoration.
She did receive one phone call from a woman asking if she had buttons of Charles Jaco, CNN's Saudi Arabia correspondent, who has his own following. "Everyone said, 'Just what you need,' " says Rosewall. " 'Another fan club on your hands.' "
So she had to say no. Jaco followers will just have to fend for themselves.