During a rambling conversation on the Saturday shuttle from New York last fall, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings said it was no accident that he granted fewer interviews than his longtime rivals, CBS's Dan Rather and NBC's Tom Brokaw.
He just wasn't comfortable talking about himself, he confided, and besides, he wasn't particularly good at it.
How ironic that this man who could speak with great eloquence for hours, whose soothing voice helped calm the country in times of war and tragedy, was the least interested in explaining and promoting himself. Jennings had an understated quality that he learned from his broadcaster father, said ABC News President David Westin, and in covering state funerals "he would make everyone be quiet . . . and allow the audience to hear the horses' hooves."
Jennings, who died Sunday from lung cancer, was a man of contradictions: A high-school dropout who got his education around the globe as a foreign correspondent. A Canadian who came to love America and tearfully got his citizenship after 9/11. A fiercely disciplined journalist whose personal life encompassed four marriages. A hugely successful anchor who joked about how awful he had been during his first tour of duty in that coveted chair, when he was in his twenties.
I remember hanging out in the ABC skybox at the Democratic convention in Boston last year as Jennings, in shirtsleeves, anchored a two-hour digital cable broadcast also available to America Online and cell phone users. He reveled in the spontaneity of it, without knowing whether the audience would be hundreds or hundreds of thousands, and boasted that the program would kick off with music by Jimi Hendrix.
Jennings sent me a personal e-mail only once, and it wasn't about him. It was to thank me for an article about a colleague of his who he felt was being unfairly pilloried by some commentators.
While Brokaw radiated midwestern earnestness and Rather a Texas tenaciousness, Jennings was smooth, witty, urbane -- too detached for some people's tastes, but to others a welcome antidote to the cacophony of network hype. In less than a year, the Big Three have all departed -- Brokaw by retirement, Rather by stepping down under pressure after a botched story about President Bush, and Jennings by the tragic illness that we all heard in his raspy voice when he announced the diagnosis, with typical grace and humor, last April.
It is in the nature of television fame that an anchor touches masses he has never met; as of yesterday afternoon, 25,000 people had posted online messages on ABC's Jennings message board. We remember such people through images and moments. Jennings's longevity -- he was there when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down -- was such that, electronically speaking, we grew up with him.
I recall the discursive ease with which Jennings spoke to Ted Koppel two years ago during the invasion of Iraq, telling the embedded correspondent amid the advancing tanks in Kuwait to take his time, as if the two were just casually chatting over cocktails. I remember as well him interviewing young kids in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, eliciting their concerns as naturally as he might converse with world leaders.
And I was riveted last year when, during an interview in which former president Bill Clinton said he didn't care what critics thought of his personal misconduct, Jennings brought him up short: "Oh yes you do, sir. Excuse me, Mr. President, I can feel it across the room. You feel it very deeply." Clinton narrowed his eyes and lectured Jennings that "you don't want to go here, Peter," not after what ABC did in reporting "every sleazy little thing" from Ken Starr's probe -- thus underscoring Jennings's point.
I spoke to Jennings during the Monica Lewinsky frenzy, and he defended the media's behavior. "Some of us have been plumbing people's private lives with such vigor that they are saying, 'Enough already!' I don't know how to account for the fact that the public is clearly fed up but continues to watch." It was like a car wreck, he said, and "rubbernecking is part of the human condition."
Colleagues say Jennings was a tough taskmaster as managing editor of "World News Tonight," peppering correspondents with questions, rewriting scripts and insisting that the show live up to its title by highlighting foreign coverage. "He wasn't averse to surprising you on the air as a kind of tough love," said former ABC correspondent Chris Wallace, now a Fox News anchor.
When Wallace jumped from NBC to ABC in 1989, Jennings was "very curious about Brokaw" and "always looking for a competitive edge," he recalled. On a personal level, "there was also a certain amount of hazing. You weren't going to come in as some hotshot from NBC without paying your dues at ABC. He called me the leader of the brat pack."
Jennings often drew criticism from those who felt he was biased about the Arab world, where he launched ABC's first bureau, in Lebanon, or just another liberal talking head. Jennings was depressed when he got 10,000 angry calls and e-mails after the 9/11 attacks when Rush Limbaugh reported -- erroneously, later retracting his comments -- that "this fine son of Canada" had criticized President Bush for not returning more quickly to the White House.
Despite anchoring full-time since 1983, Jennings, who won 14 Emmys, hosted numerous specials on topics such as the search for Jesus, the Kennedy assassination, the turn of the millennium and, rather weirdly, UFOs. He was never wild about such tabloid tales as the O.J. Simpson saga, and when that case went to the jury in 1995 amid an orgy of prediction and pontification, he told viewers: "We've all agreed we're not going to speculate at all on this broadcast about what the jury ought to do."
Jennings was "first and foremost a reporter," Westin said. "He valued his time as a reporter much more than his time as an anchor. He did this by a combination of wonderful curiosity and openness to new facts while maintaining a healthy skepticism toward everything he was hearing. He brought such an energy and vitality to all of his reporting. He leaves a void we will not be able to fill."
Tributes came pouring in yesterday. Bush: "He became a part of the lives of a lot of our fellow citizens." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her "close personal friend": "A man of conscience and integrity" who "represented all that was best in journalism and public service." Brokaw: "He set the bar high and expected everyone around him to measure up." Rather: "A lion of a man, a very decent man." Brian Williams: "Our profession will not be the same."
In an emotional video conference transmitted to several bureaus yesterday, Westin, surrounded by hundreds of staffers, praised Jennings, and medical correspondent Tim Johnson recounted his final battle. A moment of silence gave way to two minutes of sustained applause.
Jennings has been the face of ABC News for so long that his passing at 67 leaves a gaping hole at a news division that never planned for a succession before his illness and deflected the question while he struggled through chemotherapy and continued to provide off-air advice until the end.
While ABC and industry insiders say the logical choice is Charlie Gibson, 62, the co-host of "Good Morning America" and one of two principal substitutes on "World News Tonight" during Jennings's illness, that is by no means assured. Elizabeth Vargas, 42, who has also regularly filled in for Jennings, is considered a contender -- she would be the first woman to serve as a solo nightly news anchor -- and there may be others. Westin told the New York Observer last year that he "absolutely" could envision Vargas as the network's anchor.
"One way is the continuity way, which is Charlie Gibson," said Steve Friedman, a former morning show producer for NBC and CBS. "The other way is to say our father is gone, let's really change the family business."
Andrew Tyndall, a New York television analyst, said ratings for "World News Tonight" were not "hurt in the slightest when viewers don't know whether Charlie or Elizabeth is anchoring from one day to the next, and that tells me in that time slot, the anchor is not that important."
For the season to date, "NBC Nightly News" remains the leader, with 9.7 million viewers, despite the handoff from Brokaw to Williams in December. "World News Tonight" has averaged 9.1 million, despite Jennings's absence. And "CBS Evening News" has lagged at 7.1 million viewers, despite positive reviews for Bob Schieffer since he took over in March. All the newscasts suffered slight dropoffs after the changes, in part because of reduced interest following the 2004 campaign.
The morning shows are now profit centers for the networks, and Gibson and Diane Sawyer have "Good Morning America" nipping at the heels of "Today." The question for Westin, said Tyndall, is "do I want to sacrifice Gibson, who's part of the team I've crafted, so he can fulfill his life's ambition to be a nightly news anchor?" He said Vargas is "an absolutely competent news anchor" but that "Charlie's better prepared than she is" in terms of experience.
With the evening newscasts steadily losing audience share amid mounting competition from cable, talk radio, Web sites and blogs, Jennings's passing does have an end-of-an-era feel.
"It's a tough choice, but not as tough as it used to be because it doesn't seem to matter as much these days," said Lawrence Grossman, a former president of NBC News and PBS. "Picking anchors is a complete matter of judgment and luck, just like picking television shows. It's a crapshoot."
"Eras come and eras go," Friedman said. "People who look like they're not replaceable are replaceable."
ABC executives concede that Jennings would not have wanted "Good Morning America" and "Nightline" to air program-length tributes to him yesterday or tomorrow night's scheduled prime-time special on his life. Said Westin: "One of the things Peter leaves behind is a little voice in my ear I can hear constantly: 'Okay, enough of that, let's get back to the news.' "
I can still hear that mellifluous voice, too, and so, I suspect, can millions of others.