David Brinkley, 82, a groundbreaking broadcast journalist who as co-anchor of NBC-TV's "Huntley-Brinkley Report" in the 1950s and 1960s helped establish television as a primary and powerful medium for the dissemination of news and opinion, died late Wednesday at his home in Houston from complications after a fall.
Brinkley was an electronic journalist for more than 50 years, covering presidents and politics, wars and space shots, the civil rights movement, protests, riots, assassinations and natural disasters. When he stepped down Nov. 10, 1996, as host of ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley," he had been anchor or host of a daily or weekly national television program for a little more than 40 years, which was longer than anyone else.
During his career, he won 10 Emmy awards, three George Foster Peabody Awards and, in 1992, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
As a broadcaster, he was known for a wry sense of humor, pithy observations and a low-key, matter-of-fact style of reporting and commentary that lacked pretense and pomposity. He was supremely self-confident, not easily impressed, and he came across as less enamored of himself than many of his colleagues.
"I don't try to put a show on the air, be bright and vivacious, because it's just not my nature," he said.
His delivery was clipped, his sentences short, and he had a healthy candor and irreverence about his profession. "The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were," he observed.
Washington Post television critic Tom Shales wrote in 1987 that when Brinkley "looks bored on the air, it may well be because he is bored."
Brinkley was said to have been among the best writers in his industry, and unlike most of his colleagues, he always wrote the scripts for his own broadcasts. He said that on the air, "I can't read anything that isn't mine."
He also wrote three books, the first of which was a 1988 bestseller, "Washington Goes to War." This was an account of the transformation of the District of Columbia from a laid-back, slow-paced and sleepy Southern city in the months immediately before and after Pearl Harbor to the bustling metropolis that became the heart of the Free World and the nerve center of its most formidable military operation by the end of World War II.
Other books included his 1995 autobiography, the full title of which was "David Brinkley: 11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television and 18 Years of Growing Up in North Carolina"; and in 1996, "Everyone Is Entitled to My Opinion," a collection of his closing statements on "This Week With David Brinkley."
David Brinkley was born in July 1920 in Wilmington, N.C., and began his journalism career by writing for the Wilmington Morning Star while still in high school. He attended the University of North Carolina for a year. He served a year in the North Carolina National Guard but was discharged when doctors misdiagnosed a kidney ailment.
He wrote for the old United Press wire service in Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville before coming to Washington in 1943 to interview for a job with CBS Radio. He didn't get the job, so he went over to NBC, which hired him in 10 minutes. He stayed 38 years.
In the early years of his career as a journalist, he attended Emory University in Atlanta, Vanderbilt University in Nashville and George Washington University. He described his college experience as "checkered and somewhat incomplete."
Washington, when Brinkley arrived, was a city in transition, no longer the pre-World War II, easygoing city of Southern folkways, not yet the hard-charging, frenetic capital of the postwar years. This transformation was in its formative stage, enough so that as a rookie radio reporter he was handed one of journalism's most glamorous assignments, the White House beat, during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Forty years later, it would dawn on him that the men and women who were active in Washington during the war were aging and dying and that they had a good story to tell.
In "Washington Goes to War," Brinkley told it. "I was in possession of an experience no one had ever really written about. . . . It's a unique piece of history . . . this was a . . . town full of magnolias and mosquitoes, and suddenly it became the capital of the world."
The 1943 Washington of which Brinkley wrote was an already-crowded city, fast becoming more crowded with the daily influx of war workers. "Housing was impossible, getting into restaurants was difficult," Brinkley recalled. But he "liked the job, liked the town, the people."
For many newcomers, Brinkley recalled in his book, even the most basic services were problematic. Cleaners were overwhelmed. Would-be customers were advised to send their dirty laundry home to be washed and ironed and then get someone to send it back. Office space was impossibly scarce. Secretaries typed in hotel bathrooms. People slept in shifts. The Securities and Exchange Commission was moved to Philadelphia. A board of presidentially appointed commissioners ruled the District of Columbia, but it had little or no power. Permission from Congress was required for such routine housekeeping matters as providing new linoleum for the floor of the city's fish market.
In the wartime capital described by Brinkley, chaos and confusion prevailed throughout the government. New agencies and bureaus proliferated. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a top adviser to Roosevelt, was asked a question at a wartime news conference about a ruling by the OPC, which stood for Office of Petroleum Coordination. Brinkley recalled that Ickes answered, with some irritation: " 'I can't speak for the OPC.' There was a pause, stirrings of surprise and confusion among reporters, until an aide whispered in Ickes' ear that he (Ickes) was the director of the OPC."
Profound social and cultural changes were stirring in the wings, but they had not yet found a place onstage. Races were segregated.
Manpower was scarce. But there were still no black bus drivers. Women were moving into the workforce, but on a restricted basis. They could be hired for backroom jobs in the media, but rarely worked out front. They were not permitted to broadcast at NBC. Management considered them "biologically incapable of total objectivity."
As a radio newscaster, Brinkley underlined words in his scripts to help him with emphasis. Because of that practice, he developed what he described as a "jerky, labored way of speaking that soon attracted the attention of the comedians."
He was early in his career when television arrived on the scene, and he was one of the few radio journalists to make a smooth transition to the new medium. Most of the big names in radio could not adjust. They were thrown off stride by the large, bulky cameras and malfunctioning teleprompters. For the young and coming David Brinkley, easy and comfortable before the TV cameras, that meant more room at the top and a faster ascent.
He filled in for John Cameron Swayze on the "Camel News Caravan," and in the early 1950s, he covered the Communists-in-government witch hunts led by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), whom he called "a loudmouthed liar." But his career breakthrough came at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, where he was NBC's broadcast anchor with Chet Huntley.
Critic Jack Gould wrote in the New York Times: "A quiet Southerner with a dry wit and a heaven-sent appreciation of brevity has stolen the television limelight this week. . . . Mr. Brinkley could quite possibly be the forerunner of a new school of television commentator. . . . [His] extraordinary accomplishment has been not to talk too much."
On Oct. 29, 1956, the first Huntley-Brinkley report was broadcast on NBC-TV's evening news. For millions of Americans, it would become a weekday evening ritual. The names Huntley and Brinkley would be household words, better known, according to one 1960s survey, than Cary Grant or the Beatles. They had to limit in-person coverage of news events, because their presence became the news. Covering Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1960 West Virginia Democratic presidential primary, Brinkley found that he was better known than the candidate.
Their signature sign-off -- "Good night, Chet," from Brinkley in Washington, "Good night, David," from Huntley in New York -- became a part of the national idiom. There had been some dispute about just how to end the broadcast. Producer Reuven Frank suggested an exchange of "good nights." Huntley didn't like it, and neither did Brinkley, who thought it was "contrived, artificial and slightly silly." But the public loved it, and it stayed.
Until it was overtaken by Walter Cronkite at CBS in 1967, the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" was America's most popular television newscast. It ended Aug. 1, 1970, when Huntley retired. (He died in 1974.) But in its 14 years on the air, the newscast covered some of the major news stories of the century, including the space program and moon landings, the war in Vietnam and antiwar protests, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights and women's rights movements, urban riots and the coming of age of the post-World War II baby boom generation.
For his civil rights coverage, Brinkley incurred the antipathy of die-hard segregationists in North Carolina, where critics accused him of betraying his birthright. To counter what he perceived as Brinkley's pro-civil rights bias, the manager of a Raleigh television station hired a newscaster to present an alternative view. That man was Jesse Helms, the future U.S. senator.
During the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, Brinkley was on good terms with the highest administration officials. He dined at the Jockey Club with Robert Kennedy and spent a weekend at Camp David with President Lyndon B. Johnson. But the Johnson administration also placed a tap on his home telephone during the peak of protest activity against the war in Vietnam. He was on Richard M. Nixon's enemies list during the Nixon presidency, and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew attacked him as "anti-American."
During this period, Brinkley was at the top of his game professionally, but his personal life was coming apart. His marriage to Ann Brinkley, the mother of his three sons, dissolved. "It is destructive to a marriage when the children graduate from grade school and their father is not there to congratulate them because he is looking for news in some place on the other side of the world," Brinkley wrote in his autobiography.
He later married Susan Benfer, a part-time interior designer, and moved from Georgetown, where he had lived with his first wife, to a house that he had designed himself in Chevy Chase. He no longer liked Georgetown, he said. It was too noisy, too crowded, and there was no place to park.
Huntley's retirement meant the end of the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" and a gradual diminution of Brinkley's standing at the top of broadcast journalism's pecking order. At NBC for the next decade, he would drift in professional limbo. A news anchoring triumvirate with John Chancellor and Frank McGee faded. A magazine show languished in ratings mediocrity. And he couldn't stand his boss, Bill Small, the president of NBC News.
"It really got ugly," Brinkley told The Post's Howard Kurtz in 1995. "I asked NBC to fire that SOB or let me quit."
They let him quit.
Almost immediately, Roone Arledge, then president of ABC News, offered Brinkley another job, and he took it. In 1981, he began a Sunday morning talk show, "This Week With David Brinkley," which he would continue until retirement. The program had such journalists as Sam Donaldson, George Will and Cokie Roberts, and the format included interviews with a guest newsmaker, followed by a roundtable discussion of analysis and opinion. It became a ratings leader and set a pattern for other news shows to imitate.
In his career with ABC, Brinkley also was on-call for special events, such as elections and political conventions. His years in the business did not diminish his zeal for news. He liked politicians, he said, although he thought many of them were egocentric braggarts.
He made headlines on election night 1996 when he called President Clinton a "bore" on national television and advised viewers to expect four more years of "nonsense" from the president. He later apologized. He didn't know the microphone was still on, he said.
There was a zaniness about political conventions that he found irresistible. "They're so crazy, nonsensical, idiotic. I love 'em," he told Shales.
In retirement in 1998, Brinkley provoked a flurry of journalistic eyebrow raising when he appeared in television commercials for Archer Daniels Midland Co., the agribusiness giant, which two years earlier had paid a $100 million fine for fixing prices of food and feed additives. Several leading journalists criticized the commercials, including CBS-TV's Cronkite. "Even doing it in retirement might indicate a favoritism toward one company or another while we were still active," Cronkite said.
Brinkley and his first wife had three sons, Alan, a well-known historian; John; and Joel, a journalist who in 1980 won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting while with the Louisville Courier-Journal. From his second marriage, he had a stepdaughter, Alexis.
Photographs from David Brinkley's career and appreciations of the broadcaster by Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz and ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries.