David Brinkley, the quick-witted, usually politely cynical news anchor and commentator first for NBC and then ABC, died June 12 at his home in Houston, after a fall. He was 82 and, for most of those years, an American news icon known for his flawless writing and a staccato speaking style that gave emphasis to his short, spare sentences.
He also knew how not to say anything at all and let television do the talking, a skill radio-trained television announcers often lacked.
Brinkley, who spent more than 50 years as a journalist, rose to fame, along with Chet Huntley, when the duo anchored the coverage of the 1956 political conventions and their chemistry meshed. That led quickly to The Huntley-Brinkley Report, NBC's nightly newscast, in which the dual-anchor concept—Huntley in New York, Brinkley in Washington—caught viewers' imaginations. Brinkley is said to have abhorred the program's nightly sign off-(Brinkley's "Good night, Chet" followed by Huntley's "Good night, David"), but, among older Americans, it's still a fond television memory.
"I always thought that day the news program premiered in October of 1956 those guys took us out of the radio business," said Reuven Frank, who was the executive producer for the newscast and later president of NBC News. "This marked real television. It was news for grown ups. Smarter. David always believed in talking to the audience as his equal. He really respected his audience."
Said Tom Brokaw, anchor of The NBC Nightly News, in a statement, "David Brinkley was an icon of modern broadcast journalism, a brilliant writer who could say in a few words what the country needed to hear during times of crisis, tragedy and triumph. He was also great personal company: charming, witty and mischievous. He was my hero as well as my friend."
ABC's Diane Sawyer compared Brinkley to a jazz musician: "Syncopation. Irony. Individuality." She added, "He saved journalism from terminal earnestness, and convolution."
When Huntley retired in 1970, the newscast ended, too. Brinkley stayed on at NBC, but he was an awkward fit with other anchors. With Frank gone, too, replaced by Bill Small (Brinkley didn't get along with him, Frank says), Brinkley finally left to join ABC in 1981. He discovered another career as the moderator of its lively Sunday-morning political program, This Week with David Brinkley
until he retired in 1997.
His self-deprecatory style was well-developed. In speeches, he used to tell audiences that, on many days, there really wasn't much news worth reporting. About himself, he said, he was one of those people "who is famous for being famous."
He enjoyed puncturing the pompous, for sure. Frank recalls that, during the Eisenhower administration, the president proposed renaming the Boulder Dam in honor of former President Herbert Hoover, then still alive. Democrats howled, and so did others. Brinkley, commenting on the air, dryly noted, "Mr. Hoover could end this unseemly display of politics by simply changing his last name to Boulder."
At least once, he was more blunt. After a long night of covering the 1996 elections, the then-76-year-old Brinkley growled about newly reelected President Clinton. "We all look forward with great pleasure to four more years of wonderful, inspiring speeches full of wit, poetry, music, love and affection, plus more goddamn nonsense," he said on the air. Moments later, just as ABC was going to sign off, he praised his colleagues for their insights and creativity and then turned again to discuss Clinton: "Bill Clinton has none of it. He has not a creative bone in his body. Therefore, he's a bore and will always be a bore"
After he retired, Brinkley created another controversy when he became the paid spokesman for the agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland, a regular advertiser on This Week.
Some journalists accused him of selling out, and others believed Brinkley's presence in a commercial airing on what was once his own show confused the audience. The commercials were discontinued until modifications made clear that Brinkley was a spokesman in a paid commercial, not working any longer as a journalist.