When David Brinkley dismissed Bill Clinton as ”a bore” during the wee hours of ABC News’ 1996 election-night coverage, pundits took it as a signal the journalistic elder statesman was losing it. Yet his comment was merely a blunt expression of Brinkley’s skepticism. With the glint of an eye or a wry aside, Brinkley (who died June 11 at 82 after a fall in his Houston home) let viewers know when he thought a politician was full of it. His was the original no-spin zone.
The North Carolina native began his career with NBC as a radio correspondent covering FDR’s White House. In 1956, he teamed with the more stolid Chet Huntley as coanchor of the TV net’s prototypical nightly newscast. Fourteen years later, Huntley uttered his final ”Good night, David,” a catchphrase Brinkley called ”contrived, artificial, and slightly silly.” He defected to ABC in 1981 and shook up its Sunday-morning show, adding a much-imitated roundtable segment and taking This Week from worst to first in the ratings. Since Brinkley’s 1997 retirement, the audience has not coincidentally dropped off sharply.
Although he bore no hint of a drawl, the Southerner spoke in a slow cadence that perfectly suited his succinct writing style (Brinkley insisted on composing all his own copy). ”He was the first person who believed you could give a little edge to your closing commentary on the broadcast,” says ABC anchorman Peter Jennings. ”And I think all of us viewers found him refreshing.”
”I am blessed beyond anything that in my days in Wilmington, N.C., I could ever have expected or even imagined,” he wrote in 1995’s 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. ”Credit it all to luck, modest talent and chancing to be in the right place at the right time.” Brinkley may have been modest, but his talent certainly wasn’t. — Bruce Fretts, with reporting by Jennifer Armstrong
1943 Appointed NBC White House reporter
May 6, 1959 Huntley-Brinkley wins the first of six consecutive Emmys for news coverage
December 1988 ABC aired Ronald Reagan and David Brinkley: A Farewell Interview
Sept. 25, 1997 Announced his retirement from TV news