Jewish World Review June 19, 2003 / 19 Sivan 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Brinkley was a class act — and he told the truth | You always think of David Brinkley in black-and-white, and not just because he's identified with the first days of television news. His whole manner, like his delivery, was black-and-white, coat-and-tie, crisp-and-clear. He was the antithesis of Casual Fridays, Fox News and the talk shows that are really shout shows.

Oh, David Brinkley editorialized the news, all right, but he did it in the most effective, minimalist style. A wry detachment was his trademark. He could say more with one uplifted eyebrow than all the high-decibel, full-color opinionators that crowd the air today.

He had a way of making the viewer complicit in his opinion, which bore a subliminal endorsement: This is what worldly wise, slightly weary but basically decent people think.

He was like someone you might meet over a martini on the 20th Century Limited. If those references are dated, so was David Brinkley by the time of his death last week at the age of 82.

Now we're used to being shouted at by the Rush Limbaughs and Chris Matthewses on the cable-expanded tube. David Brinkley's attitude let us in on a secret as old as Ecclesiastes: Not all the news is news. Indeed, very little of it is. Yet the country was interested in hearing what he had to say.

When you watched Huntley-and-Brinkley, you didn't turn it on to watch Huntley. Any more than, when you watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, you watched Rogers.

How did Brinkley do it? "The only way to do news on television," he once said in that telegraphic, italicized delivery of his, "is not to be terrified of it. Most of the news isn't important. In fact, very little of it is."

A low-key snub from David Brinkley was far more effective than any loudmouth's attack. I know. On election night, 1992, when hope and Arkansas Chic were still in the air, he filled up a dead moment by innocently wondering why that editor down in Little Rock -- what was his name, Goldberg, Greenberg? -- was so down on Arkansas' native son. And then he moved on to something important.

And yet David Brinkley's minimalist art was never infuriating. You never clicked him off as hopeless, as you might Charlie Rose or NPR at their dimmer moments. If David Brinkley's prejudices were of the conventional, populist kind, he was in control of them, not they of him. You knew he was within reach of reason. And experience.

He proved it election night four years later, and four years into the general absence of seriousness known as the Clinton Era. He was the picture of endurance as he listened to every word of still another overlong and underpowering victory speech by our boy president, not a word of which anyone of discernment would remember from the moment it was uttered.

David Brinkley had to say something about it, which he did -- in his driest, Brinkliest way:

"We all look forward with great pleasure to four years full of wit, poetry, music, love and affection," he said, "plus more g-d-m nonsense."

In case anybody had missed his point, he went on to add that this president had "not a creative bone in his body. Therefore he's a bore, and will always be a bore . ."

David Brinkley had forgotten the mike was open, and he was speaking to the whole country. He'd set down that dry martini and opened the bottle of Early Times.

The result was the best analysis of the president's speech that evening, just as some of the best editorial comment around the newsroom isn't intended to make it into the paper.

Naturally Mr. Brinkley apologized to the president of the United States, but you could tell it was for the lapse of decorum, not for his honesty and insight. Unlike the eminently forgettable speech that had inspired them, his words would be remembered years later. As many of his obituaries last week demonstrated.

Somebody ought to put together the best of Huntley-and-Brinkley the way they do Astaire-and-Rogers. Mr. Brinkley's sharp, succinct summary of the vague problem with Bill Clinton would be a highlight. And the tape would end with the signoff he himself hated: "Good night, Chet." "Good night, David."

"Silly and inappropriate," he called it. Maybe, but it had a saving ring of the ordinary to it. David Brinkley didn't have an ounce of pomposity to him; he was never the pundit, only the fellow who had just come to see the circus.

Good night, David. The world will be a louder and less interesting place without you. And it won't be as easy to see through all the > g-d-m nonsense.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He coined the moniker "Slick Willy." Send your comments by clicking here.

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