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TV News Anchor Known for Dry Wit, Singular Style

Times Staff Writer

David Brinkley, the television newsman whose acerbic commentaries and singular speaking style were legendary and exerted far-reaching influence on the development of broadcast journalism, died Wednesday night. He was 82.

Brinkley died at his home in Houston of complications from a fall, ABC News said Thursday.

“It is difficult to believe that we will never again hear his distinctive voice giving us his humorous view of our complicated world,” Walter Cronkite said in a statement Thursday.

Brinkley began his broadcasting career during the golden age of radio, but was among the first to shift to an electronic novelty called television during the 1940s. Though proud of his ability to adapt to the new medium, in which many radio newscasters failed, Brinkley was quick to say of his rise to prominence: “I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.”

He played defining roles in two network news programs that introduced new formats and dominated the competition in their heyday: NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” in the 1950s and ‘60s and ABC’s “This Week with David Brinkley,” which transformed Sunday morning talk shows during the 1980s and ‘90s.

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Yet Brinkley’s most far-reaching influence resulted from two qualities that sprang from his personality and were apparent in his work almost from the beginning.

The first was his unique speaking style. With his unconventional cadence and dry, reedy tone, Brinkley broke with the mellifluous tradition of earlier broadcasting and spawned generations of imitators. So widely recognized did his speaking style become that comedians routinely mimicked him and younger broadcasters found his style creeping into their own deliveries.

The second and more important contribution was Brinkley’s habit of offering skeptical, often irreverent comments on the news of the day. Such commentary, every word of which he insisted on writing himself, was groundbreaking for a network anchor, and helped introduce critical analysis into electronic journalism.

Before Brinkley, network newscasters often “reported what the government said today, and they took on the self-importance of government when they spoke,” said Barbara Matusow, who chronicled the evolution of TV news in her 1983 book, “The Evening Stars.” “Brinkley separated himself from that. He had a tone of asperity. He used tongue-in-cheek wit. He punctured balloons.”

David McClure Brinkley was born on July 10, 1920, in Wilmington, N.C., the seventh and last child of what he once described, with characteristic wry humor, as “an old Southern family with generations of physicians and Presbyterian preachers, none famous.” He grew up in a comfortable, outwardly conventional middle-class home.

But tensions between Brinkley’s parents, as well as his father’s premature death and Brinkley’s troubled relationship with his mother, combined to inflict wounds that lingered throughout his life, and contributed to his reserved, sometimes caustic nature.

Brinkley’s father, William Graham Brinkley, was remembered as a warm-hearted, open-handed railroad official who made wine during Prohibition and, upon his death when David Brinkley was 8, turned out to have lost much of the family’s inheritance through unsecured loans to friends. “A sweet, generous and trusting man, a 52-year-old Peter Pan,” his youngest son called him.

Mary MacDonald West Brinkley, by contrast, was a deeply religious woman with a disapproving nature. “None of us could ever anticipate when Mama could or would let down enough, give enough of herself to show some small sign of kindness or generosity, since she seemed to love babies, dogs and her flower garden but nothing or no one else,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, “David Brinkley.”

His mother seemed particularly to disapprove of the two things he developed a passion for as a child: reading and writing. Electric lights drew mosquitoes, his mother held, so when he wanted to read on hot summer nights, she sent him out to sit on the curb under a streetlight.

Similarly, he remembered giving her a story he had written. “After a brief glance, she threw the paper in my face. ‘Why are you wasting your time on such foolishness,’ she said. It was a scar slow to heal,” Brinkley recalled.

With his father dead and his brothers and sisters grown, Brinkley became a loner, haunting the public library, reading, writing and giving scant attention to school subjects he was not interested in.

As he entered high school, the town librarian, Emma Woodward, took him in hand. As the story goes, Woodward, who had a doctorate in literature, coached him every day after school. She directed his reading, gave him assignments and critiqued his writing.

“That’s where I was educated. I’ve been to other schools, but they never taught me a damned thing I didn’t already know,” Brinkley told an interviewer. “Emma Woodward taught me the world. She really shaped my life.”

When Brinkley’s high school career drew to an end, Woodward gave him the library’s copy of Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West,” partly as a token of her tutelage and partly because he was the only one who had ever checked it out.

Brinkley never received a high school diploma, but his readiness to steer by his own compass instead of the lights of the world he lived in went beyond education.

As a boy, for example, he got a job at the A&P; grocery store. The manager took him aside and explained that when black customers came in to buy bulk butter -- which was cheaper than prepackaged butter -- he must set the scales so that 13 ounces registered as a full pound. The scales were in a spot that neither customers nor the manager could see clearly, so on such occasions, Brinkley said later, he would set the dial to register 19 ounces as a pound.

Even before the end of high school, Brinkley was working for the Wilmington, N.C., Star-News, and delivering a five-minute daily newscast on the local radio station. “It was perfectly awful,” he said later.

In the fall of 1940, Brinkley enrolled at the University of North Carolina but then enlisted in a recently federalized National Guard unit. He became company clerk but a year later was honorably discharged because military doctors thought he had a kidney ailment.

It was a fateful turn. The National Guard company he had served in was virtually annihilated in France after D-day. Eighth Air Force bombers that had been turned back by clouds over their intended targets unknowingly dropped their loads on the unit, killing 245 of its 250 men in one of World War II’s worst “friendly fire” disasters. Moreover, there was nothing wrong with Brinkley’s kidneys, it turned out, and he quickly moved into a series of wire service reporting jobs across the South.

It was in Nashville, he claimed, that he developed his unique speech pattern. Although his speech seems to have reflected his personality -- detached, acerbic, determinedly untouched and unimpressed by people or events around him -- he gave partial credit to Virginia Mansell, whom the 22-year-old Brinkley met while Nashville bureau manager for United Press.

“I took her out and she was a speech and drama major from Emerson College in Boston. And she went to work on my speech pattern. And she sort of made it what it is. I speak now the way she taught me to speak,” he said.

By 1943, at age 23, Brinkley found himself in Washington working for NBC. Soon, he was part of the small group of White House reporters who regularly clustered around Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desk to gather the news.

By the late 1940s, Brinkley -- not yet 30 -- began to make the shift to television. Where established stars of radio news faltered, Brinkley flourished. “I was cocky -- by that time, whatever there was to do, I thought I could do it,” he said.

His big break came in 1956, when the network, casting about for new approaches to boost ratings, decided to have co-anchors for that year’s Democratic National Convention. Hesitantly, network executives decided on Brinkley and a former Los Angeles newscaster with a rugged profile and a gravelly voice named Chet Huntley.

They were an overnight hit. As the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson for a second run at the invincible Dwight D. Eisenhower, an avalanche of mail poured in to the network praising its new team. The clincher was a glowing appraisal, especially of Brinkley, by New York Times critic Jack Gould:

“A quiet Southerner with a dry wit and a heaven-sent appreciation of brevity has stolen the television limelight this week.... Mr. Brinkley quite possibly could be the forerunner of a new school of television commentator,” Gould said. The review, Brinkley later wrote, “changed my life forever.... It was a stunning and unsettling experience to read that the New York Times thought more highly of me than I ever did of myself.”

Within weeks, Huntley and Brinkley had replaced John Cameron Swayze on NBC’s evening news program; by their fourth broadcast, they had a 40% share of the national viewing audience. The program lasted 14 years, including the better part of a decade as TV’s top evening newscast.

Huntley, based in New York and reporting most of the news outside Washington, was the rock, a serious, immensely likable man who never lost touch with his roots as a Montana rancher’s son. Television historian Matusow said, however, that it was “Brinkley’s light touch

As when Brinkley reported that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s boast, “Your children will live under socialism,” had been quietly changed by the Kremlin to read, “Your grandchildren will live under socialism.”

“We’ve saved one whole generation,” Brinkley noted with arched eyebrow.

On another occasion, reporting that a plague of starlings had befouled Washington’s public landmarks, Brinkley observed, “The proper name of the starling is Sturnus vulgaris. Well, they may not be sturnus, but they certainly are proving themselves vulgaris.”

As Cronkite said Thursday, however, Brinkley did grow “weary of the wit appellation.” Cronkite said he asked, “Can’t they think of any other adjective for me?”

Huntley and Brinkley were among the first to experience television’s capacity for creating instant celebrity. Their nightly sign-off -- “Good night, Chet.” “Good night, David.” -- entered the vernacular of the day.

It was an era in which network television enjoyed a hold on public attention it no longer possesses, commanding 70% of American households and earning huge profits that underwrote rapid expansion of news-gathering technology.

“Huntley’s and my success lay mainly in the fact that we were new, as television was new.... Nearly everything we did had never been done before because it had never been possible before,” Brinkley said. “As when, within a few years, we were able to show people the back side of the moon and the bottom of the sea and about everything in between.”

The partnership ended in 1970, when Huntley retired. Efforts to duplicate the old chemistry with new partners never quite worked. For a decade, Brinkley’s fortunes were in decline. Finally, in 1981, he made the wrenching decision to end his 30-year career at NBC and jump to ABC.

There, television impresario Roone Arledge lost no time creating a new Sunday morning show designed to capitalize on Brinkley’s strengths: his by-now encyclopedic knowledge of Washington and his distinctive personality.

The established Sunday talk shows confined themselves to news conference-like interviews with prominent political leaders and other newsmakers. “This Week with David Brinkley” included a segment of such interviews, but it added a round-table discussion by Brinkley, correspondent Sam Donaldson and pundit George Will.

Donaldson said Thursday that Brinkley “didn’t rule the tigers with a whip.” He recalled in particular one heated on-air debate he had with Will. “David let us alone till he had had enough, and then he just raised his hand. I knew to shut up right at that moment.”

The lively, often opinionated nature of these discussions did for Sunday mornings what Brinkley’s acerbic commentary had done for nightly news programs. Soon the other shows were scrambling to add panels of their own, but “This Week” dominated the ratings for more than a decade.

When Brinkley retired in 1997, he had anchored a daily or weekly news program on national network television for 40 years, a record unmatched by any other broadcaster.

Fittingly, one of the highlights of the end of his career was a White House interview with President Clinton in which Brinkley apologized for letting his sharp tongue go a bit too far; late at night, after the 1996 election returns were in and Clinton had delivered an over-long victory speech, Brinkley had snapped that Clinton “was a bore and will always be a bore.”

The comments were “impolite and unfair,” he told the president. “I’m sorry and I regret it.” Clinton accepted the apology.

The only real controversy of Brinkley’s life on camera came in 1998, after he had retired, when he did a series of commercials for Archer Daniels Midland, a large food processing company. In 1996, the company pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges. Brinkley’s involvement with the firm provoked a spate of critical comments, including some from colleagues in broadcast journalism. Cronkite, for instance, was quoted as saying that doing commercials “casts some doubt on our impartiality and integrity, perhaps.”

Characteristically, Brinkley offered no explanation, but it appeared to involve friendship. When he launched “This Week” in 1981, Archer Daniels Midland was a major sponsor and the company’s chairman, Dwayne Andreas, was an old friend; Brinkley and Andreas had condos in the same Bal Harbour, Fla. building.

Other broadcasters in the past had done commercials, including Edward R. Murrow.

What set the Archer Daniels Midland incident apart was the icon status that Brinkley had achieved by the late 1990s and the extent to which journalistic standards had changed during his long career.

In any case, Brinkley later said he had no regrets. “If I were 20 years old, I would try to do the same things again, all of it,” he said.

In January, Brinkley was in the news again, when he was rescued from his burning Wyoming townhouse by a sheriff’s deputy who pushed him to safety in a wheelchair. Brinkley is survived by his second wife, Susan; three sons, Alan, Joel and John; and a stepdaughter, Alexis.


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