The day the truth slipped out

November 08, 1996|By Mike Littwin

DAVID BRINKLEY gives me reason to live.

David Brinkley is 76, going into semi-retirement, and he just doesn't give a, uh, darn anymore.

So, at his advanced age, and covering his last presidential election, sitting in a hyped-up ABC set that most resembled a Pentagon situation room, Brinkley did something so astonishing that his colleagues gasped and viewers raced to their phones to call either ABC or 911.

Here's what Brinkley did, in case you missed it: He told the truth, or at least the truth as he saw it.

It's the last thing anybody expected to happen on television (if you don't count "Saturday Night Live" ever being funny again).

It was late election night, closing in on 1 a.m. Bill Clinton had just delivered his usual "will it end by the millennium?" speech, and the ABC boys were ready to comment. That's when Brinkley said, "We all look forward with great pleasure to four years of wonderful, inspiring speeches, full of wit, poetry, music, love and affection -- plus more goddamned nonsense."

Later, as if he hadn't said enough, Brinkley proclaimed that Clinton "has not a creative bone in his body." He added: "Therefore, he's a bore, and will always be a bore."

There was some question in the first case whether Brinkley realized he was on the air and speaking into a live mike. Not in the second case.

In the second case, the ABC TV news stars had gathered around Brinkley for what was supposed to be his valedictory. They wanted to give Brinkley a chance to sign off by saying something profound about his many years in front of the camera.

That night must have already seemed like many years to Brinkley. He had been on the air for about six hours, and maybe he wasn't in the mood to make nice-nice with his colleagues.

Instead, he said what he thought. He spoke his mind. And so, he made TV election-night history.

In other words, he made like Howard Beale (remember: mad as hell and not going to take it anymore). Fortunately, nobody shot Brinkley for it.

It doesn't usually work this way on television, where the anchors give absolutely no opinion and the "commentators" make wry statements like, "I don't think you can say anyone won or lost that debate," followed by, "Can somebody get me a cab?"

Brinkley is famous for wry statements. It has made his Sunday show the best and most watched of the Sunday shows. He has turned a collection of wry statements into a new, and sure to be best-selling, book called "Everyone Is Entitled to My Opinion."

These wry and curmudgeonly opinions make him beloved, just as Andy Rooney's wry and curmudgeonly thoughts on, say, the Phillips screwdriver made him beloved. You don't get beloved, of course, or even well liked, by calling a popularly elected president nonsensical and a bore.

That's Sam Donaldson territory or "McLaughlin Group" territory or "Firing Line" territory. On these shows, it's not important what you say, but how you say it. You have to say it loudly and provocatively and as much like talk radio as you dare and mix in such witticisms as "Shut up, jerkface."

On the other hand, we have the anchors, who like to say things like "on the other hand." They are smooth-talking, middle-aged, ratings-safe white guys who are welcomed each night into the living rooms across America -- at least the living rooms that aren't screening "Simpson" reruns instead.

Brinkley was among the first famous TV anchors when he worked with Huntley and dominated the 6 o'clock national news. He wasn't so wry then and definitely wasn't curmudgeonly. But he did have that same cadence going -- back to you, Chet.

The format that he and Walter Cronkite pioneered remains pretty much the same. The idea is for the anchor to have your trust, to be there in an emergency, pronounce all the words right, to go to the site of some war and even wear a flak jacket, if necessary.

You don't want your anchor saying: "And what was that blowhard Newt Gingrich up to today?"

(You also don't want Dan Rather's attempt at being folksy forced on you. Sample quote from election night: "This race is as tight as a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride back from the beach." Is this an anchorman or Dandy Don Meredith?)

But, for one night, late at night, with almost nobody watching except the real news junkies, it was kind of refreshing to hear something unrehearsed and coming from the gut. I'm not sure how Clinton reacted to it. But you can bet he didn't call Brinkley boring.

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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