Not quite goodnight Icon: As David Brinkley steps out of his 15-year role as Sunday morning talk show legend, he leaves behind a legacy of solid journalism and one very high-level apology.

November 11, 1996|By Bill Thomas | Bill Thomas,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Legendary television newsman David Brinkley went into semi-retirement yesterday with a bang and a whimper.

His final appearance as the host of "This Week With David Brinkley" began with an apology to his guest, President Clinton. Last week Brinkley, 76, concluded ABC's election night coverage at 1: 30 a.m. by calling Clinton "a bore" whose speeches are full of "goddamn nonsense."

His cranky comments jeopardized an interview with Clinton that was scheduled to be taped on Friday and aired yesterday. They also threatened to overshadow Brinkley's last show after 53 years in network news.

When Clinton did sit down for the interview, Brinkley apologized. "What I said at the end of our election night coverage was both impolite and unfair, and I'm sorry. I regret it."

"Let me just say, I accept that," the president replied. "I've said a lot of things myself late at night when I was tired, and you had really been through a rough day and I always believe you have to judge people on their whole work, and if you get judged based on your whole work, you come out way ahead."

What followed was a half hour in which Brinkley pretty much let Clinton say whatever he wanted without any follow-up questions.

When Clinton said he would like to balance the budget, fix Medicare and give every high school senior the chance to go to college, a feat most economists calls impossible, Brinkley replied: "I wish you good luck."

When Clinton asked for suggestions on how to increase voter turnout, Brinkley said he'd be "happy to help."

A quiet end

It was a lackluster finale to a brilliant career in broadcast journalism. Brinkley was 23 when he came to Washington as an NBC News correspondent. He covered news conferences in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's office and quickly became one of the early stars of television news.

"He's an icon," said Tim Russert, moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," "and you can't use that word lightly."

Teamed with Chet Huntley in 1956, Brinkley became half of television's first evening news duo. Their show, "The Huntley-Brinkley Report," not only revolutionized TV journalism, it made their sign-off -- "Good might, David ... Good night, Chet ... And good night for NBC News" -- part of Amerian popular culture.

"There was no real TV news before David Brinkley," said Hal Bruno, ABC's politial director. "David was the first of a type, the first to take a sophisticated and skeptical look at politics. He was never much for reading the TelePrompTer. He said what was in his head."

Huntley and Brinkley did the news together at NBC for 14 years. Huntley retired in 1970 and died four years later. In 1980, Brinkley left NBC for ABC.

"I'm not a crybaby, but I did cry a little," he told a reporter. "It's like leaving a family."

A few months later, his Sunday morning program, "This Week," first went on the air. Over the last 15 years, he has interviewed scores of powerful political figures. Brinkley may have more Washington connections than the telephone company, but what he's probably best known for is his voice.

"It's a voice that demands to be listened to," said Brinkley's ABC colleague, Sam Donaldson. "His dry wit and that arresting delivery. ... What a contribution."

But those who know him say Brinkley has slowed down since a recent operation, and that it's time he cut back on his demanding workload.

He'll be back

Brinkley is not leaving the show entirely. He will continue to deliver expanded versions of his trademark show-closing commentaries on "This Week," which sources at ABC say will have program regulars Donaldson and Cokie Roberts as co-hosts.

Donaldson, Roberts and George Will shared a champagne toast with Brinkley when the program ended, said ABC News spokeswoman Su-Lin Cheng. A retrospective of the programs's 15 years is planned for next Sunday.

But otherwise, there was little fanfare surrounding Brinkley's departure. He refused to sum up his 53 years in broadcasting for his viewers. Instead he told one of his favorite stories, about a man in Utah who divorced his wife after three years because he'd discovered that "she" was actually a "he."

"It was classic Brinkley," Russert said.

Except for the fact that nobody said, "Good night, David."

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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