David Brinkley, the venerated news anchor whose acerbic wit, insightful analysis and idiosyncratic speaking style made him a must-watch, died Wednesday night at his home in Houston. He was 82.
Brinkley’s career spanned 50 years, but he is best remembered as the co-anchor of NBC’s primetime newscast “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” which ran from 1956-70. The show took advantage of technological innovations to pair the two who sat at separate anchor desks — Chet Huntley in New York, Brinkley in Washington.
The anchor team’s signature signoff — “Goodnight, Chet,” “Goodnight, David” — became part of pop culture.
“David Brinkley was an icon of modern broadcast journalism, a brilliant writer who could say in a few words what the country needed to hear during times of crisis, tragedy and triumph,” “NBC Nightly News” anchor and managing editor Tom Brokaw said. “He was my hero as well as my friend.”
The recipient of 10 Emmys, three Peabody Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Brinkley spent most of his career at NBC News. When “Huntley-Brinkley Report” went off the air in 1970, he went on to anchor the primetime newscast and host special reports.
An avid political reporter throughout his career, Brinkley first earned national attention for his coverage of the 1956 Democratic and Republican national conventions.
In 1981, he joined ABC News where, among other assignments, he launched the Sunday morning program “This Week With David Brinkley.”
Younger correspondents closely tracked Brinkley’s style.
“He was the first person who believed you could give a little edge to your closing commentary on the broadcast, and I think all those of us who were viewers found him refreshing,” ABC News anchor Peter Jennings said in a note to ABC affiliates Thursday.
Born in Wilmington, N.C., Brinkley contributed to a local newspaper at 17, writing a column about his high school’s activities.
After graduation, he worked as a reporter for the Wilmington Star-News for two years starting in 1938, and attended classes at the U. of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, majoring in English.
In 1940, he joined the Army as an infantryman, spending most of his brief military career as a supply sergeant for a rifle company at Fort Jackson, S.C. A year later, he was discharged with the rank of sergeant.
In 1942, he was hired by the United Press news agency at its Atlanta bureau. He later continued his English studies at Vanderbilt while working in Nashville, Tenn.
He ended up at NBC News in 1943, first as a writer and later as a White House correspondent. He started out on NBC Radio, and in 1945 became moderator of the “America United” program. Five years later, he became a TV news commentator and, in 1951, segued into the job of Washington correspondent for the net’s “News Caravan.”
Soon he was delivering his own newscasts on the new medium of television. “I had a chance to learn while nobody was watching,” he said.
Always self-deprecating, he dismissed the notion he co-invented modern TV newscasting: “I didn’t create anything. I just got here early.”
In 1954, the network assigned him to cover the congressional elections, a task he repeated two years later, when he was paired for the first time with Huntley.
Beginning in October 1956, Huntley and Brinkley anchored the 15-minute evening NBC News report, later named “Huntley-Brinkley Report.” They reached an audience as high as 20 million viewers per night.
The Huntley-Brinkley team covered the November elections, President Eisenhower’s second inauguration and the Brussels World’s Fair as well as Nikita Khrushchev’s famous U.S. visit in 1959.
Touch of wit
Brinkley’s analyses of the Soviet leader’s pronouncements emphasized the dry wit for which he became famous, giving rise to the term “Brinkleyism.” When Khrushchev said, “Your children will live under socialism,” and then changed “children” to “grandchildren,” Brinkley remarked, “We’ve saved a whole generation.” He also once described D.C. as “a city filled with people doing badly that which need not be done at all.”
During the 1960s, Brinkley and Huntley co-anchored all the major presidential conventions, elections and inaugurations and covered such major stories as the assassinations of President Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, Eisenhower’s funeral and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Brinkley also hosted scores of documentaries, including examinations of school integration, the Berlin crisis and even travelogues such as “Our Man in the Mediterranean.”
Brinkley continued to work at NBC for a decade after Huntley’s retirement in 1971. (Huntley died of cancer in 1974.) For a time, he co-anchored “NBC Nightly News” with John Chancellor and was subsequently a commentator on the program.
He lived in New York for several years, but then returned to Washington. In fall 1980, he became anchor for “NBC Magazine,” but saw his position eroded by the rising Roger Mudd in Washington and Tom Brokaw in New York. Mudd and Brokaw were made co-anchors of the nightly news, and NBC News president Bill Small reportedly tried to cut Brinkley’s salary. He and Small also clashed on the content of “NBC Magazine” and what Brinkley felt was a noncompetitive timeslot. So he asked to be let out of his contract — and signed with ABC News.
At ABC, he was given his own weekly program, “This Week,” and wrote and hosted docus including “Pearl Harbor: Two Hours That Changed the World” as well as outgoing President Reagan’s farewell interview. He continued to cover the presidential elections, pairing with Jennings for “The ’92 Vote.”
He stepped down as host of his show in November 1996, but continued to do commentaries, and left amid a rare controversy, when late on Election Night he criticized Bill Clinton as a “bore” (he later apologized on air).
Brinkley authored three books, including the bestselling “Washington Goes to War.”
In 1989, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, and in 1990 he won the Peabody for lifetime achievement.
Brinkley was divorced from his first wife, Ann Fischer, also a reporter, and married Susan Benfer in 1972. Among his four children, Alan is an American Book Award-winning historian and Joel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
No memorial services have yet been planned.
Good night, David.