- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003


By David Brinkley

Knopf, $22.95, 224 pages


“Brinkley’s Beat” is a slim volume that the long-time and widely admired television news personality, David Brinkley, wrote shortly before his death earlier this year. Fortunately Brinkley’s reputation as one of television’s most respected anchors, and also as a genuinely nice man, will survive this book. It isn’t much. It reads as if it were put together on assignment and the author searched his memory and his files to find things and people to write about in order to pad it out.

The first chapter, for some strange reason, is about a long forgotten racial bigot from Mississippi, a Democratic senator named Theodore Bilbo who, if Brinkley had been serious about writing a serious book, would hardly rate a paragraph.

Some Southern racists, George Wallace for instance, had an effect on their times; Bilbo, though elected to the Senate three times, had none. It’s apparent that while Brinkley might have “encountered” (his word) Bilbo and while he regards him as a “preposterous and extraordinary” figure, he clearly did not know him well and covered him only casually, if at all.

This chapter, like too many of the others, has nothing to do with any relationship, either personal or professional, the two men might have had; it reads more like a biographical sketch any reporter might have been assigned to write without interviewing his subject.

In fact, of the people about whom he writes Brinkley appears to have known only two reasonably well. One was Lyndon Johnson and the other Robert F. Kennedy.

The chapter on Johnson borders on embarrassing, as Brinkley talks about his social friendship with the president until the two split over Johnson’s conduct of the war in Vietnam. Brinkley does not explain how he found it possible to report objectively on a public figure who was also a social friend. Perhaps it never occurred to him.

It’s difficult to understand also why Brinkley would devote a chapter to a woman reporter for some Maine newspapers, May Craig (raise your hand if you remember the lady), who was known, though hardly remembered, for her hats and her regular appearances on “Meet the Press.” It is true that she was a relative rarity for her time, a woman Washington correspondent, but Brinkley gives no indication that she was in any way interested in increasing women journalists’ numbers, visibility or influence.

The only presidents aside from Johnson that Brinkley devotes any space to are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The former he found to be “mysterious” and the latter, in a famous on-the-air gaffe, a “bore.” He later apologized to Mr. Clinton for that one. Surprisingly there is no mention of Richard Nixon or the major scandal of Brinkley’s years in Washington, Watergate. Did he forget?

Although Brinkley retired and died in Houston, he grew up in Wilmington, N.C., and it was from there that as a 20-year-old he volunteered for the U.S. Army. That was in 1941 and he spent most of that year as an enlisted man assigned to Company I of the 120th infantry regiment, an outfit made up largely of men from the tough Dry Pond section of Wilmington. Because he could type, Brinkley wound up as a supply sergeant, but in less than a year, a little while before Pearl Harbor, he was given a medical discharge.

Though his Army time was brief Brinkley writes of it with nostalgia and proceeds to devote an entire chapter to I Company’s wartime exploits from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge. It is as if Brinkley wishes that he could have been one of those combat veterans, that he feels he missed out on something precious because of his early discharge.

The fact is, he did. On the other hand, many of the men in the company never returned while Brinkley, because of his medical discharge, lived to write about them.

Brinkley devotes an obligatory chapter to the assassination of President Kennedy, but he was in Washington while Lee Harvey Oswald was shooting Kennedy in Dallas. Earlier, in a chapter on Bobby Kennedy, he admits that, Bobby aside, he was not much of an admirer of the Kennedys. And he seems to get it right when he describes John F. Kennedy as merely “a pretty good president.” He was in New York, incidentally, when Bobby was shot in Los Angeles.

There also are chapters on such personages as J. Edgar Hoover (whom he describes as a consummate bureaucrat), the Ethiopian emperor and self-described Conquering Lion of Judah, Haile Selassie, Sen. Joe McCarthy, Jimmy Hoffa and the man who preceded McCarthy as a communist hunter, the nearly forgotten Martin Dies.

Brinkley covered all the national political conventions from 1952 to 1966 and he contends that recent ones have become “parodies of themselves,” dull and undeserving of much television coverage.

Unfortunately, that also just about sums up Brinkley’s last book, not particularly exciting and not deserving of much coverage.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

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