Review Of Brinkley’s Beat: People, Places And Events That Shaped My Time
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/26/07
David Brinkley was an important figure in the history of television news. But, that fact has no consequence on the fact that the man was not a particularly good writer. Before his death in June of 2003 he penned a slim book for Alfred A Knopf called Brinkley’s Beat: People, Places And Events That Shaped My Time, which consisted of minor essays on topics that concerned his career in journalism. Although divided into three sections- People, Places, and Events (real creative, eh?), and featuring essays on topics such as Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Hoffa, J. Edgar Hoover, Normandy, and the Kennedy Assassination (Jack, not Bobby), the book is a dull and tedious read. Too bad it was not a memoir, where one might get a sense of the real man, rather than this tepid string of musings. What is so odd is that Brinkley, in his role as co-anchorman of NBC News, with Chet Huntley, and in his later capacity as host of the Sunday Morning political talk show This Week With David Brinkley, on ABC, was known for a quick wit, often strafed with acid. Yet, rather than recapitulating on paper the unique inflections that set him apart from rivals like Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite, Brinkley lays down pieces with absolutely no depth. It’s really remarkable to read how banal a man who saw so much can write of such bounty.
The People section is almost entirely composed of Washington politicos and insiders, and perfunctory to a fault. Brinkley seems to not have had a strong opinion on anyone nor anything. All of his pieces end sideways- as Brinkley chooses never to opine nor dig more deeply. It’s almost as if he approaches the world with the depth of an old uncle who talks merely to hear himself speak, and not a journalist with inside information. All of the pieces end with a sort of mellow harrumph- even those on such forgotten scoundrels as openly racist Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo- who was sort of the white answer to Marcus Garvey in advocating resettling blacks to Africa, and Texas congressman Martin Dies, the founder of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even worse than his emotional asides are Brinkley’s utter lack of depth into major figures. Of the Presidents he covered in his lifetime, Brinkley speaks only of three, and says little of consequence about them. Scheming LBJ is depicted as energetic but out of his time- and also a personal friend who split with Brinkley when the newsman told the President the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, Ronald Reagan- a tabula rasa if there ever was one, is said to be impenetrable- as if there were any substance, and Bill Clinton is moralized upon, as if fellatio was as great a sin as the Constitutional underminings Reagan and Nixon proffered. Even J. Edgar Hoover is given Kid Gloves, as Brinkley says he was neither as bad as his detractors portrayed him nor as heroic as his idolators claimed.
Even when writing of the Normandy Invasion in 1944 or of Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, the man can hardly seem to get excited. In fact, he seems more taken with the idea of the city of Vienna and its history of classical music and great food, or of old time Florida beaches and hotels before Miami and Orlando’s twin rises to political and cultural prominence. Of the Kennedy Assassination, Brinkley can only gush at the service that television news provided for a shaken nation. In all the years of covering events could not Brinkley have learnt something of clichés and platitudes? Even worse is when he does try to occasionally opine more deeply. His intonations on the evolution of political conventions consists of declaring that they became too managed, dull, and void of real news. This is political blog level commentary, not real journalism.
Perhaps the only time in the whole book when Brinkley shows any real spontaneity or zest is when he describes his covering a small time traffic court case in 1938, for his local newspaper, then testing the man’s car with a cop, to see if it could really go 65 mph or not. The man was fined $15, and Brinkley was chided by his editor for a lack of objectivity. One wonders if the lecture his superior gave Brinkley still hovered over this book, for objectivity in a book of remembrances is tantamount to a sleeping pill. Even when he ends his piece on President Johnson, all Brinkley is moved to imagine is if anyone who visits Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial Wall thinks of LBJ. Aside from being nearly mawkish, it misses the obvious, since LBJ was the architect, if not instigator, of that horridly wasteful and divisive war, so anyone with any gray matter cannot help but to think of the old Texan when they rue their needless dead.
However, since it is looked upon as gauche to speak ill of the dead, I won’t. But, as for Brinkley’s last book, I’ll merely damn it the way he seems to have viewed the world in his final years….yawn.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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