Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings - Shaken, Not Stirred

Anders Krusberg/Associated Press

"On CBS Radio the news of Ed Murrow's death, reportedly from lung cancer, was followed by a cigarette commercial." Alexander Kendrick

When Johnny Carson died, I grieved as if for a member of the family. Ditto Anne Bancroft. And the same for quite a few others in the public eye before and since. I didn't know many of them personally, except in the sense that we all knew them -- because they came into our homes, our heads and sometimes our hearts in a way that affected us personally. And so when they died we felt a genuine sense of loss.

I did know Peter Jennings, albeit way back in the day, yet I am curiously unaffected by his death. I'm sorry, of course, and would send sincere condolences to his family and friends if I could, but I just don't feel the same personal sense of bereavement as for so many others. It may not be fashionable to say so, but, well, that's the way it is.

In fact, I knew them all--Jennings, Brokaw, Rather and a host of reporters and columnists for the networks and top papers around the country--before they became household names and journalistic icons. I was a pup, but I padded along with the big dogs and I watched, listened and learned.

One of the most important things I gleaned was that style doesn't always equal substance -- or lack of it. That image isn't necessarily indicative of integrity. That occasionally the packaging is important, but mostly it's window dressing. For example, one of the sharpest, pithiest, most quick-witted newsmen in the country, David Broder of the Washington Post, has always been a quiet, unassuming, professorish kind of guy. Others (sorry, no names) who appear rigid, opinionated and/or sophisticated, are really pussycats with occasional glints of gold in them thar hearts.

But back in the 70s, when all the current powerhouses were making their bones, Peter Jennings was already a slick package. Early on he projected the air of entitlement that in fact he eventually earned. No one would have guessed his lack of higher education -- and not just because he was intelligent, knowledgeable and worldly. With finely honed ambition, tenacity and drive he crafted an image as the Personification of Preppiedom -- complete with oxford shirts, pressed khakis and the requisite Bass loafers, no socks. He taught himself global politics, economics and journalism, and evolved into the sartorially splendid anchor of ABC's World News with apparently seamless ease.

Dan Rather was the kind of guy you wanted to smack upside the head on a regular basis--and still is. But that's okay, at least he has the juice to engender a gut reaction. Tom Brokaw was the same dedicated, committed yet easygoing Mr. Nice Guy he still appears to be today. You could imagine yourself having a conversation with either one, and making Some kind of connection.

Peter Jennings was smart and clever and a charmer. But he held himself apart. Maybe aloof, maybe shy, maybe arrogant, maybe deeply focused, and maybe none of those things. The people who were close to him would tell a far different story, I'm sure. But he kept the rest of us firmly at arms length.

And so, in the end, it's hard to feel much more than regret over a bright light, dimmed too soon. A light, unfortunately, without much public heat.

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Blogger Cynthia Johnston said...

Interesting take. You put words to feelings I didn't quite understand. I feel bad for the people who were close to Peter Jennings. I cry with anyone who grieves over the loss of a loved one. But perhaps it was the man's pure professionalism that created a certain distance. Like you say, some people come into our lives in a big way, like Anne "Waiter, I will have a martini..." Bancroft. To this day, all my best friend has to do is say, "Waiter...", and her husband makes a martini.

Perhaps I wasn't as moved by the passing of Peter Jennings as I have been by the death of other celebrities because the minute I saw him announce he had lung cancer I knew he was a goner. He was "sampanku"... a Japanese term I learned, oddly enough, from Yoko Ono. It means that when the whites of the eyes form a wide, white crescent under the iris... the person is near death. That's actually when I felt the loss. Looking at him and knowing he was dying.

What is to be mourned at this sad time in our history is the passing of any truly professional member of this otherwise trashy batch of whores that passes for a "free press". For that loss, I am truly sorry.

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

eloquent post, Sally.

I especially appreciated this detail: "Bass loafers, no socks."

9:45 AM  

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