Tuesday, June 30, 2009

David Brinkley: A Memoir and other stuff

Stuff: This is my second of three books reviews for Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge. I’ve just started reading A Confederacy of Dunces, which I hope to have reviewed sometime after I get back from the West—probably early August. As for world news, my prayers are with the people in Honduras. Normally, I wouldn’t have a horse in that race, but when I was last down there, I stayed down from street from the guy who is now President (or maybe that should be exiled president). I never got a chance to meet him, but I did get to meet his rather frisky dog. Next week, I’ll be following Horace Greeley’s advice and heading West… I’ll be away for nearly 3 weeks.

David Brinkley, David Brinkley: A Memoir (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995), 273 pages plus a 13 page insert of photos.

A friend lent me this book over a year ago and since David Brinkley is a Southerner (like me), I decided I needed to read it and return it before dry rot sets in. Not only are we both Southerners, Brinkley and I in the same town, just forty years apart. I became aware of the large world around me through reading the Star News and watching Brinkley and Huntley on our local NBC affiliate. Reading Brinkley’s memoirs, I found many places where our lives intersected and highlighted a few in this review.

Brinkley started his news career with the Star News while a student at New Hanover High School. (His school was known to those of us at the other school as “New Hang-over). At the time, the Wilmington Star news was much smaller than when I was living there in the late 60s and 70s. Yet Brinkley got to work with a handful of great newsmen including Sam Ragan. Ragan later owned and edited The Pilot, a weekly paper in Moore County, and was also the Poet Laureate of North Carolina. I have several of his books of poetry on my shelves including a signed copy of Journey into Morning that I cherish. As a high school intern, Brinkley was assigned a story about a woman who claimed to have a Mexican agave plant that bloomed every century and was getting ready to bloom. The scene around the woman’s house became a circus as people poured in to see such a sign and the Fire Department strung up lights for people to see it at night. In preparation for the story, Brinkley did a little research. Looking the plant up in the dictionary, he learned it was erroneously believed to bloom every 100 years. He called Will Rehder, Wilmington’s long time florist (although Will may have been gone by the time I came along, it was from his shop that I ordered an orchid corsage for my Senior Prom date). Rehder told Brinkley he didn’t know a “damn thing” about the plant. Thinking his first story was going to be a washout, Brinkley went anyway and reported on the circus, filling the story with folksy quotes of the bystanders, one of whom was complaining about how much tax money was being wasted on the event. The cactus didn’t bloom, but his article was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times and Brinkley had himself a career.

Interestingly, at the end of this book, Brinkley returns to the topic of wasteful government spending. Not only did he complain about taxes, but concludes his memoirs by advocating a flat tax. I found this interesting and a bit out of place in a memoir. Perhaps my shock shows I had brought into the rhetoric about him being a liberal broadcaster. In truth, throughout the book he presents himself as a fiscal conservative.

Brinkley grew up spending his summers on Wrightsville Beach and enjoying his time at the Lumina, a landmark that was torn down when I was in Junior High. I remember being there as a kid. You could shower off the salt underneath the pavilion and there were pool tables where, for a quarter, you could shoot a game. In my first year of blogging, I wrote a poem about this lost landmark. Another local spot he recalls is Uncle Henry’s Oyster Roast. It was located on Masonboro Sound and I rode by the turn-off twice a day when I was in elementary school. I’m not sure when the business closed, but I’m pretty sure it’s no longer there.

As the Second World War approached and the country was instituting the draft, Brinkley decided to wait on college. He joined the army in 1940, with a bunch of “Dry Ponders” (Dry Pond was an area of Wilmington). He didn’t last long and received a medical discharge for a defective kidney. Sadly, most of those he joined up with were part of the 120 Infantry, 13th Division. On July 25, 1944, after having survived D-Day, the unit was wiped out by friendly fire, when a bomber group missed a target and unloaded their bombs on the unit. Of the 250 in the company, 245 died.

Discharged, Brinkley quickly rose to the top of the journalistic world. He worked for the United Press in several southern locations and by 1943, when many newsmen were overseas, found himself in Washington, a city from which he’d report on for the next four decades.

Much of the book is about Brinkley’s professional life, especially focusing on his meetings with Presidents and coverage of election campaigns. I never knew when I was watching Brinkley just how far he’d come in the business. He was at the 1952 political conventions, the first to be covered by national television. Back then, the three networks had to share one video feed to the West Coast! By ’68, the first conventions I remember, he was an old hand. He continued to be a stable at conventions even after he’d retired.

Brinkley expressed his dislike of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but during the McCarthy era, he was in a unique position. His sister Mary was a legal secretary working for the McCarthy. At the time, she defended her boss and the two of them had to avoid the subject at family gatherings, but she later admitted that most of McCarthy’s allegations were lies. Another part of the book I found interesting was his insights into the 1964 Republican convention. Brinkley reported on efforts by Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Nelson Rockefeller of New York, and George Romney of Michigan to have the convention to adopt an anti-extremist platform (condemning the Communist Party as well as the Klan and the John Birch Society). All such attempts failed by large margins, as did an attempt to show support for the Civil Right’s movement. The rhetoric against journalists were so harsh that when former President Eisenhower spoke and mentioned “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators,” the crowd went wild and stormed toward the reporting booths with angry fists raised. Brinkley said that for the first time he was glad there was glass between him and the crowd. While this went on, Eisenhower stood at the podium, bewildered at the reaction of the crowd. Even though the delegates disliked him as a part of the liberal media, Brinkley spoke fondly of Goldwater, whom the party nominated for President that year.

Brinkley gives insight into many of the Presidents. He tells about Kennedy sending out aides to buy up all the Cuban cigars in the capital the night before he imposed an embargo. He also told about being eating out with his wife one evening and being joined by many of the Kennedy family (President Kennedy wasn’t one of them, but Teddy was there). When the meal was over, he was shocked to find he’d been given the bill for everyone there. Brinkley tells about Lyndon Johnson sending a helicopter out to find where he and his wife were one weekend, to invite them to come to dinner at the White House. Brinkley considered Nixon one of the most intelligent Presidents in recent history, but he also found it odd that he man was never happy, never smiled or cracked a joke.

As a Southerner, Brinkley took a lot of heat for doing an early interview with Martin Luther King and for NBC’s coverage of the racial problems in the South. He tells about how one station, WRAL in Raleigh, NC, hired Jesse Helms to go on right after the evening news in order to counter the “lies” told by Brinkley and Huntley. He was even called “Broker T. Brinkley.” Interestingly, WRAL signal didn’t make it to the Brinkley’s hometown of Wilmington. Growing up, I was spared Helm’s diatribes except when I was staying with grandparents.

In addition to covering politics, the memoir also covers the internal politics at NBC. He tells about a strike of the AFTRA, the union for members of news media. They’d called for a strike and Brinkley’s attorney suggested he not work. He didn’t, but Huntley (who was more of a free-spirited westerner) decided he would cross the picket lines and work. All their show got was mail—from both sides. Many felt that Brinkley was selfish for striking when he was making so much money (in truth, the strike didn’t have any effect on his contract). Union members also felt that Huntley was abandoning them by working during the strike. Not long afterwards, Huntley retired and moved to a ranch in his native Montana. Brinkley later went to ABC, where he ran a weekly news show with George Will, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson.

Brinkley adds many stories in the book that don’t seem to fit, but are funny. One came from Gulf Oil, the sponsor of the news program for years. He told about how Gulf Oil, in the early 60s, sent out undercover inspectors to check on their gas stations. In one station, somewhere in mid-America, the inspector was horrified to find a condom machine in a women’s bathroom. Putting in change, the inspector found it empty. It was bad enough to have the condom machine in the first place. The station owner was confronted and he defended himself saying that he made a $100 a month on that machine and it never had any condoms in it. Such was the era, Brinkley said, that no woman would have admitted to a male gas station attendant that she’d lost her quarters in a condom machine.

I enjoyed the book, perhaps more so because I cherished the first chapter and its insight into Wilmington in the 30s. However, I did find it a bit confusing. Brinkley jumps around a lot. It’s almost like you’re talking to him and he remembers something that he forgot to say and jumps back (or ahead) in time. I found it refreshing how “blessed” he felt his life had been. This quote sums it up:
With all of this, I am blessed beyond anything that in my days in Wilmington, North Carolina, I could every have expected or even imagined. Credit it all to luck, modest talent and chancing to be in the right place at the right time to start modestly in a new and promising industry, television, and to grow with it as it grew to its overwhelming presence today. (255)


  1. Sage,
    I've read 'A confederacy of dunces' when I was at college and it really made me laugh. I had a lot of fun reading it and to my eyes, John Kennedy Toole became a kind of myth, due to his tormented life. His unsuccessful fight to publish a book really touched me(his mom did everything within her reach and finally got it published after his death). It's a book worth reading.

    About Honduras... what a shame that democracy still hasn't settled and coups are not strange in Central-South America.

    I just hope this country is able to solve this problem in a peaceful way.

    Have fun when you head West! Enjoy your holidays!

  2. Someone loaned you a book and you had it for a full year?!? You're the reason why I lie about not having a certain book rather than letting someone borrow it.

  3. He's a man who's lived through quite a bit of history and rubbed elbows with interesting political figures. Sounds like a good read.

    PS - I'm off to read more about that frisky dog!

  4. I should probably read that. I grew up watching him.

    Helms was a different story. I didn't like what he said or the way he said it. The TV went on mute or off every time he came on the screen.

  5. Of course, this was your best review yet. I smiled through the AFTRA part as I'm a member. David was an intriguing and amazing guy who listened well and when he spoke, you knew just how well he did listen! I must read this book!!:)

  6. Leni, I've been laughing a lot reading Confederancy! And yes, I also hope things settle down in Honduras.

    Murf, he got his book back yesterday which is better than some folks to whom I've lent books.

    Scarlet, it's good and the dog was fun and crazy and I had to hold him still to get a photo.

    Kenju, Jesse was something else! I stayed registered in NC after I went away to grad school just to vote against him.

    Michael, you do get the sense that he did listen well--I wish I could have met him, I'd loved to have heard his stories about changes around Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach

  7. Brinkley was the of the old school: not an actor or a news reader but a former print and radio journalist who transitioned to TV pretty well. I miss those guys in these days of overly coiffed talking heads.


  8. I love the Wilmington part and the family story. It's amazing that Brinkley was allowed to have opinions--did he talk about having to stifle them for work?

    I have a friend who just left his job as an editor in chief and is running around Facebook screaming everything he believes because he couldn't for so long

  9. I'm interested in hearing how the Confederacy of Dunces is.

    Where out west are you headed? How long you gonna be gone?

  10. Randall, there is great skill in being able to write and understand!

    Pia, he only mentioned being stifled a few times. He seemed to have a lot of freedom.

    So far, Dunces is funny. Will mostly be in Colorado, Utah, N. Arizona and Kansas

  11. Neat review- I remember him often on ABC. Funny story about that gas station- quite a creative, if less than honest, endeavor!

  12. Are you hanging out with Sage Jr. when you're out there?

  13. I LOVE Confederacy! The main character reminds me of my mom's late odd-ball brother, who ultimately drank himself to death. I know that seems like a non-sequiter, but the book made me appreciate some of my uncle's quirks.

    And I did eat a Lucky Dog while in New Orleans!

    It sounds like Brinkley was hard to peg as strictly a conservative or a liberal.