David Brinkley once said TV journalists simply find out what's happening and tell what they've seen. In his fourth book, completed shortly before his death in June, Brinkley does more: he also tells us what he was thinking. Brinkley's Beat: People, Places and Events That Shaped My Time, eschews any chronological inclination and, in grab-bag style, shares observations and opinions on headline-makers and events that fascinated Brinkley during his 50-year career in broadcasting.
Brinkley pulls no punches in discussing newsmakers who intrigued him, such as Jimmy Hoffa, Joe McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. First on his list is Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo, who, claiming to be the "best friend the Negro has got," bragged about introducing legislation to settle U.S. blacks in Africa. Among the 11 presidents he knew, Brinkley viewed President Clinton as "maybe the most dazzling political talent of my lifetime." He says the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal including Clinton's behavior, the sensational press coverage and the "vindictiveness" of prosecutors and congressional bigwigs "made me sick." Brinkley applies the description of "most impressive and, in some ways, the most appalling" to President Johnson, who snubbed Brinkley and ordered his phones tapped after the commentator said U.S. involvement in Vietnam was pointless.
Brinkley covered 24 national political conventions, drawing particular admiration for sustaining viewers' interest during boring periods with clever ad-libbing. He now attributes this performance to intensive staff research on every person and issue that figured to come before the delegates. He vividly recounts how television handled President Kennedy's assassination, while a frightened nation prayed for assurance that the event was not part of a wide conspiracy. In those hours and days, television came of age with what Brinkley calls "the most useful single service in television's history."Brinkley's Beat is a readable and revealing account, just what we would expect from an insider who made a huge difference in television's serious side. Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.