BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Brinkley, what made you think about a memoir this time around?
DAVID BRINKLEY, AUTHOR, "A Memoir:" Actually, you're off to a bad start, Brian, because I haven't really the faintest idea. I guess it was a sort of slow period in my life. I didn't have a whole lot to do at the moment. I was doing one television program a week, leaving several days with nothing to do, and so I decided I am the only one who was on the air at the very, very beginning of television, in the days of John Cameron Swayze. I did stuff for him and then took over after he left.
And it's interesting American history. I think I was about the only one who was still around and able to tell it. So I thought, "OK, fine. I'll write a book and tell all about it." That's it.
LAMB: What year did John Cameron Swayze start his nightly newscast?
BRINKLEY: About early '40s. I can't be more exact because I don't know. I'd have to look it up.
LAMB: What were the requirements from the tobacco manufacturer?
BRINKLEY: There were several.
LAMB: As a sponsor?
LAMB: This tobacco manufacturer was a sponsor -- cigarettes?
BRINKLEY: Right, yes. They were the advertisers on the first television news program. They called it a Camel News Caravan advertising Camel cigarettes, and the advertiser, of course, was R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and they always wanted that spelled out meticulously.
The other requirements were that Swayze have a lighted cigarette in the ashtray beside him on his desk while he was on the air and the smoke would float up. Another requirement was that we could never have news film showing a "No Smoking" sign. And the other was that nobody was allowed to smoke a cigar, except one exception and that was Winston Churchill.
They did -- and he was such a hero of such magnitude at that time that even an advertising man did not dare mess with him. Other than that, you were not allowed to smoke a cigar, because they thought it didn't make you look good.
LAMB: And you tell the story about the time at the end of the week, you had to talk about giveaways to servicemen?
BRINKLEY: Yes. The war was barely over. In fact, for a time I'm not sure it was over at all. But, in any case, we were in the immediate post war. There were still a lot of American soldiers around the world stationed around, and the Reynolds eople, each week -- and I guess the others did, too, though I don't know about it -- sent out thousands of cartons of free cigarettes to the American soldiers stationed around the world.
And each week during that time, they had Swayze announce -- and when I filled in for him, I had to announce -- that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is sending X-thousand cartons of Camel cigarettes to our boys around the world. And they thought that was their patriotic contribution to the war. And we all did it.
One time -- and you had to hold up the carton at the end of the program, which I did once and got it upside down, which made them furious. But that was the first advertising on a news program on television.
LAMB: I think it was -- correct me if I -- you tell a story of the early '70s that when you did a story about an anti-smoking advocacy group and you made fun of them.
BRINKLEY: I did. And I'm kind of ashamed of it now. I was just thumbing through the Yellow Pages of the phonebook, which is always interesting, and I came across a listing for the Anti-Cigarette Alliance. It was downtown around -- I don't know where, but around 14th and something -- near my office which was, then, 14th and New York. And I wondered what on earth -- why is there an Anti-Cigarette Alliance? What's wrong with cigarettes? Everybody smokes. I mean, in the movies you see Clark Gable and Carole Lombard smoking cigarettes. And she looked very beautiful with these little wisps of smoke drifting away -- very pretty.
So I went to see what the Anti-Cigarette Alliance was. And it primarily was one elderly gentleman with a little ring of white hair seated behind a glass partition in a little tiny, grubby office. And I said to him, "What is the Anti-Cigarette Alliance? And why are you anti-cigarette?"
He said, "Because it causes lung cancer, causes heart problems and it'll give you emphysema." And I said, "How come you know this and others don't?" He said, "Others will know it. I've learned this and my friends in surgery at local hospitals who say they are now beginning to see lung cancer at a greater degree, greater frequency than they've ever seen it before. And so they have concluded that cigarette smoking is responsible for it."
Well, I thought that was a joke. As I say, cigarette smoking was a very smart thing to do; the movie stars did it, everyone you knew did it. And so I did a little story about it and made fun of it. Oddly enough, two of my brothers died of lung cancer and they were both smokers.
LAMB: Did you ever smoke?
BRINKLEY: I did and quit a long time ago.
LAMB: Why did you end the book on your return to your hometown?
BRINKLEY: It seemed the logical way to do it. Because when I came across -- as you know, I drove back to my hometown, which I did occasionally because I had a lot of friends there. And -- mostly to go to the beach -- it's the world's best beach.
LAMB: Wilmington ...
LAMB: North Carolina.
BRINKLEY: The Wrightsville Beach, it's called. And I was driving back down there one summer and I decided that I was going to find our house in Wilmington and buy it. If -- assuming it was for sale, I would buy it and I would restore it and modernize it and clean it up and sort of keep it as a place for all of our kids and our friends and our family to go in the summer when they wanted to go to the beach and use our house as a place to stay. And the more I thought about it, the better I liked the idea and wondered why I hadn't done it sooner. I just never thought about it.
Finally, I got there. And I was shocked, just truly, deeply, profoundly shocked because I found the house was gone, torn down. And it had been replaced by an ugly little brick building, one-story brick building with something about insurance. I was so angry, I didn't know what it was and didn't care.
But everything I loved there was -- my mother's flower garden was paved over with concrete. There was a huge oak tree in the front yard which had sheltered all of us all of my life -- been there 200, 300 years old. Oak trees live forever. It was cut down because they said they needed parking.
Well, that really infuriated me. Parking? Our whole family's history goes away to make room for parking? Nothing I could do about it, so I left. Never been back. I don't want to see it again.
LAMB: One of your sons beat you to that chair right there, Alan Brinkley.
LAMB: You talk about your kids in here and there's some photographs. Tell us about them.
BRINKLEY: The kids are all smarter than I am. All of them. Alan in particular.
LAMB: And what's Alan do?
BRINKLEY: He's a professor of history at Columbia University in New York. The second one, Joel, is an editor of The New York Times. The third, John, is a reporter for a string of newspapers -- Scripps Howard. And the youngest is a daughter who has just got her masters in what is called special education, which means that she wants to work -- well, she wants to tutor children with learning difficulties. I'm very proud of her. It was her idea, not mine.
LAMB: What kind of relationship did you have with the kids growing up?
BRINKLEY: Very close, very good. We never had any problems at all. The way to get along with kids is give them everything they want. It works. It works. They never wanted anything outrageous, but whatever they wanted, I gave it to them.
LAMB: You named librarians and teachers in your past.
BRINKLEY: Right. The librarian played a tremendously important role in my life beginning with the fact that my home life with my mother was not very happy. So whenever I could, I left home and walked three blocks to the public library. And I was a bit of a bookworm. There I am standing -- I don't even know where that picture was. Some little stream somewhere. I don't know where that was. I guess I could make up something, but I really don't know where it was.
So I walked to the library and there I would find Ms. Emma Woodward, the librarian and a Ph.D. three times over. She knew everything. And she noticed that I was a bookworm and she took me over and offered to teach me. And she did. She tutored me for three or four hours every afternoon for four years. That's where I was educated. And I went to school like everyone else, but I had the special benefit of a tutor who spent her time with me because she liked me and I liked her and she and my mother were good friends. Again, that's where I was educated.
LAMB: I enjoyed reading about the contest that you entered, because we run these contests here all the time -- essay contest.
BRINKLEY: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: And you meet young people who, you know, succeed in that -- what happened in that essay contest?
BRINKLEY: What happened in the one I entered?
BRINKLEY: I won it. I won it. And the prize was $5. And they announced my name on the air, and in a small town in 19 -- whenever that was, late '20s I think -- that was fame and $5 more money than I'd ever had before in my life, $5 cash. And made me famous locally, got me a job at the A&P on Saturdays making a little money, with which I hoped I could buy a car, but they paid so little I couldn't buy anything. In any case, I then became known in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a writer because I'd written a few sentences in a contest and won it.
LAMB: Who taught you how to write?
BRINKLEY: Ms. Emma Woodward, the librarian.
LAMB: Only Ms. Emma Woodward?
BRINKLEY: Well, I had a high school teacher who also helped. Her name was Mrs. Buro Smith. And she said one line to me that was a turning point in my life and I will never forget it. I turned in a paper one day and she read it and she said, "David, I think you ought to be a journalist." First time that thought had ever crossed my mind. And then it turned out the high school had a program called Cooperative Education or something like that, which allowed you to leave school early and to be an intern in some local business. No reward, except the ability to learn something -- a chance to learn something. And they sent me to the local newspaper, the Wilmington Morning Star. And I worked there and I loved it and since then, I've never done anything else.
LAMB: You have an address in here. You give the ABC News address, Washington, DC. Give the ZIP code. And this is as a result of someone who taught you how to speak.
BRINKLEY: I was working in Nashville, Tennessee, working in but not for a radio station. I worked for United Press, and the radio station was a client and they gave me an office in there because I was doing some little work for them here and there. There was a young woman working there named Virginia Mansell, M-A-N-S-E-L-L, whom I came to like very much; had two years of pursuing her and we became very good friends, talk of marriage. But I think then I was making about $35, $40 a week. You can't get married on that, so nothing happened. And while I was agonizing about it, the United Press moved me away. But I owe her a debt.
She was a graduate of Emerson College, which is was a speech and drama school. And her speech pattern was perfect. She spoke beautifully. And she didn't like the way I spoke. I still had some Southern accent. And she worked with me and got rid of it and taught me to talk as I'm talking right now. It's her work that you hear, good or bad. I'm not sure she would like it if she were here. But she died, so -- anyway, she taught me to talk.
LAMB: But you say that never a day goes by you don't think of her.
BRINKLEY: That's true. I was in love with her, but I was too young, too dumb, too poor to do anything about it at that time.
LAMB: And this little story about looking for the family and the kids made the press after this book came out.
BRINKLEY: It did. Just three days ago, in fact -- a few days ago I got a phone call from one of Virginia's daughters. And I have written to her. We haven't had time to get a letter back and forth yet. I talked to her on the phone once. And now we're all set. I know who they are, where they are. And I'm going to send them all kinds of things. And when I can get it organized, I want them all to get together somewhere. I think it'd be a lot of fun.
LAMB: Does this go down OK with your wife?
BRINKLEY: Oh, yeah. She's a very bright, sensible woman. I've told her long ago about Virginia, my first love. And Susan and I have been married 22 years and we have a perfect marriage, I think.
LAMB: When you go back at the beginning of the Chet Huntley-David Brinkley pair, you talk about, after people knew who you were, that someone came up to you and said...
BRINKLEY: I was in an airport or railroad station -- I don't know which -- and a nice, gray-haired lady came over to me and said, "Aren't you Chet Huntley?" And I said, "Yes," partly because it didn't make any difference. We were like twins almost. And she said -- and if I'd said, "No, I'm Brinkley," she would have felt she had to apologize, but she didn't, so I said yes. And she said, "I think you were very good, but I cannot stand that idiot Brinkley." So I've never forgotten that and I never will.
LAMB: When did you notice first that people knew who you were wherever you went?
BRINKLEY: When they began shouting at me in the streets. "Good night, David. Good night, Chet." They still do, a little bit. It's dying out now, but for that's when we knew the program was catching on. We had several arguments about the closing words, and Huntley didn't like, "Good night, David; good night, Chet." He thought it was sissified. And I thought it was kind of silly saying good night to each other instead of saying good night to the audience. But the producer won; Reuven Frank is his name. And that came to be the sign-off, and it worked because, as I say, it became part of the language.
And when I heard people begin shouting that at me in the streets and out of car windows as I drove by, then I knew that it had caught on. And I as I say, I still hear it once in a while.
LAMB: How did you decide to deal with fame?
BRINKLEY: Deal with...
BRINKLEY: Well, I don't think that's something you decide; you just do it, and you try not to let it go to your head. You try to remember that it's only temporary, it's somewhat superficial anyway. And most of the time, to be honest, I never even thought about it, never paid any attention to it. I was always polite and I still am, but I never -- put it this way: I didn't inhale, and I didn't. I knew it came with the territory. I knew it was television that worked, not so much me. You could put a baboon on the air every night for 15 years, and he would -- she would become famous; there's no way to avoid it. And it doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot. So as I say, I didn't inhale and I passed it off and never was much affected by it. Still am not.
LAMB: What's the most annoying thing someone does to you when they see you out in public?
BRINKLEY: Actually, there isn't any. People are always very nice. No one has ever been ugly to me. They know who I am, and if they wanted to say something nasty, they could, but no one ever has. It's really no problem at all. In fact, it's a very pleasant experience.
LAMB: But you did tell about the elevator rides at the conventions that got to be a little...
BRINKLEY: Well, that was something else. That was a political controversy. That was in San Francisco in 1964 -- is that right? -- and the Goldwater convention. And some of his followers were really rough and ugly and mean and tough, always looking for a fight. And I was in the Mark Hopkins Hotel and so were a great many of them. The hotels all over town were filled up with Goldwater people. The ones I dealt with were in Mark Hopkins.
Coming down the elevator in the mornings, they would make really nasty, insulting remarks from the back of the elevator and pretending that they didn't know I was there. It was all staged. One would say to the other, "Can't we get some American to do the news on television, instead of somebody from Moscow?" That kind of nasty thing. And I ignored it. I mean, I didn't like it, but I didn't want to start a fight on an elevator because that sounded like something out of the Marx Brothers, and it would have been very funny.
But, no, I kept quiet and Huntley did, too. And Huntley was a big, strapping -- he was a cowboy, and had they picked on him in any physical way, they would have been sorry.
LAMB: How did you get along with him?
BRINKLEY: Very well. Didn't see each other much because he always lived in New York and I've always lived in Washington -- still do. And so we were not what we used to call stone buddies because I didn't see him that much. But when we were together, we got along just fine. I deferred to him and he deferred to me, and we worked together at conventions for hours and hours and hours and days and days in pretty close quarters, a glassed-in box usually up in the ceiling of the convention hall. And I talked when I felt like talking and he talked when he felt like talking, and it just worked fine. Nothing was planned. There was no schedule; there was no script; it was all ad-lib. And not everybody can do it, but we could do it and we did do it and did it very well.
LAMB: You say that maybe the strike, where you stayed on the -- no, no. He stayed on the job and you didn't ...
LAMB: ... might have ended the popularity of the program.
BRINKLEY: It may have, but the truth, we will never know.
LAMB: What year was this, by the way?
BRINKLEY: It's about '72, I think. I don't know exactly. I think it was '72.
LAMB: And you both were members of the union.
BRINKLEY: Yeah. You have to be. You can't be on television without being in a union -- AFTRA, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is the name. I raise a question about the term "artists," but anyway, that's the name of the union. And, actually, the strike was pointless and quite silly, but I didn't know that until it was all over. I was told that a strike had been called and I had to go on strike on Monday morning or whatever it was. I talked to my lawyer and he said, "You'd better strike because -- you'd better not work because there are many union people in this country, and you will antagonize them all and it will damage your career." I don't know what Huntley's lawyer told him, but he said the hell with it; he was going to work, and he did. I stayed home and struck, so to speak.
I later found that the strike was totally pointless; that it was all a waste; that two or three or four announcers in O&O -- owned and operated -- stations in Chicago had called a strike because they didn't think they were being paid enough for reading commercials. Well, that had absolutely nothing to do with me. I do not do commercials; I never have. I've never read one. I've never been paid a fee for reading anything. Paid a salary. So I was on strike for somebody who I thought was perfectly silly, and his argument was so weak it was not worth paying any attention to. But by the time I knew that, the strike was over.
What happened then was that Huntley and I began to slip in the ratings, and we slipped for the first time to second place, behind Walter Cronkite. We never knew exactly what happened because there's no way to tell, but we assumed that the strike had something to do with it; that I'd antagonized a lot of people by not working and he had antagonized a lot of others by working. Whatever the reason, we wound up in second place, after 10 or 12 years of being first. And, you know, in television, you never know why anyone tunes you in and you never know why anyone tunes you out. You simply don't know and there's no way to tell. And that's a little bit of television history, which we were both very sorry about it and NBC didn't like it, but they didn't know what to do about it. They couldn't do anything.
LAMB: Early in the book, you indicate that -- I need to ask you this because I couldn't tell what you really thought -- that you might be a bit of a cynic after all these years in Washington.
BRINKLEY: I think I'm a skeptic. A cynic is one who believes that every movement has some personal, selfish motive. I don't believe that. I do believe that in Washington, in particular, I'm very skeptical of a great many things that are said and done in this city. It is a great city for self-serving -- or serving yourself while pretending to serve the public. That's skepticism, not cynicism. It's quite different.
LAMB: You finish the book with a whole section on tax. And I don't know if I can find the quote or not, but there's a quote in here about -- well, let me ask you why you did, and then I'll find the quote and read it to you.
BRINKLEY: Well, because I think it is one of the most outrageous aspects of the government's relationship with people. And I thought it was a good -- since I had been in Washington all these years, since I knew the subject pretty well, I thought I should say something about it, rather than spending a whole book talking about myself.
LAMB: You say, "With all this money" -- you're talking about congressmen -- "With all this money, theirs, to spend, congressmen could buy votes and build post offices, roads and bridges and re-elect themselves almost interminably, and they did."
BRINKLEY: They did.
LAMB: They buy votes?
BRINKLEY: Not in the sense of passing money. They buy votes in the sense of giving an appropriation to something you care about: building a road or building a park or buildings, whatever. That is a genteel form of vote-buying. It's not directly passing money. I never would -- they don't do that. You can't do that. I never said they do that. But they will do favors for a city. I remember when Jimmy Carter was running. He built a tremendous park in some town in Florida because he needed to carry Florida. That's vote-buying. Town didn't need a park; they didn't ask for it. Didn't need it. Didn't even particularly want it. But he built it because he was buying votes.
LAMB: "Beneath the surface of the income-tax debate could be seen one of the less-attractive and less-sensible features of the emerging American character, envy and resentment of wealth."
BRINKLEY: Well, that is present in this country, and you must be aware of it; everyone must be aware of it. It is true, if you are known to be wealthy, you don't want to show it. You try not to show it. You try to pretend that you're like everybody else, because we don't like people to be showy and flashy about wealth if they have it. It's regarded as bad taste. And I believe it originated with the Puritans, who came to this country in the 15th century. And they thought money was evil and the pursuit of money was evil, and they preached that from the pulpits on Sundays for years and years. And it took, because there's still some of that in our character.
LAMB: When you start the book out, you talk about the fact that if abortion were legal back in the early days, you might not be here.
BRINKLEY: That's true.
BRINKLEY: Because my mother and I were -- well, my mother was embarrassed, because when I was born, she was 42 years old. And in her time, in her place -- small town, Protestantism -- that was regarded as very poor form, a very bad idea. You did not have babies at that advanced age, as they saw it. I think there may have been some real reason for it. It hasn't been too long since childbirth was dangerous. Often, there were infections. Every once in a while, I would read in the family history that this one or that one "died in childbirth" because without modern medicine, without antibiotics, without any really effective medications, infections were frequent and, very often, the mother died.
And so, for that reason and the others and other reasons, it was thought to be a bad idea to have a baby that late in life, 42. And, you know, there's still some of that around. I don't know what the exact age is now, but there are many women I know who believe themselves to be too old to have babies because it's dangerous. And so, anyway, for that and other reasons, my mother didn't want me and all -- made it clear all of her life, until she got much older. And the ladies in the church, her Presbyterian church -- she faithfully attended -- gossiped about it behind her back, and she heard about it, of course. And it hurt her deeply. And it was a very bad, sad incident in her life, because in that time and that place, women didn't do that.
LAMB: You say that "For 30 years, she tortured her husband, my father, and finally forced him out of their bedroom and forced him to sleep in another bedroom alone."
LAMB: Why, do you think?
BRINKLEY: I never really knew, because neither of them ever discussed anything like that with me, but I did know they didn't get along. I did know that he did not welcome her company. She was a very cold woman, and she certainly must have been cold with him, because, as I say, she forced him to sleep in another bedroom, and I remember that. At the time, I didn't think anything of it because I was just a child, but now I recall it all quite vividly that they did not get along at all.
LAMB: What was your relationship with your father?
BRINKLEY: With my father, very good. He was a very kind, nice, pleasant, likable man, but I didn't know him very long, because he died when I was 6 years old, so I never got to know him all that well. But when I did know him, he was very nice.
LAMB: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
BRINKLEY: Two of each, total of five of us.
LAMB: Any of them alive?
BRINKLEY: No. I'm the last. I was much, much younger than the others, and my last sibling was a sister, Mary, who died about -- this winter, this fall.
LAMB: What about Margaret? Who did she work for?
BRINKLEY: She worked for the local power company. She was the vice president of something; I don't know what. She had some kind of fancy title. It's called a tidewater power company. And she worked there as something; I don't know what.
LAMB: Did she stay there her whole life?
LAMB: And Mary went to work for Senator McCarthy?
BRINKLEY: She did. I never knew quite how that happened, because suddenly, one day, she called and said, "I'm working for Senator McCarthy. I'm his executive secretary." Well, I detested McCarthy.
LAMB: Joe McCarthy.
BRINKLEY: Joe McCarthy -- Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, the Communist hunter who never caught one. And she worked for him, and I hated him and she was loyal. She didn't love him, but she worked for him and took his money, so she was loyal. We had to agree never to discuss it because it always wound up in a screaming match. And I hated him and she didn't. She didn't love him, but she felt a need to defend him because she worked for him. So we finally had to declare a truce and never discuss it, so that's what happened. We simply didn't discuss it.
LAMB: But you did tell a story about how he went out and waved some papers in the air and said, "There are 250 Communists in the State Department," and eventually, you got your sister to tell you what was on that paper.
BRINKLEY: That was after he died.
LAMB: And what was on the paper?
BRINKLEY: Nothing. Little scribbles about the speech he was about to make.
LAMB: Did she know that all along?
BRINKLEY: Well, she knew it when I asked her. I don't know exactly when she learned it, but it must have been the day it happened, because he was in Wheeling, West Virginia, to talk to a Republican women's club. And so far as we had known up to that time, McCarthy's real interest in the political life was in veterans' housing. And that was what he said when he came to town; he wanted to do something about it -- and veterans coming back from the war. This was soon after the end of the war. He wanted them properly housed and he wanted government to help. That was his program. And it was OK. It was a reasonable, decent thing to do.
But that really was not what he wanted. He wanted to be famous, and he didn't care how he did it. And the one thing I was never able to find out was what led him to tell the huge lie he told in his speech to the Wheeling, West Virginia, women's club. He said, "I have in my hand, on this piece of paper, the names of 205" -- varied from time to time -- "205 Communists on the payroll of the State Department and making policy for this country. The secretary of State knows it and will do nothing about it." How he came up with that lie -- just total lie, complete and total lie -- where he got that, I never could find out. I asked Mary; she wouldn't tell me or said she didn't know, which I doubt it. But in any case, that's where it started. And he was deeply, profoundly disgusting.
LAMB: You know, this sentence at the beginning of that chapter says, "In Washington, a city already well-supplied with your ordinary, everyday liars, nobody could lie like McCarthy."
BRINKLEY: That's true.
LAMB: How have you, over the years, detected when somebody's lying in this town?
BRINKLEY: Well, they tell you, "I'm all in favor of this bill," and then they vote against it. Or they do all they can to undermine it because they don't really like it, but for political purposes, they will say they like it, and that kind of thing. It's kind of a mild, essentially harmless lying, self-serving. It just goes on in Washington by the hour.
LAMB: You say that John F. Kennedy's father thought you won the election for him.
BRINKLEY: So he said. I never understood why, but by then, he had had a stroke, as you may know. He was confined to a wheelchair, so he had to look at television all day and every night. And somehow he got the idea that my treatment of him on the air had elected him. I can't imagine why he would have said that, but he did say it and he did think it and he did tell it to several people, who then told it to me. I talked to him once in a while when he was housebound, crippled. He never said anything like that to me.
But I guess he reached that conclusion on the basis of what he saw on television. And I was there every night. And we covered Kennedy very thoroughly when he was running. I went with him to West Virginia when he ran in the primary there and won it, which proved, to his satisfaction, that his Catholicism was not a drawback; that Protestants would very happily vote for a Catholic if they thought he was good. And so they voted for him. He won the West Virginia primary.
LAMB: You say that you liked him better than Chet Huntley, John Kennedy.
BRINKLEY: Oh, yeah, but that's such a small difference. I wouldn't make much of it. I did like him and Huntley liked him a little less, but I never knew why because I never discussed it with him. Again, he was always in New York. We didn't have a lot of chitchat day in and day out.
LAMB: How well did you get to know the Kennedys?
BRINKLEY: Pretty well. I got to know Bobby and Ethel and some of the others better than I knew John, the president, but I did know them all and -- because they knew me and they would -- television was, for the first time, a really important element in a presidential election, and they knew it because they were young and they had grown up with television; previous presidents had not. And so that's just how it turned out.
LAMB: You tell a story about a dinner one night at The Jockey Club and you make mention that the Kennedys never pick up a tab.
BRINKLEY: Well, they're famous for that, not just on that occasion, but on many others. They're still that way. My wife and I went to The Jockey Club, which was then new.
LAMB: Here in town.
BRINKLEY: Yeah, now the Ritz Carlton Hotel. It was then called the Fairfax Hotel, I think. Anyway, they had a row of little, small, square tables in the back. And my wife and I went in for dinner and we sat at one of those tables -- alone. Nobody else in the restaurant. It was a little early. And then one by one, the members of the Kennedy group drifted in, Bobby and Ethel and Arthur Schlessinger and his wife, Ruth, and then Teddy and his then wife Joan and so on down the list. And they gradually filled up this row of tables.
And they all ordered whatever they wanted, as we did, my wife Ann then. When the check came, I had been the first to arrive, and so they assumed I was the host, which I was not. I didn't invite any of them. I didn't have anything to do with their coming to The Jockey Club. I was glad to see them, but they were not my guests. And the check was about $2,000. And all the Kennedys were richer than I was. I wasn't making much money then. And I sort of handled the check around and waved it about a bit, hoping somebody would notice -- some of them. They owed the money; I didn't. Nobody made a move, so I paid it. You will notice, I have not forgotten it. It's not the money; it was the rudeness of it that I remember.
LAMB: Why do you think, over the years, they've developed this habit of not picking up tabs?
BRINKLEY: I have no idea why. I don't know why anyone would, particularly when they're very prosperous to begin with. They're mostly quite rich people.
LAMB: And you never said anything to them?
BRINKLEY: No. What would you say? I mean, I couldn't do that. What would I do? Take that check and work my way down all those tables, saying, "Now, let's see, who had the asparagus?" You can't do that. I'm not that big a fool, so I couldn't do it.
LAMB: Did you ever worry about getting too close to any politician?
BRINKLEY: No. I think I could always control myself and control my feelings and -- no. Not at all.
LAMB: You're on somebody's farm or you're out near a creek somewhere and you're having a picnic, and all of a sudden, a helicopter lands nearby.
BRINKLEY: Right. Right. The firm belonged to a longtime friend of mine named George Kephart, who had a firm in Poolesville -- quite beautiful -- and a little stream running through it. It was really nice, idyllic. And one Sunday afternoon, we went to a picnic and we cooked hamburgers and so on out by a beautiful little stream. And suddenly, we heard a helicopter coming close by and they landed right here. It disturbed the fire and started a fire in the grass and blew the paper napkins -- it was a mess. And the pilot stepped out and said he was looking for the Brinkleys. And I said, "Well, here I am. What do you want?" He said, "President Johnson is at Camp David," which is nearby, "and he wants you and your wife to come over for dinner and to spend the night. And leave your car here and he'll bring it to you." So we did that and we spent the night there.
I saw Johnson a lot before that and after that, and he called me at the NBC office every once in a while just to chitchat, nothing of any importance, nothing worth retelling. And once in a while, he would remind me that his television station in his wife's name -- he owned in Austin, Texas, carried my "Huntley-Brinkley" program instead of Walter Cronkite. And I never quite figured out why he did that; I still haven't. To this day, I don't know why he did it. Some other people in the office, being somewhat cynical, figured he was cultivating me in the hope it would help his broadcast. But his one station in Austin was a small one. NBC had stations coast to coast, including huge, powerhouse stations in big cities. And the Austin station wouldn't make any difference one way or another. He probably didn't know that. And I never knew -- but he kept calling me in the office just to talk. Finally, he'd hang up. Nothing happened. There is no end to this.
LAMB: This is what you write. "I decline to wear any label other than fairness and decency since I know from long and intimate observation that neither political party, right or left, has the answers to our rapidly growing, increasingly dangerous social problems. As for the Republicans and the Democrats in dealing honestly with the country's real problems, I find one to be about as bad as the other and both pretty bad."
BRINKLEY: I would write the same line today.
LAMB: What do you mean -- why are the parties, in your opinions, "pretty bad?"
BRINKLEY: Well, because the members of the parties -- there is something about the political animal that needs to be studied. You may have noticed over the years that an unusual number of members of Congress get into trouble and have problems with women. And some friends of mine, who are psychiatrists, like to think that they know the answer to that. And the answer they offer -- and I think it probably is true -- is that the essence of a politician, of the political animal, is the pursuit of power. It is quite true that nobody comes to Washington to get rich because there's no big money to be made here -- maybe lawyers, but not members of Congress.
So what do they get when they are elected to office? They get power -- not money, power. And that leads to all kinds of excesses. It leads to a need to dominate, a need to control and, again, above all, a need to dominate. So that's the kind of people -- I'm not saying that I am describing every member of Congress with great accuracy -- I'm not -- but I'm describing a great many of them -- a need to control, a need to dominate, which is what leads people into politics. They would say they go in with -- for a n -- a need to serve the public. Well, that's all very nice, but I think there's more to it than that.
And so decisions are made on bases other than what is best for the country and what is best for the ordinary people in this country. They have other motives, other drives, other wants, other needs, and they exercise them.
LAMB: Will it ever change, in your opinion?
BRINKLEY: I doubt it. I don't...
LAMB: How come?
BRINKLEY: ...know what would change it.
LAMB: When you sit there Sunday after Sunday and interview these politicians and they now know what you think about them, do you think that'll affect the way they treat you on the program?
BRINKLEY: I don't care.
BRINKLEY: I mean, whatever they want to do is fine with me because whatever it is, I can deal with it. I've seen it before.
LAMB: What's the first thing you notice about a guest when they sit down? When do you know -- let me ask you differently. When do you notice that they're either going to be good or bad for the show?
BRINKLEY: I think I know it before the program, because I already know a lot about him. If I didn't know a lot about him, I wouldn't have him there because it's not a great place to learn your trade; you should already know it before you come. The audience is several million people coast to coast and, in fact, around the world. And so we invite people -- we don't really put it on this basis because it's just not necessary, but we assume that people we invite are professional -- if they're politicians, professionals and who have spent a lifetime in whatever they're doing, and by now they know how to do it and they know what to say and what to do and what not to do. And not all our guests are politicians, but this being Washington, many of them are. So we don't worry about that.
LAMB: Anybody scheduled for the show and not show up, really?
BRINKLEY: No. Nope, except -- let me take that back. On the very first program, 14 years ago, David -- the White House financier -- what's his name? -- David -- I can't -- forgotten his name -- did not show up, but that has not happened again. That was 14 years ago.
LAMB: At what lengths will people go, now that it's -- is it still a top-rated show?
BRINKLEY: The top.
LAMB: ...on Sundays? At what lengths do people go to get on it?
BRINKLEY: Well, they don't do anything outrageous. What they mostly do is write me a letter and say, "I have this idea for some public policy. I have this idea that would help this and help that and be good for the public," blah, blah, blah. "If you like the idea, I'll be happy to discuss it on your program." And that's really what they do. That happens fairly often. And once in a while, the idea sounds pretty good, so we do invite them and let them talk about it.
But mostly, we decide what story we want to deal with, and we decide what person or persons in town would best be able to deal with it, and we invite them.
LAMB: Have you done everything you want to do in this business?
BRINKLEY: (Coughing) Do you edit? Well, let me put that in the record. Well, this business -- I've been in radio. I've been in television. I've written for newspapers. I've written for wire services and I've written books. I haven't done all I want to do in all of those fields, no.
LAMB: What's left?
BRINKLEY: I don't know. I don't know. I just know I'm not ready to quit and disappear.
LAMB: You indicate here that the next conventions may be your last.
BRINKLEY: Probably will be, because I've had enough of them. I would like to spend the time doing something else. I will have done 22 political conventions, and that truly qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment and is, therefore, unconstitutional. I don't want to do any more of them. There's a certain sameness about them. There's a certain silliness about them, a certain element of time-wasting about them. And for a time, I enjoyed them because they were new, and the public enjoyed them.
But then pretty soon -- sometime in the '60s -- I think, we began to notice the audience was leaving us and drifting away and that one year -- I've forgotten which one -- we noticed that some stations were not carrying our convention coverage and were getting bigger audiences with old black-and-white movies. Then we began to see that the parties' welcome had worn out. People were tired of speeches and tired of all of that baloney. So we began cutting back and cutting back.
When we first did it, we were on the air 14 hours a day for four days. It was punishing -- physically punishing. And then we began -- when we saw we were losing audiences, we began cutting back and cutting back. And this year, I don't know how much the networks will do, but I'm sure it'll be one night for maybe three or four hours, and that'll be all.
LAMB: Do you plan to give up the Sunday show entirely?
BRINKLEY: I think after the next convention and election, I will depart that program.
LAMB: Do you think it's going to be hard to do?
BRINKLEY: No. I don't think so. I'm not in love with it. I do like it and I enjoy doing it, but I'm not in love with it.
LAMB: Going to write some more books?
BRINKLEY: I hope so. I don't have any ideas at the moment, but I hope so. That's really what I like to do and that's the only thing I think I'm really good at.
LAMB: How long did you work on this book?
BRINKLEY: I can't say, because I would work on it for a few weeks or months and drop it and come back and maybe wait a year and come back again. But from A to Z, was four years, but most of that time, I was not working on it. I can't say. I don't know.
LAMB: When you write, what time of day do you write?
BRINKLEY: I can write fairly well anytime, but early morning is the best because the phone doesn't ring so much. And -- early morning is best.
LAMB: And what do you write on?
BRINKLEY: A word processor, on my computer. The first book I did I started on a typewriter. Then I bought a computer in 1981, when IBM first put one out. And I started with one very simple word-processing program called E-Z Writer. And then one of my sons, who's very hip to this -- expert in this stuff, taught me to use Word Perfect, which I'm now using and will use as long as it's around. I love it. It's very good.
LAMB: Do you have a place you like to write?
BRINKLEY: Well, I have a computer at home exactly like the one I have in the office, so I can take a disk and carry it back and forth and pick it up again whenever -- wherever I am. I also have a laptop, which I could use when I'm away from home.
LAMB: But the atmospherics don't matter that much? I mean...
BRINKLEY: No, no, no.
LAMB: ...room or...
BRINKLEY: No. Don't make much difference because it's all in your mind. And if it's there, fine. If it's not there, you can't put it in. So...
LAMB: Ask you about some odds and ends here...
BRINKLEY: All right.
LAMB: ...that are left. They just jump all over the place. You say that in the early days of radio that after 6:00 at night, the radio announcers had to wear tuxes.
BRINKLEY: At NBC they did. It was a requirement because NBC then was -- it was the foremost network. It was the first network. It's the oldest network. For a time, CBS, in many ways, was better, particularly in news. But NBC and RCA, which owned it then, were the foremost forces in broadcasting. It was a chairman of RCA who thought of the idea of radio; of having a little box in your house which would bring you news and music and so on. It was his idea. David Sarnoff was his name, and he, very busily and eagerly, later worked on developing television, and they did develop it. The system we use today is the RCA system.
So naturally, RCA and NBC thought of themselves as the grand leader in broadcasting. They wanted to be known as such, and so they required announcers, after 6 PM, to wear tuxedos, even though the audience couldn't see them. They thought it gave them a greater sense of confidence in themselves and improved their performance on the air and so on. That's what they thought.
LAMB: Did you ever wear a tuxedo?
BRINKLEY: No, because I never was an announcer.
LAMB: You say that the reaction to the Churchill speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, was negative in the press around this country.
BRINKLEY: It was.
LAMB: What was the speech, first of all?
BRINKLEY: It was the Iron Curtain speech. When he came to this country, because he thought we did not fully understand how ugly and obnoxious and aggressive Joseph Stalin was being even -- in Russia, the Soviet Union, even though the war was over. And he was quite right, as he always was. It was after that that they went into Hungary with tanks. And...
LAMB: Do you remember the year of the speech? Fifties?Or is it the late '40s?
BRINKLEY: I don't know. I'm ….these days.
LAMB: The reason I ask that, Winston Churchill, when he got there, wouldn't allow television lights, and so, therefore, they didn't televise it.
BRINKLEY: That's right, we didn't, because he said the lights were too bright in his eyes while he was trying to read his speech, so we didn't do television; we did radio. And to this day, there is no picture of that. It was one of his great speeches, and everything he said was true.
LAMB: Why did the Chicago Sun-Times...
BRINKLEY: I do not know and I've never understood that. In going back later and reading the papers, what they said about him, I think they were very eager to believe that the Russians were willing now to behave, to be a decent country, to be civilized, to stop killing people, to stop grabbing other countries' territory. And when Churchill, in his speech, said that was not the case and the Russians were being ugly and -- they didn't like it, didn't want to hear it because they didn't believe it. It was proved he was right when they went into Hungary with tanks shortly after that. So even the London Times, the worst of all of them -- I couldn't understand it fully at the time. I think I understand it now, but I'm not sure.
LAMB: Did you ever interview Wintston Churchill?
BRINKLEY: No. No, I don't think he ever gave interviews. I covered his funeral. I covered his speech in Fulton. I covered his various doings in London because I spent a fair amount of time there in those years. But an interview, no.
LAMB: Along these lines, you said the first time that you saw FDR up close, you were surprised by how he looked?
BRINKLEY: I was. He looked terrible. He looked like a very, very sick man.
LAMB: Hadn't on television or hadn't in the movie news -- the Movie Tone news? You couldn't tell what he looks like?
BRINKLEY: You couldn't tell it. No. It was all black and white. And the striking fact about his appearance was that he was gray. He had no color in his face whatever. He looked as if he was in black and white when, in fact, he was in color. And he really looked sick and weak. And I was astonished, because I had never seen him in person before; I'd only seen the newsreel pictures. There was no television. And I did not see how he could live much longer. I'm not claiming that I knew -- I was a doctor; I wasn't. But, in fact, he did die fairly soon after that.
LAMB: What have you found, from interviewing over the years and doing stories, that television does to people? What's the difference between what you and I see of each other than what the folks see watching it at home?
BRINKLEY: Well, first, tell me, what are we doing? What ...
LAMB: Well, just like talking here. I mean, if somebody meets you, do they say, "Oh, my goodness, you're a lot taller than I thought you were," or, "You ..."
BRINKLEY: Well, I do hear that, because they only see from here up. They think I'm five feet tall. And oddly enough -- I find it amazing -- the newspaper cartoonists always caricature me and other people on television, and whenever they character me and draw a picture of me, I'm about this high, because that's what they think. I don't really care, but it's kind of funny. Huntley and I were the same height exactly; we're both 6'2". But somehow on the air, I look short, and they draw me as a little, tiny person. OK. Fine.
What do people -- I think television delivers a fairly accurate portrayal of whatever it is showing, certainly an occasion like this: two guys talking. No great production values are called for. Neither of us will ever win any beauty contest, nor would we enter. I think on television, we look about as we are, and they hear what we say, and if it's worth listening to, which is sometimes doubtful, I think they get a pretty good impression except for that one thing about making me this tall. Except for that, I think they get a pretty good picture of what we're showing them.
LAMB: You say that you haven't been on a presidential campaign trip since Nelson Rockefeller. How come?
BRINKLEY: Well, I'm almost embarrassed to tell it, because it's -- I hate to talk about it. He was running for president, traveling the country, and I was traveling with him part of the time; not all the time. And until I began to notice it -- this was when television was much newer and much more of a novelty than it is now. And I was on the air every night then, and wherever I went in those days, I drew some kind of crowd of curiosity seekers and so on. And Rockefeller was not a terribly strong candidate for president; he was rather weak, in fact, and did poorly when the voting began. But in any case, during the campaign, I began to notice and he began to notice that more people gathered around me than gathered around him, which told nothing except that I was on television a lot and he was not.
But it was embarrassing to him. He was running for president and I was just an ordinary reporter. And so it was so embarrassing to him and to me, and I decided I really shouldn't do it anymore, so I quit. I haven't traveled with a president since. It wouldn't happen now because there's so many guys like me around that it no longer means anything, if it ever did.
LAMB: When did you say, "Attaboy, Abe?"
BRINKLEY: It was at the 68th convention in Chicago, and Abe Ribicoff, who is one of my lifetime best friends, wonderful man -- former senator from Connecticut, former governor, former secretary of HEW as it was then called -- wonderful man -- was making a speech from the rostrum in the middle of all the turmoil of the '68 convention. And the mayor, Richard Daley, of Chicago was five rows back, looking up at Abe Ribicoff making a speech. And he hated Abe. Abe was criticizing him and Chicago. And he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted at Abe a phrase I cannot use on the air, too vulgar.
LAMB: Two words, one begins with F.
BRINKLEY: Right. Correct. And the second one begins with Y -- FY. So you can figure out what that was. And he was shouting it over and over and over. And Abe ignored him and continued making his speech. And I said -- I thought my mike was closed, but it wasn't and I didn't intend for it to go on the air, but I said to Ribicoff, "Attaboy, Abe. That's great." Something like that. And it got on the air. NBC never complained and, in fact, nobody ever complained.
LAMB: Why do you think -- we're about out of time. Why do you think some conservatives think the American networks are very liberal?
BRINKLEY: Because in terms of conservatism and liberalism, they see and hear what they want to see and hear. If they are persuaded that you and I are on the air and we are two screaming liberals, if they think that's what they are seeing, they'll see it. Those are very amorphous, shapeless, formless, difficult-to-identify points of view.
What exactly is liberal? Well, everyone has his own definition. There are 100 different definitions. What is conservative? There are 100 different definitions. And a person who is conservative will never find anybody who suits him in terms of conservatism. So we hear that all the time. It's not true. It doesn't even make much sense, but it's there.
LAMB: Last question. When you picked up your book and you looked inside the flap here, you saw this, which I know you didn't write.
BRINKLEY: No, I didn't.
LAMB: And it says, "He is an icon." What was your reaction?
BRINKLEY: I was surprised. The publisher did that; I didn't do that. I don't know what an icon is exactly in those terms. If I'm an icon, OK. That's all right. I don't mind.
LAMB: Where's this picture from?
BRINKLEY: An ABC photographer took it.
LAMB: How long ago?
BRINKLEY: Two, three months.
LAMB: For the book?
LAMB: And this is the cover of the book. And our guest has been David
Brinkley, and this is "A Memoir." Thank you.
BRINKLEY: Thank you.
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