Remember Tom Selleck having to diaper the baby abandoned on the doorstep of his bachelors-three penthouse? Or Kevin Costner persuading a prairie-wary partner to dance? Virile vulnerability sells—as NBC learned the night of Jan. 20. The network suddenly cut from an NFL playoff game to Dhahran. There a correspondent, dashingly bomber-jacketed against the chilly night wind, began to deliver to an audience of 31 million a breathless report on the latest Scud missiles raining on Saudi Arabia.
Arthur Kent went out on the roof of the Dhahran International Hotel a vaguely familiar face—at 37 he had already won back-to-back Emmys for foreign reporting—and came back a star. Within days of his first report, captivated female viewers were starting fan clubs for the (unmarried) hero they knew as the Scud Stud or the Desert Fox. There were mash letters in the thousands and pleading faxes: “I’m 27, sane and healthy, hardworking and not bad looking,” wrote a “social anthropologist” who proposed that Kent join her for some R & R on Pemba, a remote island off the east coast of Africa. Care packages that reached him were stuffed with goodies ranging from sweet (fudge) to motherly (dental floss) to grandmotherly (a hand-crocheted vest). Kent made stateside gossip columns (one newly revealed tidbit: his close friendship with a New York City-based Reuters reporter), and heady rumors swirled of a postwar assignment on Today.
But in Dhahran, the Canadian-born Kent found it easy to shrug off Arthurmania; he was too busy sound-biting the military hand that fed the press: “The government decided truth could be squeezed through a bottleneck, and they squeezed it awfully tight. They took control of the story to a worrying extent.”
Resisting censorship seems a family tradition. Kent’s deceased father, Arthur Parker Kent, edited the Calgary Herald; brother Peter, 47, is a former NBC newsman who now reports for cable’s Monitor Channel; sister Susan, 45, edits books; and sister Norma, 39, cohosts a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show (sister Adele, 42, is a lawyer). Yet after a decade of filing such datelines as Afghanistan, China, Germany and Romania, “the glamour is gone,” says Kent. “The term ‘foreign correspondent’ once had a gentlemanly ring, but it’s backbreaking work. A lot of journalists are going to come out of this and ask, ‘Are the sacrifices worth it?’ ”
Perhaps not. Like George Bush, Kent is finding that peace has its dangers too. One tabloid tracked down his ex-wife, Vickie Lynn Mercy, 31, who now runs a Gladstone, Mich., beauty parlor. She is far from bitter about the two-year marriage that ended in 1983 (Arthur was as earnest as Clark Kent and a bit of a perfectionist), yet the headline sneered, SCUD STUD WAS A DUD! Kent shrugs it off. “I’m fortunate,” he told USA Today, “most of the skeletons in my closet are dull.”
And there was a memorable guest shot on Late Night with David Letterman, during which Kent turned a question about General Schwarzkopf into a dissertation on the shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy. After 93 seconds, the host butted in: “Will there be a mid-term?”
That Kent “is being trotted around the talk show circuit as a reluctant sex symbol” bothers acerbic Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. “The people at NBC News seem to think they’re Louis B. Mayer instead of Edward R. Murrow. Kent may be a male Deborah Norville…. I would never say he is untalented. but he hasn’t shown us yet the magnificent powers of communication that justify this hype.” Concurs a CBS spokesperson: “Our team dodged sniper fire to get into Kuwait City an hour after the Iraqi troops left. Kent did a good job [from Dhahran], but Bob McKeown and his technicians risked their lives for the best story of the war.”
Naturally, NBC News executive Steve Friedman sees it differently. “Arthur wasn’t just wearing a bomber jacket. If Arthur wanted to be popular, he could have stayed on the roof” instead of going to the front when the ground campaign started. Friedman thinks a Today slot for Kent “unlikely…. I don’t think [coanchor] Bryant [Gumbel] is going anywhere. Where to place Arthur? It depends on what he wants to do.”
Although during the war Kent’s agent, Stuart Witt, fielded “six calls a day on Arthur—everything from network to talk shows to local TV,” Kent’s NBC contract runs for three more years. And he wants to spend it “back in the field, reporting hard news, working with my friends and colleagues in Rome,” his base since 1989. Smart choice. La vita is sure dolce, but if a war erupts there, someone has already claimed the nickname the Italian Stallion.