David Brinkley’s mordant wit and North Carolina drawl have enlivened NBC news since he first co-anchored The Huntley-Brinkley Report with the late Chet Huntley in 1956. Now viewers will be seeing less of Brinkley: Last month he announced that he would relinquish the co-anchor spot of the NBC Nightly News, leaving John Chancellor as the show’s sole host. Brinkley, 59, says the shift will enable him to pursue other interests including frequent Nightly News commentaries, the 1980 political conventions and a book on life in Washington during World War II. Some industry observers believe that Brinkley’s departure was involuntary; they trace it to network concern that Nightly News ratings are running a distant second to Walter Cronkite on CBS—and sometimes slipping to third behind ABC’s World News Tonight.
Brinkley may—as he says—have wanted to leave the anchor chair, but friends predict he will never leave Washington, a city he has covered for 34 years. He now lives in Wesley Heights, one of the capital’s best neighborhoods, with his second wife, Susan, 36, and her daughter from a previous marriage, Alexis, 10. Brinkley discussed his career and the Washington scene with Clare Crawford-Mason of PEOPLE.
Are you pleased to give up the anchor job?
Yes, I have wanted to for a long time. I’ve had it. I’ve done the news longer than anyone else on earth—including Cronkite, who came along much later than I did. I’m happy to be out of it.
But many people would consider this the most exciting job on earth…
It was getting to be a mechanical routine. It’s almost the only kind of work I can think of where if you’re good at it, you don’t get promoted. There are only six people in the world who do it. You have to be in exactly the same place at exactly the same time, night after night, holidays included. Even if you’re selling shoes, you get promoted once in a while, you get a new job and a change.
Let’s talk about your years as a Washington reporter. Who were your favorite Presidents?
The first one to ever invite the press to the White House on a social basis was Roosevelt. Truman was the friendliest. He played poker with a few of us on trips. Eisenhower was the least friendly. I always thought he regarded us as blue-collar. Kennedy changed all of that.
In what way?
He invited a number of us reporters and our wives to his first dinner. Publicly and privately, he was always friendly. He was the last President to thoroughly enjoy the Presidency. He had a wonderful time, but of course he didn’t have a war. Johnson tried to be the same way, but he gradually backed off, feeling abused and mistreated over Vietnam. When he decided to cultivate someone in the media he overwhelmed them. Helicopters to Camp David, the presidential yacht down the Potomac. He would call you at 11 p.m. when you were lying in bed reading and invite you to come to the White House and “have a drink with me and Bird.”
What about Nixon?
I was never in the White House except for a press conference or two when Nixon was President—not once, for obvious reasons. He disliked most of us. Ford was quite different, very relaxed and easy, and then there is Carter. I don’t think he has much to do with the press in town.
What subjects will you tackle as a commentator?
I am very distressed about our political institutions. I think they are unrepresentative, bloated and self-centered. I think the American people are very poorly served.
What’s wrong with our institutions?
Politics has become a profession in this country, and I think that is bad news. This is the only country where a young man of 25 will say to himself, ‘I am going to be a politician, and I am going to be totally dependent on politics for a living.’ A member of Congress will get elected from Kansas or wherever, come here and try his damnedest to stay until he retires. He buys a house, puts his kids into school and becomes a Washingtonian. He goes home only when he has to be reelected. I think it is unhealthy.
Doesn’t that create a class of experienced, professional public servants?
No. It creates a special class of people out of touch with the rest of us. They become a separate entity, not part of the mainstream of this country. They don’t really have to earn a living the way the rest of us do. We see the results of that all around us.
What are the results?
For one thing, they spend enormous amounts of money to reelect themselves. They love to set up programs and hand out money to buy themselves votes. This gives us a cumbersome, grossly oversized, overly expensive government which cannot wait to interfere in your private life and mine.
Do you have any solutions?
Yes. I think there should be a limit on how long you can serve in Congress. And I think politicians should not be allowed to stay here more than six months a year, if that much. You know, before they air-conditioned the Capitol in 1938, members of Congress would leave before it got hot.
Do you think your commentary will help correct these problems?
I don’t have any illusions that it will do any good, but it might do me a little good. I regard myself as a liberal, but I think a liberal is someone who primarily believes in leaving people alone and letting them do whatever they want to do.
You were sometimes charged with slanting the news, through facial expressions, by lifting your eyebrow…
I always thought that was silly. I still think it’s silly. People imagine it when you say things they don’t like. They can’t find it in the words you say so they try to find it in something else.
Can television give the viewer all the news?
No. There are tremendous amounts of news we can’t put on the air. If you really want to keep up, you have to read papers, magazines and books. I would guess that a great many of those people who now get most of their news from television, in previous times didn’t get it anywhere. We have increased the numbers of people who get some news, and I guess that’s beneficial.