“I felt a thrill whenever I saw him,” Ted Koppel once said about his ABC News’ colleague and friend, Peter Jennings. And he was absolutely right. Peter’s combination of good looks, grace, class, and intelligence contributed to what Koppel would go on to describe as Peter’s “animal magnetism.” I’m not sure about that, but Peter Jennings was certainly as charismatic as anyone I’ve ever met in my lifetime.
Peter worked at ABC News for over four decades, serving as anchor and managing editor of World News Tonight during the last 20 years of his storied career. It was always a pleasure seeing him at annual affiliate meetings, as he regularly participated in live or satellite question-and-answer sessions as part of the ABC News presentations. On a couple different occasions, Peter invited me into his office at ABC News headquarters in New York City. He would usually shut the door and proceed to talk with me about everything except the news of the day. He always conveyed a curiosity and genuine interest in what was on the minds of affiliates, or Iowans in general.
On one particularly memorable occasion, my family accompanied me on a trip to Los Angeles for an ABC affiliate meeting. It was during a reception at the Century Plaza Hotel that we turned around only to find Peter off to the side of the room with our 4-year old daughter, Brittney, engaged in a lively conversation. It would have likely continued much longer if not for the commotion caused by the clicking of cameras and bright flashes from several photographers who had also taken notice. Peter would later tell me that his boss, Roone Arledge, insisted he fly home via L.A. from an assignment in Moscow just so he could participate in the news portion of the next day’s affiliate meeting. It was obvious that Peter would have preferred to have flown home directly to New York, saying that he was anxious to see his own daughter, Elizabeth, and that engaging Brittney in the way he did was the next best thing! The reason for Roone’s insistence on his participation in the meeting became clear the following morning when Peter questioned Vice President George Bush as part of a panel discussion that included David Brinkley, Sam Donaldson and George Will.
As it would turn out, Peter and Brittney were reunited on January 25, 2000 in Des Moines. He was there to anchor ABC News’ coverage of the Iowa Caucuses the night before. Peter had accepted an invitation to speak to my Breakfast Club the following morning, so I invited Brittney to join us. On the way to the breakfast venue, he wrote a beautiful note to Brittney on the back of a photo that an ABC photographer had taken at the Century Plaza nearly a dozen years earlier. Peter was warmly received at the breakfast gathering held in a ballroom at the Glen Oaks Country Club. We agreed beforehand that he would touch briefly on the previous night’s Iowa Caucus results, which saw George W. Bush win the Republican vote and Al Gore win the Democratic vote. Peter’s remarks then focused on ABC 2000 Today, the network’s incredible millennium eve special which had been broadcast live on the network just a few weeks earlier. The program attracted an audience estimated at 175 million viewers, with Peter serving as the primary anchor for an unprecedented twenty-three hours straight. The sense of pride and accomplishment he took in this massive undertaking was evident.
The millennium special would serve as unintended preparation for Peter’s role in anchoring ABC News’ coverage of the 9/11 attacks just over one year later. The network’s breaking news coverage of that momentous day required Peter to be on the air for 17 hours straight, an effort that many television critics described as “Herculean.” After the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, he told viewers that we were witnessing “a declaration of war, an act of war against the United States.” At a later point in the broadcast, after receiving reassuring phone calls from his own children, Peter somewhat emotionally offered viewers this sanguine advice: “We do not very often make recommendations for people’s behavior from this chair. But, if you’re a parent, you’ve got a kid in some other part of the country, call them up. Exchange observations.” In total, he was on the air for sixty hours in the first week after the 9/11 attacks. In a September 2003 interview Peter said, “On 9/11, those of us who do the job that I do, flew without a net for hour and hour and hour after end…you hope and pray that you’ve had the experience to be up to it…(as) you’re the editor, analyst, reporter, correspondent, ringmaster…the whole thing.” Peter told me in a 2003 phone conversation how the events of 9/11 contributed heavily to his decision to become an American Citizen earlier that year. (Jennings retained his Canadian citizenship as well, becoming a dual citizen of both countries – Ed.)
“Good evening. We begin tonight…” was Peter Jennings’ standard lead-in line as an anchor. On April 5, 2005 Peter told viewers about his lung cancer diagnosis at the end of the World News Tonight broadcast. He would not return to the air again, and he passed away on August 7, 2005. It was an honor to receive an invitation to a memorial service at New York’s Carnegie Hall on September 20, 2005 which celebrated Peter’s career, life and legacy. His extended ABC News family showed up in force: Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Ann Compton and many others. Peter’s extended media family was there as well: CBS’ Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer; NBC’s Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Tim Russert; CNN’s Larry King, Christiane Amanpour and Judy Woodruff; and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, watched the service from a balcony box. Among those offering moving remembrances were Bob Iger (CEO, The Walt Disney Company), Dr. Tim Johnson (Medical Contributor, ABC News), Ted Koppel (Nightline Anchor), and Alan Alda (Actor). David Westin (President, ABC News) also spoke and said, “An anchor is what keeps a ship from drifting into dangerous waters. It keeps us steady and secure during the night, and that’s what Peter was to ABC News.” Peter loved music and the program included performances by Yo-Yo Ma, Alison Kraus, and a special rendering of “A Fanfare for Peter” played by legendary jazz trumpeters Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, and Jon Faddis. Appropriately, an Honor Guard was provided by La Gendarmerie Royale du Canada (Royal Canadian Mountain Police). When asked for his thoughts about Peter Jennings on the Larry King Live show a week or so following the memorial service, the legendary Walter Cronkite said the following: “I think the main thing that he had was a sense of the integrity of the news broadcasts he was doing at the time and a belief that — that television news had a great responsibility to tell the story of the times, the important story, our political stories or economic stories.”
Peter was a very special WINNER. He received numerous honors during the course of his career, including 16 Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award, a National Headliner Award, a handful of Overseas Press Club Awards, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award, and dozens of similar honors. In 2004, he was presented the Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement. And in 2011, Peter was posthumously inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Television Hall of Fame. Actor and close friend Alan Alda said it best, “No one can replace a unique person like Peter.” Amen to that.
“Remembering Peter Jennings” Video Credit: ABC News
“Peter Jennings” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“Peter Jennings – Wikiquote” Retrieved from www.en.m.wikiquote.org
“Peter Jennings” Retrieved from www.anb.org
“World News Tonight” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“ABC 2000 Today” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“Iowa Republican caucuses, 2000” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“Iowa Democratic caucuses, 2000” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“ABC 2000 Today” Retrieved from www.revolvy.com
Gendel, Morgan (June 5, 1986). “Optimism Runs High At Abc Affiliates Meeting” Retrieved from www.latimes.com
Decker, Cathleen (June 8, 1988). “‘We’ve Got to Keep Our Eyes Wide Open’: Bush Disagrees With Reagan on Soviet Changes” Retrieved from www.latimes.com
Gerard, Jeremy (November 29, 1989). “ABC Surpasses CBS in Evening News Ratings” Retrieved from www.nytimes.com
Carmody, John (June 14, 1990). “The TV Column” Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com
From Associated Press (June 14, 1990). “Reagan Drops by ABC Affiliates Meeting to Chat” Retrieved from www.latimes.com
“Peter Jennings Remembered” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
Johnson, Peter (August 8, 2005). “The last of the iconic anchors” Retrieved from www.USATODAY.com
Winn, Steven (August 9, 2005). “Peter Jennings – – a calm, cool anchor in an era when being there defined the news” Retrieved from www.SFGate.com
(September 20, 2005). “People: Colleagues, friends honor Jennings” Retrieved from www.USATODAY.com
Kurtz, Howard (September 21, 2005). “Peter Jennings’s Fans Remember an Anchor of Their Lives” Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com
Grossberg, Josh (September 21, 2005). “Peers Pay Tribute to Peter Jennings” Retrieved from www.eonline.com
Memorial Service Program –
(September 20, 2005) “Peter Charles Jennings”
(September 30, 2005). “Larry King Live: Walter Cronkite on Peter Jennings” Retrieved from www.cnn.com