28 June 2007

Peter Jennings

The ABC anchor, New Year's Eve 1999

Like many Canadians, Peter liked to pretend that he was Scots. It’s possible that, like many Canadians, Peter really did have Scots ancestry; I never bothered to find out. (No fact-checking? He’d have disdained my sloppy reporting.) But for whatever reason, beneath that suave, sophisticated exterior beat the heart of a man who was perfectly happy to wear a kilt.

Peter never graduated high school, and although this gave him a jumpstart on his career (he was a CBC star while still in his teens, and ABC’s anchor at the age of twenty-six), it also gave him a monumental chip on his shoulder. You didn’t need an advanced degree in psychology to see that his erudition was a defense mechanism. And around the studio, he found it absolutely necessary at all times to demonstrate that he was the smartest, best-informed, best-read person in the room, possibly the smartest, best-informed, best-read person alive.

On the air, this led to his ambushing correspondents with questions they couldn’t answer, leaving them speechless and humiliated, while Peter most often supplied the correct answer, and sometimes a smirk. (At CBS, it was protocol to warn the correspondent what the anchor would ask, or to let the correspondent’s producer propose the questions, ensuring that the correspondent wouldn’t be caught off guard.)

Peter treated his rivals much the same way. All three of the anchors liked to one-up each other, each according to his idiom. Brokaw’s favorite ploy (I was told) was to pretend to pick a hair or a thread off the lapel of Dan’s jacket, while they were talking. Dan, as clothes-proud as Peter was brain-proud, never had a single hair or thread on his lapel, and the gesture invariably threw him off. But Peter clearly relished his opportunities to show Dan and Tom that he was more polished than they, more knowledgeable, more urbane. Peter could pronounce long foreign words. Peter was not a cowboy. Peter was James Bond.

Dan and Tom naturally resented this. Dan liked to tell a story of the three anchors’ going to a restaurant — French, Italian, Chinese, it varied in the telling — where Peter insisted on ordering in the native tongue. The waiter politely replied that he didn’t think that was what Peter wanted. Peter got testy: “Don’t tell me what to order, just bring it.” The waiter returned with a bar of soap on a plate.

One of Dan’s tall tales, it probably never happened, but it’s an illustration: Peter’s defense mechanism could trigger other people’s defenses, too.

Woe to the ABC staffer who rebelled, however. They were expected to take Peter’s quizzes and lectures obediently, even gratefully. I had an opportunity to attend one of these sessions, when I was at ABC to help Connie Chung prepare her contributions to the coverage of New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Peter decreed that this was the turn of the millennium, and as a result no one dared mention again that, mathematically, the turn of the millennium would not occur until New Year’s, 2000. Peter preemptively dismissed such quibbles as elitist sophistry. Most people were treating this as the turn of the millennium, and so would ABC News. Never mind that news programs are supposed to have some basis in provable fact. Granted, not calling it the turn of the millennium wouldn’t have been much of an excuse for a show, and ABC’s plan was spectacular, twenty-four-hour coverage, with top-name correspondents filing reports on celebrations all over the world.

Everybody wanted Paris, but Barbara Walters got first pick. Be careful what you wish for: Barbara was in the thick of historically bad storms that closed airports and roads and uprooted trees all over the country. As part of the program’s cooperative union of the news and entertainment divisions, Dick Clark retained possession of New York City. Connie wound up with Las Vegas.

Her producer, a Texan named Teri Whitcraft, came up with a series of wonderful packages to offer, giving a real sense of the town. As I followed in her wake, I began for the first time to admire Las Vegas, to enjoy the quirks that once struck me as disorienting or annoying. I even began to understand the place — a little.

Teri prepared stories on history, economy, crime, tourism, gambling, quickie weddings, and show business. Las Vegas continually reinvents itself, as local historian Hal Rothman told us, and at the time the town was at the height of reinventing itself as … everything. “Faux” Las Vegas boasted replicas of Venice, Paris, New York, and the Starship Enterprise, and Teri diligently researched it all. Las Vegas was reinventing its entertainment, with spectacular new stage shows and hardly a pasty or ostrich feather left in sight. Las Vegas was reinventing its cuisine and shopping, with five-star restaurants and legendary chefs, with liquor so expensive that Nicolas Cage couldn’t afford to drink himself to death anymore, and with boutiques that sold not plastic souvenirs but sables and sapphires. Teri conducted countless background interviews; she got fantastic footage of the Cirque du Soleil and of flying wine stewards, of Connie in a gondola and of the artisans who created all those faux sculptures, paintings, and ornaments. With so much material, Teri and Connie could probably have filled all twenty-four hours by themselves.

But first we had to run it past Peter.

The three of us were summoned to Peter’s office, just off the set of World News Tonight. As Peter peppered us with questions, it was something like being called to the principal’s office, and something like taking one’s oral exams. Why Peter should have been an expert on Las Vegas is anybody’s guess, but he was no slouch. Without consulting notes, he quizzed us on the people, events, and books that he considered not merely germane but essential to our work. Mercifully, we had an answer for everything he asked (although we did use notes). Connie had been preoccupied with her duties for “20/20,” and had less time than Teri and I to research, but we’d shared with her the fruits of our efforts, and she’s a quick study. She fielded the bulk of Peter’s questions, and Teri took most of the rest; I stepped in only once, when Peter referred to a book the others hadn’t read. Though he remained perfectly cordial, we were all nervous as hell. Then he indicated his approval, and we fled.

Later, Connie got a note from Peter, complimenting her on the “presentation.” We hadn’t merely passed the exam, we’d gotten a gold star from the teacher. Connie’s relief was palpable.

Our little team proceeded to Las Vegas, where we taped more reports, and lined up some live interviews. The interviews required a high degree of diplomacy, because we had no idea when New York would call us: our subjects had to be on standby for several hours, on New Year’s Eve, with the Strip and much of the rest of the town virtually shut down to any vehicular traffic. Appearing on ABC risked ruining a great evening.

Most of our interviews obliged us with good grace. Mayor Oscar Goodman had no worries about the traffic, since a police escort would take him wherever he wanted to go. Paul Anka even seemed to enjoy hanging out with us. One fellow was sweating, however.

Of all the Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, only one was licensed to perform wedding ceremonies. We’d invited him, and he’d accepted. But he’d been booked months in advance by couples wanting to tie the knot on Millennium Eve, and every minute we waited meant he might get caught in traffic and disappoint his customers on the most important night of their lives. In full Elvis regalia (thin Elvis, by the way), he paced the trailer, grumbling and constantly checking the clock. He was not happy when word came from New York that Peter didn’t want the interview after all.

As the evening wore on, it became clear that Peter’s vision for the broadcast had evolved. He was taking fewer and fewer taped packages, favoring live reports instead. Indeed, he’d barely taken any taped packages before he stopped using them altogether. Everything had to be live, immediate, exciting. I don’t say he was wrong, but I do say he was a little late coming to the decision, after we, and so many teams like us, had done so much work.

We all tried to be good sports, but you could see Teri was taken aback. She’d spent sleepless nights on those packages, and she’d had to listen to Wayne Newton sing “Macarthur Park” about eight million times in the editing room, which nobody should have to go through even once. And now her sacrifice was being brushed aside. Her sweet smiling face was starting to look like a cake left out in the rain.

It further became clear that Peter didn’t think Las Vegas was the most compelling dateline on his menu. Maybe he’d done so much research of his own that he’d grown bored by the subject; who knows? Meanwhile, perched on a little wharf that was built over the lake at the hotel Belaggio, with its dancing fountains in the background, Connie waited patiently, and responded with her customary sparkle whenever Peter called on her. There had been fears in Las Vegas (as elsewhere) of a terrorist attack or unruly crowds, but the Strip was jolly, not rowdy. The one bit of honest-to-goodness news happened right under our noses — a fellow tried to climb a lamppost and fell to his death — but we didn’t find out until after we’d gone off the air. Connie even heard a pop, which she first assumed to be a firecracker but which she now realized must have been the poor guy’s skull hitting the pavement. But no, Peter didn’t want to throw it back to us.

The correspondent teams were allowed to sign off at one o’clock, in whatever time zone they happened to be in, but Peter remained in the studio for the full twenty-four hours, never relaxing except after many hours on the air, when he changed out of his regulation 007 tuxedo and into a sport shirt and sweater. His voice was a bit ragged by the end, and he was visibly weary, but he soldiered on, in a superhuman display of physical prowess, of professional dedication, and of massive ego. Yet among those of us who didn’t believe this was the turn of the millennium at all, the question arose: why? This was a non-event. (A similar display from Peter the next year, when the results of the presidential election hung in the air, made more sense, especially after Dan went home to bed.)

During my brief stay at ABC, I didn’t see much of Peter, apart from the oral exam in his office. He didn’t appear to recognize me, and Teri suggested that it would be wiser not to remind him that I was the erstwhile right hand of his rival; even though Connie didn’t mind that dubious blot on my résumé, Peter might. Still, the lack of recognition struck me as curious, because Peter and I had met several times, and socialized together at private parties when I was still at CBS.

One of those parties was a black-tie Christmas celebration at the home of Kim Akhtar, Dan’s publicist, whose friendship with Peter’s publicist, Arnot Walker, had led to a historic cordial entente between the two anchors. On this occasion, Kim had invited both Dan and Peter, a number of people from CBS and ABC, as well as some of the print reporters who cover TV news. But imagination is the key to Kim’s phenomenal success as a hostess, and since Absolutely Fabulous had just become a big hit on American television that year, she invited the two men who’d won a Patsy and Edina look-alike contest, sponsored by the show’s American network.

The Patsy look-alike was Candis Cayne, who was just at the start of a brilliant career as a downtown celebrity. (Her new movie, Starrbooty, opens soon.) Clad in stiletto heels and a Chanel suit that was actually a little nicer than anything Patsy might wear, Candis was great company, very funny and sharp, and I was enjoying our conversation.

Then Peter walked in. Wearing a kilt.

Granted, Kim’s husband, Duncan, is Scots, and if you’re going to wear a kilt, you may as well do it in a Scotsman’s home. And, with Candis and her colleague present, Peter wasn’t the only man wearing a skirt. But still.

“Christ,” I muttered. “What kind of personality feels it necessary to come to a party and upstage the drag queens?”

“Gender illusionists,” said Candis, “please.”