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Voted most trustworthy of the anchormen.


His popularity brought ABC News to first place.

Peter Jennings, the host of ABC's "World News Tonight," is the consummate gentleman of the day. Impeccably groomed and imperially mannered, speaking in a rich voice that lubricates the harsh news of the day, Jennings radiates man-about-town vibes.

And he's terribly baffled about all this talk of saviorfaire.

"Smooth? I laugh when I hear that about myself," Jennings says. "I do not think of myself as the slightest bit suave. I've been around for a long time, traveled to many countries, and some of those places, I guess, have rubbed off on me a bit. And I am not visibly shaken, so maybe that's it. I mean, the broadcast set could be falling around my ears, and it wouldn't show above the desk line."

But what of the patrician delivery that adds intellectual weight to such puff items as "And now, news of yet another royal birth"? Or the occasional arch of an eyebrow that alters his composure ("For ABC News, I'm Peter Jennings." Up goes the right brow. "Good night.")? And those clothes. What about that impeccable wardrobe?

He attacks the latter question only. It's the one that amuses him the most. "I buy my clothes at the place in London where Mrs. Thatcher buys her underwear," he says, laughing. "They're off the rack at Marks & Spencer, which is a department store. It's the European version of Filene's Basement. I have nothing that I didn't buy there."

He pauses, then continues chatting up the decidedly unchic emporium. His children wear clothes from there, too. He continues: "You know, the New York Times called me up not too long ago and said, `Well, Mr. Jennings, you've made the international best-dressed list again. And we notice that you lived in London.' I said, `Yeeeees.' And then they said, `Well, you certainly must have a London tailor.' And I said, `Yes, and their names are Mr. Marks and Mr. Spencer.'"

Mr. Sophisticate roars, his Canadian accent replaced by a Regular Joe guffaw: "They printed that straight face. I laughed like h-- when I read it."

Peter Jennings cried--tears of sorrow and extreme bitterness, no less --when they first called him up and told him that the ABC anchor chair was his.

"It was 1965, and ABC had a very young news organization looking to define itself," Jennings says. "The network as a whole had committed itself to appealing to the Gidget crowd. And I think they decided, let's make the news appealing in the same way. And back then, I was one of the youngest guys on board. You know, I had my own hair and teeth. And so I was dragged out of the South, where I was having a gloriously exciting time. And stuck in this chair.

"And so I wept when my boss told me I was going to have to do this job. I called a friend within the organization and said, `This is a horrible thing they're doing to me!' And he said, `I know. But you gotta do it.'"

Do it he did--"not too well, but not horribly bad, either," as he recalls--from 1965 to 1967. It was the TV news era of Cronkite, of Huntley and Brinkley. And the green Jennings--who at 27 became the youngest anchor ever on prime-time network television--was horribly out of place. He felt like a bobbysoxer at a grand ballroom dance. "It just wasn't my time," he says. "I was too young." And so he asked to be removed.

Back in the bowels of the ABC News organization, he covered the 1968 conventions and the late '60s news environment. And then he was transferred to London, where he bought dapper suits at Marks & Spencer and established a reputation as a smooth, unflappable operator who thrived in the face of crisis.

Flash forward 15 years. It is September 1983, and Frank Reynolds, ABC's anchor of many years, has recently died. Jennings gets a call. He listens to the offer, which would make him sole anchor. He accepts it. And this time, he doesn't cry.

Jennings' quiet self-confidence ("I knew I could do the job this time. I was ready for it, and have gradually become very comfortable with what I do") is apparently catching. In four years, ABC News has risen from the cellar to the top of the stairs. "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" is the country's second most popular source of evening information. (CBS is first. In New York and in 69 other large urban TV markets, however, ABC is No. 1.)

"It's very strange for me to look at my growth--at the network's growth --because 20 years ago, I never would have imagined this," he says. "I was just 24. And now, by television terms, I'm getting a bit long in the tooth."

With the improved ratings come recognition and stature, which must mean a lot to a man who in his youth was ridiculed for his lack of experience and expertise. In 1986, a core group of broadcast journalists rated him "most professional news anchor." (CBS' Dan Rather was No. 2; NBC's Tom Brokaw was No. 3.) In a Washington Journalism Review survey this year, he was voted "Best Anchor" (breaking Rather's long claim on the title). A Gallup poll dealing with believability in the media ranked him at 90 percent, just behind Cronkite. New York magazine commented in a recent piece, "He's the hot anchor, the one to beat."

Jennings' strengths, which he refuses to list or discuss ("I don't like to talk about my own contributions"), are his own in a field run amuck with borrowed schtick. The anchor rundown, if there is one, goes something like this:

Dan Rather burns both hot and cold--the run-in with George Bush, the "six minutes of black air tantrum" from Miami--many times during a single broadcast. He is judged by those within the industry as the most powerful anchor, the one with the most clout, the one with the quickest fuse, and the one haunted by the biggest ghost--Cronkite, whom he replaced.

Brokaw, of NBC News, is warm, certainly competent, but minus an edge. Tune in and get your news from the boy next door all grown up.

And then there's Jennings. A bit chilly. Thoroughly even. Unwavering. There's a lilt to his voice (he's from Ontario) that suggests calm and good breeding. And then up goes the brow. Out breaks the sly smile. And suddenly, he's the most human, the most accessible, of them all. Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, calls him simply "the anchor of the future."

Jennings shines brightest in moments of crisis. His live play-by-play the day of the Challenger tragedy was deemed the best in his field by many TV critics. He shone additionally during the Reagan-Gorbachev summits and during this year's political conventions, where his unabashed enthusiasm for the process added verve to decidedly lackluster affairs: "Because I'm a native Canadian, I think I appreciate this country more, take it less for granted. I looked down on that floor and saw the process of democracy. And it was thrilling."

And so, after winning a race he at one time could not finish, Jennings is content, if not happy. He still misses reporting, he says, and though he recently signed a five-year contract that brings with it a reported $1.8-million-a-year salary, he is not sure if he wants to gray behind the ever-scrutinized, always-criticized anchor desk. "There's four years left in my contract," he says, "and I'm honestly using this time to figure out what I want to do."

Jennings admits his high-profile post has changed his life dramatically the second time around. There are new possessions, such as the ten-room apartment on Central Park West, which cost around $1 million. And there are constant demands, and insanely busy days. "I get to the office at 9 a.m., and I leave at 8 p.m. And once I get there, I don't lift my head up until the broadcast is over," he says. "I am not a go-to-lunch type. Unless it's in the cafeteria."

The most significant new aspect of the job, he says, is "that it's made me much more a public figure than I ever imagined I could be, or would be. Most people, 99 percent, are just delightful. But then there's the one percent who are difficult."

Jennings' thesis was proven correct a chilly winter ago when three middle-aged groupies trapped him and his family in a set of revolving doors at FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue. The women shrieked gleefully at the sight of the famous handsome face peering out at them behind quickly fogging glass. What a catch!

Jennings' wife, Kati Marton, "eventually extricated us," Jennings relates. And then?

"And then we ran like h-- down the street."

Ted Koppel, the host of ABC's "Nightline" program and a longtime friend of Jennings', has a story to tell: "I have this distinct memory of something Peter did that happened about 20 years ago. We were walking down 67th Street, and we came upon what was then called a `street person.' A very ordinary happening. But this man was different, because he had this very intricately carved, very beautiful cane. Peter leaned down and gave him money, which I did also. But then he started conversing with the guy about his stick, his life, his views. He conveyed such an interest in this stranger's humanity. I never forgot it."

Jennings tells a similar story, one with quite a different outcome.

It is 1971, and Jennings is in a countryside bleached by the sun, working on a story on Bengali refugees. As he walks through one of the many camps, a weathered, elderly man approaches him, drops to his knees, and wraps himself around the journalist's lanky legs.

Help me. Please help me.

Shocked, then confused, Jennings ponders the situation for a moment and then calls out to have the man removed.

"And I never forgave myself for doing that," he says.

Jennings' complexities push him in diverse directions to this day. One minute he is the working dynamo, ordering his troops into battle. But within the course of the same day, friends and associates say, he'll be transformed into the consummate family man--his kids, Elizabeth, eight, and Christopher, five, are frequent office visitors. "My kids are knee-high to a grasshopper," he says. "And there is no way I will devote all my time to my job, as much as I love it. I love my kids more."

Koppel, who's watched Jennings' transformation firsthand, says the recent changes in his friend have been startling. "I've really seen Peter mature since he married Kati [in 1979] and had kids. Peter's really a grownup now, and that's the highest compliment I think you can pay anybody," Koppel says.

Jennings' pride in his family is apparent. Visitors who stop by his less-than-neat office ("My mother used to bemoan the fact that I never picked anything up") will not see his Emmy awards. In plain view, however, is his Father of the Year statue he received in 1985 from the National Father's Day Committee. A question about his children's personality traits launches an affectionate play-by-play.

"Well, both kids are good hockey players," he says. "They boat in the winter, and they're good skiers. And I'm trying to encourage them, without the slightest bit of difficulty, to enjoy the outdoors and camping as much as I have. And they are starting to become interested in national affairs, which pleases me to no end. Christopher loves Dukakis. And Elizabeth loves Bush. And they fight like h-- about them."

As his ABC tenure grows a longer, more distinct shadow, Jennings is branching out. He recently hosted powerful TV documentaries dealing with drugs and illiteracy. And he was heavily involved in plotting the direction of the network's campaign '88 coverage. Other projects--a book, perhaps--loom.

Kati believes that her husband's intense need to succeed and achieve stems from insecurity at not having a formal education. He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, after flunking many of his classes, and attempted to find his direction. He hosted a late-night radio show in Brockville, Ontario, a gospel-hour show of sorts, and he hosted an "American Bandstand" style production called "Club 13."

He is also the only network anchor to have crooned at the Miss Canada beauty pageant. He laughs at the memory of himself, all dressed up and so serious, drifting through a "Here She Is" type of ditty. "The only reason I sang the theme song," he says, still amused, "is because Gordon MacRae, who was the guest host, was incapable of singing it." He pauses. "That's a polite way of saying he was smackered."

In his early 20s, Jennings realized his predicament. "I woke up one day, and thought, Right ... no education. You'd better get on with it, here," he says. And the seeds of success were planted.

"True, I guess I have tried very hard to overcome my beginnings," he says. "I have worked, really worked hard, since my early 20s. But more to the point, I discovered in my early 20s something I had never experienced in high school, which was the joy of working. I'm not a workaholic, but I'm borderline. And I have never spent a day in my adult life where I didn't learn something. And if there is a born-again quality to me, that's it," he concludes.

How does Jennings sum up his career thus far? "Somebody toasted me on my 50th birthday recently, a colleague, and he said of me, `He has got this far and there are no bodies.' That's it for me. I just dissolved. What else would you want anybody to say about you?"

PHOTO : Newsman Jennings and author Kati Marton have been married nine years. He likes her "rich

PHOTO : mind"; she likes his "childlike curiosity."

PHOTO : Away from the often-depressing items newspeople must dispense, the "hot" anchor Peter

PHOTO : Jeannings welcomes a breather on the lighter side with Dianne Sawyer and Tom Brokaw.

PHOTO : Early days found Peter and Kati "relaxing" at home and playing anchor for their children,

PHOTO : Elizabeth and Christopher.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Peter Jennings
Author:Murphy, Ryan P.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 1988
Previous Article:In quest of excellence: Dr. Murl E. Kinal.
Next Article:The Getaway.

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