One night during the election season, the subject on Tom Snyder's national radio talk program turned to the first debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. A fellow from Tampa called in to say he thought Snyder's guest that evening had performed admirably during the debate. A woman from Chattanooga phoned with similar praise, followed by a woman from Alexandria, Va., who said the guest had been "wonderful."
Ironically, Snyder's guest that night was neither of the combatants in the debate but one of the panel of jorunalists who posed questions to the candidates: Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings." A Newsweek headline said it best: "One surprise winner: ABC's Peter Jennings." Two of the questions Jennings posed that night illustrate why he was so roundly praised after the event.
He asked Dukakis about his "passionless, technocractic" style of governance and wondered whether Dukakis was capable of summoning the "passion and leadership taht sometimes a president needs."
It was a question for which the governor was clearly unprepared.
He recited his customary litany of positions and said he was a better governor for having lost in 1978. He did not answer Jennings' question , because to do so candidly would have required him to acknowledge taht the premise of Jennnings'a question -- taht Dukakis does not lead through passion -- was correct.
Another question, this one to Buseh, elicited from the vice president an answere widely quoted in the wake of the debate to demonstrate Bush's sometimes less-than -cogent style. Jennings asked Bush about his remark that he was "haunted' by the lives of innercity children. "If it haunts you so," Jennings asked, "why over the eight years of the Reagan-Bush administration have so many programs designed to help the inner cities been eliminated or cut?"
Like Dukakis, Bush evaded the question. Part of his response was a perplexing comment about "the thousand points of light."
The debate may well have been the symbolic highwater mark of Jennings's career. He has reached a point in his professional life where he could, if he chose, relax a bit.
Two years ago, A Gallup poll found Jennings second only to Walter Cronkite in believability. This year, readers of the Washington Journalism Review chose Jennings as the best network anchor.
What makes Jennings' achievements more intriguing is that he has succeeded without the benefit of more than a minimal education. In fact, he never completed the 10th grade.
Did he miss anything by not going to college? "Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Not only do I think I missed it, but I lied about it for a long time."
After leaving high school, Jennings bounced between idleness and a variety of jobs, including work as a bank teller.
When Jennings joined ABC as a correspondent in 1964, at the age of 25, he found that "here was this big company prepared to pay my way around the world and feed me and clothe me, and I began to say, `What'll I do when I grow up? It's been incredible."
That attitude is the most lasting impression one gathers from a conversation with Jennings. In journalism, which may well contain the highest percentage of cynics in any profession, Jennings remains disarmingly enthusiastic about his work.
Jennings started broadcasting at the age of 9, when he hosted a radio progra m called "Peter's Program," during which he played music and reported some news.
Jennings began his journalism career in 1959, when he went to work for a radio station in Brockville, Ontario. In the early 1960s he hosted two public-affairs programs on the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He later became co-anchor of Canada's first national news on a commericial network.
When Jennings took over as anchor of the "ABC Evening News," he became, at 26, the youngest network anchor ever. His youth and lack of experience showed, and two years later he quit anchoring to go back to reporting. He says not that if he had stayed on he figures he would have been fired about eight weeks later.
For two years after leaving the anchor position, he worked in the United States, then headed overseas.
He was the first American broadcast reporter to set up shop in the Arab world when he opened ABC's bureau in Beirut in 1969. From his base in Lebanon, Jennings patrolled the frontiers, cities and byways of the Middle East. Long before the fall of the Shah of Iran, Jennings spent time in Tehran, interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini when he was in exile in France, and covered the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.
He also covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the presidential campaigns of George Wallace, Barry Goldwater and Eugene McCarthy, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II. He visited Auschwitz with a former prisoner, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and anchored the news from Hiroshima on the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Jennings did a brief stint as news anchor for ABC's "Good Morning, America" in the mid-1970s before again going back overseas as the network's chief foreign correspondent and working as a reporter and co-anchor of the evening news from London.
Jennings worked out of London from 1978 until 1983, when he was named anchor of "World News Tonight."
Since 1984 he has grown more confident and at ease with himself and his job. But he remains, in the words of Paul Friedman, executive producer of "World News," "the most self-critical person I've ever run into. He's very, very hard on himself."
Jennings enjoys ad-libbing, but he also likes writing the show.
A close look at the introducition to the news reveals a number of things about Jennings' writing. First, it is lucid. He starts with a simple declarative sentence but one that contains a bit of sweep and drama.
More than anything, though, it is live television that excites Jennings most about TV.
Jennings' work in live situations such as the Challenger shuttle disater or the hijacking of a plane by terrorists has won him cosistently high praise frm television critics throuth the years.
There are huge rewards for doing what Jennings does. He is paid a reported $1.8 million a year (less that Brokaw, at $2 million, or Rather, at $2.5 million).
He has built a new home on Long Island, where he spends weekends with his wife and children, sailing and playing tennis in summer and, in winter, sailing his ice boat.