When Peter Jennings succumbed to lung cancer on Aug. 7, the world lost more than a news anchor; it lost an archetype. Above and beyond his contributions as a journalist, Jennings held an appeal in the popular mind owing as much to the Golden Age of Hollywood as to the "Big Three" glory days of network news. The essence of that appeal, his smooth urbanity and air of cultivation, was the precise charisma that had made film stars Frederic March, Cary Grant and David Niven such icons of sophistication in their day; and it is this same appeal that now, with Jennings gone, is utterly missing from a news universe populated by smarmy Shepard Smiths and hipper-than-thou Anderson Coopers.
It's odd; this hits me on a day I was already pondering my own nostalgic tendencies, to wit: I'm not really nostalgic for much that happened during my own youth. Yeah, I wish the 60s Top-40 attitude would return to radio, and I wish braless women I don't know would stop me after class and ask if I'd like to get high, but that's because I think those things are desirable on the merits. My own nostalgia is for things that were never actually part of my own life: fedoras, train travel, the Golden Age of Radio, those phones where the earpiece speaker hung on the cradle and the mic was on the body and you double-clutched the cradle and told Sarah to connect you to Lem's Hardware. My own nostalgic yearnings come in noir-ish greyscale, not Peter Max day-glo. I have no real explanation for that.
But reading someone waxing nostalgic about Peter Jennings makes me wish that someone somewhere had explained nostalgia to me the same way they explained the Galactic Red Shift, with a balloon covered in dots. You blow the thing up and all the other dots recede from you. This is your nostalgia. But those other galactic dots contain populated worlds full of people born later than you, and their nostalgia will be your Painful Enough To Live Through the First Time. And it will never get any better. First disposable commercial anachronistic "fun" like Freedom Rock or the return of Disco will zoom past you accompanied by Doppler sound effects, and you think that little shudder you felt was just the breeze it created. Next thing you know, that audience is in its thirties and getting down to the serious business of pining away for its lost youth, and people are actually remembering Queen fondly. Or elbowing each other in the ribs about some Commodore 64 screen capture. Once that one whooshes by you you know those goosebumps aren't due to a temporary temperature drop. It's the chill of the grave. And under the circumstances it doesn't seem all that bad.
'Cause Peter Jennings will always represent, to me, the rapid downward spiral of television news from, well, news to entertainment. He's not Cary Grant; he's the guy in the prop Burberry reporting from London in case the semi-literate couldn't figure out why it was called World News Tonite. Nothing against Peter, mind you, who turned into a pretty good newsman and was by far the best of the lot in the aftermath of 9/11. It's just that his job was to look like Cary Grant's stand-in while ABC skewed its reporting to the right, and now somebody's nostalgic for that because 1) he was never aware it was a shell game to begin with and 2) things have gotten so much worse that yesterday's ratings pandering looks like reasoned discourse. And it just depends on where you were standing at the time. So I'll have a shot of rye, bartender. Make it a double. Unless it's become trendy.