Wednesday, August 10

Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

Richard Speer in Salon: Peter Jennings and the Death of Panache

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.


D. Sidhe said...

Yeah, but he was smart, and he was witty, and he was dignified, and he may not have been the world's greatest journalist, but at least he tried. And he reminded us that being smart and witty and dignified is something other than the dreaded "elitism".
And, he was pretty hot.

I'll miss him, in a way that I don't think I will Dan or Tom.
I'll miss him.

Yosef said...

I see what you're saying, DH, and it's pretty much right on, yet, I agree with D.

When I was very very young, Kronkite was still on the news, but not for long. So I actually grew up watching Peter Jennings. He was there for me when the Challenger exploded, he told me about the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism, and countless other historical events. He did it with style, and in an unbiased way, and every now and then, he would throw in a bit of subtle humor.

I think it's the fact that I grew up listening to him that makes me miss him. Certainly, if I had grown up in a different time - if I had watched Kronkite for more years than Jennings, he might not be so important in my view. But he was the anchor I had the most "contact" with.

Hokie said...

I grew up with Peter Jennings, too, and the thought of his type being replaced by the Anderson Coopers of the world disturbs me. Jennings wasn't an ideal anchor, but he was good, much better than the rest at the time, and so much better than the cable asshats.

KathyR said...

I only know one other guy who drinks rye. I think you're OK there. I mean, trying to find a bottle of Old Overalls or whatever that stuff is to buy for this guy is not easy.

Yeah, Peter Jennings was the best of the Dan, Tom, Peter Big 3. But that's not saying a lot. Seemed like a nice fellow, anyway.

I went to a Queen concert at the Forum in 1977 (I think) with a high school boyfriend. I owned Queen albums (mostly presents from the boyfriend). I do not remember them especially fondly. I hope Freddie Mercury gets a poke in the ribs from his personal demon in Hell everytime "We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions," or "Another One Bites the Dust" is played at a sporting event.

doghouse riley said...

Kathy, I don't actually drink rye. It's Highland malts and Booker Noe's bourbon, in case you're making out your Christmas list already. Rye was apparently so far out of it by the 80s that no one even bothered producing a Luxury Premium rye. Your choices are Old Overholt and Jim Beam Rye, and they're pretty pedestrian. But hell, Big Bob always ordered one.

There's also something called Rock N Rye, which has chunks of lemon and orange peel floating in the bottle and is perhaps the scariest thing ever seen on liquor store shelves outside the wine cooler department.

And D. Sidhe, I'm just sorry you're too young to remember when Sander Vanocker grew long sideburns.

D. Sidhe said...

Never been into sideburns, which I suppose makes sense, given that my best preference is for braids.

And, I have to say, I wax nostalgic for Queen myself, despite an insidiously ex boyfriend. As for sporting events, Freddy with that voice, or Gary Glitter with that conviction: you make the call.

To each his or her own, but the Highland malts were good, yes, on those occasions I drank for pleasure.

The sad thing is, we're probably to the point where "seems like a nice guy" is more than enough reason to mourn the passing of someone amidst the Novaks and the DeLays and the Phelpses with whom we appear to be presently infested.

Nostalgic relativism, perhaps, but I listen to Richard Cheese, and figure it won't be too long before his new albums are released Now With 98% Less Irony! but it amuses me more than it bothers me.
If only because if the time comes when the masses find themselves pining for the glory days of Paris Hilton, at least it means we'll have survived the current messes, and, you know, that gives me hope.
Bad taste we can ignore. Extinction is rather more permanent.

Anyway, we can only miss them because they've gone away. We won't always have Paris, and I'm okay with that.

Pepper said...

We were just reminiscing over all the fine hair-metal bands of our youth. Motley Crue. Warrant. Ratt. Now that will make your skin crawl.

But why is it that so many writers and critics are falling all over themselves to pair "Peter Jennings" with variants of "urbane" (as is the case in the quotation you provide)? What was so "urbane" about him? I mean, just because you're not a filthy slob or kinda schmucky, you're "urbane"? Is this the latest trendy adjective?

There's nothing wrong with wine coolers. I like wine coolers.

eRobin said...

The first rule of journalism is you do not talk about journalism. Combine that with the "Never speak ill of the dead" and the Jennings obit writes itself.