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PETER JENNINGS: A REPORTER'S LIFE

 

 

Peter Jennings: A Reporter’s Life (Publication Date: November 5, 2007) is an oral biography.  The words come from Jennings’ friends, family, colleagues, sources and competitors – and from Jennings himself.  Most were recorded in the sorrow and shock of the period between August 7, 2005 – when Peter left us – and August 10, 2005, when ABC News aired a two-hour tribute.  This is from the chapter titled “Citizen”.

 

 

On May 30, 2003, Peter Jennings became an American citizen. He was inspired in part by his work with Todd Brewster on two books and the companion documentary series: The Century and In Search of America. Jennings was also motivated by the attacks of September 11th, which fostered an even stronger emotional bond to his adopted home. But as proud as he was of being an American, he retained his Canadian citizenship.

DAVID WESTIN: He would say, “America is the only country in the world founded on ideas.” He loved the Constitution. He loved the idea of a written constitution and a liberal democracy as practiced here—as much as he understood the flaws in it, and recognized and reported on those flaws as well. But he loved it.

PETER JENNINGS: You won’t go anywhere else in your life where the constitution has taken on the quality of a sacred text. You will not visit any other nation where the claim “that’s unconstitutional” rings with the quality of accusation. Nowhere else you go will the “un” prefix be applied to a nationality, the way that we say something is un-American. You will discover—if you haven’t already—that as you rub shoulders with the world, being German or Chinese, for example, is a fact, but to be American is an ideal….One of the beauties of the American story is that it is itself a journey, that the founders conceived it to be one—and the ideals they set forth were just that, ideals—perhaps unattainable, but worthy goals for a nation of strivers.

CHARLIE GIBSON: He became a student of the country, not just of its society, but of its history. He'd read an American history textbook the way some of us pick up a John Grisham or a John Irving novel. He loved it. He absorbed it.

TODD BREWSTER: I may have actually contributed to his interest in American history—I'd like to think so at any rate—because I have a passion and interest in American history and American culture and American identity. Although he loved Canada and always referred to himself as Canadian all through his life, Peter nonetheless had spent almost all of his professional life working for an American company or working in America. And I think he grew to realize that America was this incredibly powerful important force culturally, politically, economically. And that to understand America more deeply was to understand the world more deeply.

TOM BROKAW: I'm a product of the American West and the Great Plains and it's always been important to me, heartland America. I would talk to him about that some. “Peter, you ought to get out there.” And then, on his own, he did begin to get out there. He wrote the book, he began to take the show on the road across this country, and he would always come back with that same sense of discovery.  I loved the idea that he never quit discovering his new adopted country.

TODD BREWSTER: He began to appreciate certain basic appealing aspects of the American identity that go all the way back to the country’s founding. The project that he and I worked on, In Search of America really was a path to that because he spent so much time reading the American founders, understanding the founding impulses, understanding what a terrific experiment the founders undertook when they started this democratic republic. I think he realized just how courageous these men were, how brilliant they were. He realized that in the work they had done they had created a personality and identity—you could even say a race of people—of which he had now become a part.
As Peter began to understand more of what it was to be an American—some of these very basic, pragmatic values, which put liberty at the top and equality very near it, and which put this element of egalitarianism throughout so many parts of American decision-making—he came to feel that he was an American. We talked about being an American, being a kind of affirmative act: you declare yourself.

TED KOPPEL: Peter was enormously proud of working in the United States. Loved the American dream. Loved the American legal system. Loved the Constitution and everything that underlies the American system. He was tremendously grateful for the opportunities that he had been given here in the United States. But at the same time, he was very proud of having been born in Canada. And he felt it would somehow be disloyal to Canada if he gave up his Canadian citizenship and became a U.S. citizen.

CHARLIE GIBSON: I never had any doubt that eventually he would do it. Maybe it was to honor his Canadian parents that he kept his Canadian citizenship solely for so long. But then I think after 9/11 he felt that it would be wrong not to express the bond that he felt with this country for having gone through what it did.

TODD BREWSTER: I remember a very distinct moment. Peter had always said to me, “Be careful in the prose that we use together that we don't say ‘we Americans’ because I'm not an American.” He would say, “You're an American, and I'm a Canadian. People don't like me pretending I'm an American when I'm not.” Then one day in 2003 he and I were traveling together to Gettysburg, I believe, to give a lecture. He started saying, “Well, we do this and we”—meaning in the collective “we”, as Americans—and I turned around and I said, “Peter, you're violating your own rule. What are you telling me?” And I said, “Did you become an American citizen?” He hadn't wanted to tell, but he sort of whispered it to me. Of course, he couldn't keep a secret. He whispered it to Justice Scalia the next night, I think at this event in Philadelphia. He was totally charmed by the idea of becoming an American.

PETER JENNINGS: It was actually…on the night of [July] 3rd. I'm sitting at a table with Justice Scalia. And he gave the toast to the founding fathers, and I gave the toast to the country. And when I finished, I sat down, and he said…"Not bad for a Canadian." So I got down on my knees, and I said, "Well, actually, I'm an American, but can you keep it a secret?" I now realize how stupid it was to ask a Supreme Court justice if he could keep a secret.

ANTONIN SCALIA: I was surprisingly impressed by that. It made me feel really good to know that here was a man who had been in this country a long time, had acquired enough of a love for it that he wanted to become a citizen. He certainly wasn't doing it for ratings purposes or he would have done it a lot sooner. He just finally decided that this was the country he wanted to be part of.

GRETCHEN BABAROVIC: I think he kept it private because he did not want people to think that he was using his citizenship for any other reason than that he was proud to be an American, that he felt that he wanted to become an American citizen, that he had fallen in love with his adopted country, and that he truly respected her. He didn't want people to think there were any ulterior motives.

PETER JENNINGS: I thought my timing was perfect: Just when America seems to be most misunderstood—both to the world and, at times, even to herself—just when the shock of a foreign attack has jolted the nation into a dramatic shift of behavior—some of it laudable, some of it frightening. Just when America, fresh from leading the free world to victory over the Communist menace of the twentieth century, is faced with leading the free world against the menace of terrorism and fanaticism in the twenty-first century. I thought it was a good time to be an American, to embrace the ideals that made the nation in Lincoln’s words, “the last best hope of mankind.” For at her best, she still is.

JON BANNER: He was like a kid in a candy shop. He was so giddy over the idea of being able to vote in his first presidential election. He was so excited to go serve on a jury. I mean, his passion for everything extended to the passion that he became an American citizen. It was just unbelievable. The summer he became an American citizen was my first summer as his executive producer and I was trying to think of something to buy him for his birthday…so I called up and had a flag that had flown over the Capitol put in a box. On the bottom of the box I put: “Peter Jennings, who went in search of America and found it.”

PETER JENNINGS: I aspire to be a good American. And I aspire to stand for the best American values. That’s not easy. It takes work… So, I aspire to be a good American means to see the best of America, but it’s also to see the bad, and to work in a responsible way to try to make that which is bad better, and to relish the best in the country. It is an exceptional country.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think he enjoyed the cacophony of America. America is big and complicated and noisy and difficult. Nothing about America is tidy. I suspect that he wanted to be a part of that untidiness that is the United States. Canada is a wonderful place, but it’s a smaller and more homogeneous population. There’s something about America that is complicated. You either like its complications and its cacophony or you find it overwhelming. And Peter liked its cacophony. He liked its complications.

ALAN ALDA: Once, Peter gave me a copy of the Constitution that you could carry in your pocket, and he said, “I carry this around with me everywhere I go. Carry it around with you. When you're in an airport and you have a few minutes, take it out and read it.” I kept it by my bedside instead of carrying it around. I'm going to carry it around from now on. I'll remember him by it. He's right, you know. If you just open that up and look at it, you find out a lot about who we think we are and who we are meant to be.

PETER JENNINGS: The late Chief Justice [Warren] Burger was the one who encouraged me to carry a copy of the Constitution in my back pocket, as he always did. On the July Fourth weekend I was asked to read the Declaration of Independence aloud to a group celebrating, somewhat rowdy friends. As I did, the room sank quickly into silence as they absorbed the meaning of that eloquent insistent declaration by Jefferson that the new Americans sought justice. Today, in the midst of the global revolution, one of the most challenging questions is whether the durable language of a handful of American eighteenth century intellectuals will continue to provide the framework for a successful 21st century government.

Notes:

"You won’t go anywhere…” Commencement address, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, May 25, 2002.

"It was actually…” Interviewed by Larry King, Larry King Live, CNN, Sept. 8, 2003.

"I thought my timing…” from a speech given to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, Cambridge Lectures Meeting, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, July 21, 2003.

"I aspire to be a good American…” From the uncut interview with Peter Jennings and Reader’s Digest (Frank Lalli), August 7, 2002.

"The late Chief Justice [Warren] Burger…” Speech upon presenting the forty-third annual Silver Gavel Awards, American Bar Association, Annual Meeting, New York, NY, July 11, 2000.

Adaped from PETER JENNINGS: A REPORTER'S LIFE, edited by Kate Darnton, Kayce Freed Jennings, and Lynn Sherr. Copyright © 2007 by The Peter Jennings Foundation, published by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.