He had, beyond his obvious gifts as a broadcaster, an uncanny ability to see the play of events a step or more ahead of everyone else. I recall small things — Peter’s order to move a correspondent to Cap Haitien, as the crisis in Haiti deepened in 1993; his almost instant understanding that the arrest of Juan Augusto Pinochet would have implications far beyond the fate of the former dictator himself. I remember Peter’s insistence that we cover religion in America more regularly, and American conservatism, too — long before it became fashionable to refer to a “red” or “blue” America. I remember Peter saying, when we reported the death of someone who he thought might not have merited a mention on the evening news, “When Mother Teresa dies, we’d better do a long and beautiful obituary.” (In the event, she died soon after Lady Diana — whose passing had been, in Peter’s view, over-covered and unnecessarily dramatized. Peter traveled to Calcutta, to cover the funeral.)
Small things. But of course we remember his prescience on larger, more substantial matters as well. In March 2003 as U.S. forces massed on Iraq’s borders, Peter traveled to Kuwait to speak with American commanders. During the trip he conducted a lengthy interview with General Tommy Franks, the man preparing to lead the invasion. It was a good interview — interesting in many ways — but what I remember most is a bruising exchange about an issue that at the time seemed distant, almost off-point, to the rest of us.
“Do you have enough men to win the peace?” Peter asked.
General Franks parried with answers about his preparedness for war. “We have sufficient military capacity to do the job that America’s military would be asked to do.”
“Enough to win the peace?” Peter asked again.
Franks dodged again, Peter pressed again, and for a time it appeared that Peter was badgering the general. Some of us felt uncomfortable about it. But Peter felt the question had to be asked. Of course now, three years later, it seems an obvious and necessary line of inquiry. At the time, no one else was asking.
So a year has passed. And while I take a moment to celebrate Peter’s life, and mourn again for him — remembering a great friend and colleague who left us at the height of his career, and with so many other dreams and plans left unfulfilled — I am also mindful of, and grateful for, the gifts he left behind: his appreciation of the charge we have (“To think — I am paid to report and then explain events to the audience!”), the awesome responsibility of the public trust, the understanding that there is always a stone unturned when it comes to reporting a story (as he put it, “another side of the coin”) and that there is always a way to communicate a point — no matter how complex or obtuse it may seem.
Peter Jennings detested complacency. He loved a fresh idea; “I am fascinated by everything,” he said, a comment used in many of the obituaries a year ago. “I get up every day thinking that something is going to happen in the world that I didn’t know about yesterday. And I have the opportunity to pass some of that on to the audience.” Perhaps more than anything, Peter had this zeal for living and working and learning and knowing that said to the rest of us, If I am so excited by what it is we do, then you should be, too.
And so we are.
And that — for those of us who still put together the program he built — is the legacy of Peter Jennings.
Thomas Nagorski is the Senior Broadcast Producer for ABC’s World News With Charles Gibson.