Brinkley stepped down from his last broadcast, the public affairs program This Week With David Brinkley, in November 1996, ending a half-century, high-profile career marked by the terse, tough-minded manner that made him a unique television presence.
Brinkley's style of newscasting caught and held America's ear almost immediately after he was teamed as "the other half of the hyphen" in The Huntley-Brinkley Report in the mid-1950s.
His first job was as a reporter on the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News, the daily newspaper of his home town. Years later, after he had won recognition as a leading commentator on television, he referred to his print journalism upbringing and said newspapers would survive because of their flexibility and composition -- able to give readers everything from in-depth reporting and background to stock markets, charts and tables.
Following his pre-war Army service and a medical discharge, Brinkley returned to his hometown newspaper, then was hired by United Press (now United Press International) to write radio copy in the Atlanta bureau. He was later switched to a one-man bureau in Nashville, Tenn., and then moved to Charlotte, N.C. Promised that a radio newswriting job with CBS was available in Washington in early 1943 when the military draft was creating vacancies faster than replacements could be hired, Brinkley drove to the nation's capital where he learned that no actual job existed. In his 1995 autobiography "David Brinkley, a Memoir," the author said he walked a couple of blocks to NBC, was hired in 10 minutes "and worked there for 38 years."
Washington in 1943 where Brinkley worked as a news writer and White House reporter was the subject of Brinkley's first book, "Washington Goes to War."
In Washington, Brinkley began fashioning the image of a cynical observer on the national scene, especially on politics whose counsel was sought by many.
Once in 1966, President Johnson dispatched a helicopter to find the Brinkleys while they were on a picnic in Maryland, then had them transported to nearby Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains. There, over steaks, Johnson quizzed the popular newscaster about how he could improve his dismal image among intellectuals.
Brinkley was comfortably set as a radio commentator and a Washington correspondent for NBC's "Camel Caravan" when network executives reluctantly paired him with Chet Huntley, a new NBC hire and former Hollywood bit actor who had been doing a news program in Los Angeles, for the 1956 political conventions. Brinkley's stylized delivery, dry wit "and heaven-sent appreciation of brevity" was on show at the convention and won kudos from The New York Times' television critic, Jack Gould, who called the Huntley-Brinkley team "the first real change in the network news situation in a long time."
When NBC's convention coverage topped competitors ABC and CBS, executives quickly decided to dump nightly newscaster John Cameron Swayze with the much-praised Huntley-Brinkley team, then design a unique newscast that placed Huntley in New York and Brinkley in Washington. The final difficult detail in the planning was how the two would sign off, and the simple closing: "Good night, Chet," then "Good night, David," was suggested.
"We both hated it," Brinkley wrote in 1995. "Huntley thought it was sissified. I argued we should say good night to the audience, not to each other, and I thought it sounded contrived, artificial and slightly silly. We lost. We used it. It worked. It caught the public's fancy quickly. I knew it was a success when people in friendly fashion began shouting "Good night, David," to me in the streets, as now, years later, they still do."
The pair dominated the televised news scene for more than a dozen years. After Huntley retired to his Montana ranch in the 1970s where he died in 1974, NBC, in what Brinkley calls "one of the worst decisions it ever made," announced that the Huntley-Brinkley Report would become The Nightly News and the two-person anchor would become a three-man news team with Brinkley rotating with two other NBC staffers, John Chancellor and Frank McGee. "It was an immediate flop," Brinkley recalled. "We never knew exactly why."
Brinkley wrote that television's finest hours were those 72 hours following the assassination of President John Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963: "From that Friday afternoon we went, as all the networks did, without a halt until 1:16 a.m., the following Tuesday morning with no entertainment programs and no commercials. Such wretchedly terrible news was frightening to people who already were afraid the country was coming apart, and in times of stress we all knew as everyone knew that ugly rumors begin and spread rapidly. We stayed on the air to show the new president being sworn in, showing that our constitutional processes were continuing as usual and giving President Johnson the microphone to speak some reassuring words to people who desperately needed them. All of us in television believed or hoped that in these three days we had helped the American people get through one of the most difficult and frightening times in their history."
On Sept. 4, 1981, NBC announced that Brinkley would retire in October at age of 61 after 38 years with the network, but Brinkley said he was leaving the network because NBC picked Roger Mudd and Tom Brokaw as co-anchors for "Nightly News" in 1982 instead of him.
"I'm leaving because there's nothing at NBC that I really want to do," he said. "The news, which I spent my life doing, is all locked up, as it should be, by Mudd and Brokaw. What I think I'm good at, I really don't have any opportunity to do here."
"I'm not happy to be leaving," Brinkley said. "I'm leaving with great sorrow. I love NBC. I've spent my life here. It's nothing anyone did. It's just the way things worked out."
Brinkley began what amounted to a new career with ABC in September 1981, hosting a Sunday morning magazine program, "This Week With David Brinkley" that included participation by Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts and George Will.
Brinkley turned that show as well into a long-running hit that drew the nation's top newsmakers. He retired in 1996. Some of his colleagues in the news business sharply criticized Brinkley for then doing TV spots for agribusiness giant ADM that appeared on the same show.
Brinkley married Ann Fischer and they had three sons: Alan, a history professor, Joel, an editor and Pulitzer Prize winner, and John, a newspaper writer. The couple was divorced in 1964 after 20 years of marriage and in 1972 Brinkley married Susan Benfer. They had a daughter, Alexis, and lived in Washington D.C.