Dan Rather, on assignment in Beirut for 60 Minutes, made an unexpected stop last week at Peter Jennings' old house. "I just drove by one of the places Peter used to live here," Rather told Time.com by phone from Beirut. "And thought I'd stop alongside for a minute." Rather indulged himself in a spell of nostalgia, both for Jennings, his longtime friend and competitor who lay dying of lung cancer half a world away in New York City, and for Beirut's bad old days of warlords and war correspondents, when the two men first got to know each other.
Jennings, who died this Sunday at 67 years of age, just four months after his primetime announcement that he had cancer, was unique among the ragtag group of journalists in Beirut back then; just a few years earlier, he had ridden his good looks and smooth voice to the pinnacle of broadcasting – nightly news anchor for ABC – at the age of 26, only to be ridiculed out of the job for being too young and inexperienced. But rather than retreating to a well-paid anchor job in some local market, says Rather, Jennings exiled himself to the Middle East to learn the news craft from the ground up. "Beirut was a hellhole in the 1970's," says Rather, "[but] Peter knew that if he was going to get the respect and credit of his peers, he had to come to a place like this and earn it."
Judging by the outpouring of grief for Jennings, it's clear that he had long since won that respect. He worked his way from conflict to conflict, country to country, rising to Chief Foreign Correspondent at ABC before eventually retaking the job of fulltime anchor of World News Tonight in 1983. Along with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, Peter Jennings formed the steady triumvirate of anchors that would preside over the American evening news for the next two decades. The three rivals had an unusually warm relationship, and when Rather retired as anchor this March, it was Jennings who insisted on a small farewell dinner, which was eventually held at Brokaw's home.
Jennings' soothing on-air presence and personal grace belied a fierce competitiveness and courage that NBC's Brian Williams, who took over Brokaw's spot last year, says makes news of his death harder to believe. Williams recalls sitting last year with a nonchalant Jennings on an airstrip at Baghdad Airport, waiting for a C-130 transport to Kuwait just a day after a similar plane had been shot down on take-off from the same airport. "He just sat in a folding chair, reading a book. He was absolutely in his element," says Williams. "Peter never lost a challenge in his life, which is part of the reason that people are so shocked and dumbfounded today."
It's perhaps fitting that the media luminaries of his adopted country would lament the Canadian-born Jennings' passing; Cokie Roberts, his ABC colleague for almost twenty years, recalls that it wasn't unusual for Jennings to get misty-eyed when discussing the virtues of the U.S. Constitution. He bragged about acing his 2003 citizenship exam, and was eager to exercise his new rights as a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen. "What was so endearing in the 2004 election was just how excited he was to vote for the first time," says Roberts. "Last night, after I heard the news, I got so sad thinking that was the only time he'd ever get to vote."
Still, says Rather, it was Jennings' hard-earned perspective as a foreign correspondent that defined him most. "Peter was a master at telling a story, reporting in such a way that it told people back home why some of these datelines in faraway places with strange sounding names were important to Main Street, America," says Rather. "I will miss him. But I think the news will miss him even more."