Personal Reflections on the Life and Death of Peter Jennings

Peter Jennings, the esteemed ABC News correspondent and anchor of the network's "World News Tonight," died on August 7, 2005, of lung cancer at the age of 67. Peter was a supporter of Harvard Divinity School, and I was happy to count him as a personal friend as well. He served on one of the School's advisory boards—for the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life—and was a trusted and valued adviser for me during my deanship.

I first met Peter in his New York office on the morning of April 19, 1993. As fate would have it, at dawn that very morning federal officials had launched an attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, creating a conflagration that killed 75 people, including 17 children. Peter had been covering the story for hours and was on the air when I was ushered into his office for my 10 am appointment. Ten minutes later he greeted me, hand extended, a tired but warm smile on his face. "Sorry I'm a little late, but it's been a busy morning."

Peter had asked me to meet with him because he was seriously considering hiring a beat reporter to cover religion on the nightly news, and he wanted my advice on how to proceed. We talked for nearly an hour about the various ways in which religion affected world events. He listened carefully to my comments, asked interesting and probing questions, and then reflected silently for a while before posing yet another question.

Naturally our conversation turned to the Branch Davidian tragedy, and I wondered aloud whether federal officials had consulted religious experts about David Koresh's theology and its role in guiding his behavior. "I'm not sure anyone is covering that aspect of the story," Peter said. A few minutes later, having finished a phone conversation with his producer, Peter turned to me, a wry smile on his face, and asked, "What are you doing for the rest of the day?" 

ABC News had received an exclusive videotape of an Australian documentary on David Koresh that included interviews with Koresh and members of the Branch Davidian community as well as extensive footage of Koresh's preaching and teaching. Peter asked if I would meet with the team that was putting together a one-hour special for airing that evening and advise them on how to interpret Koresh's theology.

With that, I canceled my other appointments for the day, returned to my hotel room to pick up a copy of a Gideon Bible, made a quick call to my colleague Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to get a briefing on the historical background of the Book of Revelation, and thereby became ABC News's "religion expert" on the Waco tragedy. That experience opened my eyes to the "seat-of-the-pants" process by which major networks put together their news coverage, but, more important, sealed my friendship with Peter Jennings.

He was a complex man—confident but shy, demanding but sympathetic, cosmopolitan but deeply religious. A high-school dropout, he was one of the most naturally intelligent and intensely curious persons I have ever met. He was a "quick study," in an amazing way, able to cull the essential elements of most stories while still grasping the subtle details that might elude less curious minds.

Peter did not easily let people into his personal life, but he was a fervently loyal friend. Despite his insanely busy schedule, he never refused any request I made of him, and attended meetings in both New York City and Cambridge to support the work of Harvard Divinity School.

Despite his strong, confident, and often demanding style, Peter was at heart a reserved and even humble man. He knew his strengths and developed them into a powerful public persona, but he was acutely aware of his shortcomings as well. He was honored to accept an invitation to speak at Harvard on "religion and the media," but in the moments prior to his address, to a packed audience at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he paced, fidgeted, and expressed anxiety about whether he was up to the task.

His speech was, of course, vintage Jennings: charming, smart, insightful, and eloquent. Afterward, showing again that wry smile, he asked if he might have two of the posters we used for publicity to give to his children. "I want the kids to remember that their high-school dropout dad actually did speak at Harvard," he explained.

When Peter asked me to head the delegation of commentators for ABC News's coverage of Mother Teresa's funeral, I readily accepted. Sitting in the New York studio prior to ABC's live coverage (11 pm – 3 am), we were able to see and hear Peter at his Calcutta location before we went on the air. It was clear that a number of things had gone wrong with the set-up there, and Peter was visibly and audibly angry at what he considered staff incompetence. He would express his frustration and then quickly apologize to his New York commentators, knowing that we could see and hear his pique.

He was an enormously self-aware person with incredibly high standards for himself and those who worked with him. That night my admiration for him grew even more, as I observed his ability to direct knowledgeable, respectful, yet honest, even critical, coverage of Mother's Teresa's life and death. He was the consummate professional.

That long night in fall 1997 was the last time Peter and I worked together. A year later I would leave the Harvard deanship and our professional relationship came to an end. Still, when I faced the darkest moment of my own professional life, Peter was one of the first to call me to offer me his support and encouragement. Our friendship clearly transcended the formalities of professional courtesy. I will never forget that gesture of genuine human kindness.

When word of Peter's cancer was made public this past April, I tried to call him so that I could extend to him my personal care and concern for his well-being. Not surprisingly, I was unable to reach him via phone, so I sent him a long and heartfelt email, expressing my support, prayers, and hope for his recovery. When I learned of his death, I paused to offer a prayer of thanks for this remarkable human being. 

While Peter did not speak easily of his own faith, he was, nonetheless, a man of deep spiritual commitment. He combined religious conviction with a curious mind. He understood that religion was a world-historical force with potential for enormous good and evil. But he also understood that faith was the anchor that centered his life, work, and hopes. He was a pioneer in developing sophisticated international coverage of religion in the national media. But he was also a faithful religious pilgrim, always on a quest to understand more deeply his own religious convictions and those of others.

We have lost a public figure of enormous stature, and a man of profound spiritual insight. Rest well, my friend.