Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On The Road in Appalachia - Part 1 - Remembering Uncle Bernie

Uncle Bernie died on Thanksgiving Day. Uncle Bernie was a great uncle. He was funny, compassionate, committed to human rights and the mass consumption of good food, booze and, of course, the best cigars that could be found around the globe. Bernie was a photographer both for love and for making a living. Every photograph, slide and home movie had the same artist's touch that could be found in his professional work. If you ever see a news reel from WWII of a tank rolling over the cameraman, that was probably Uncle Bernie, lying in a ditch somewhere in Italy. Or the stills from Quo Vadis, shot while Bernie was back in Italy on a Fullbright Fellowship. Once, when walking through the wooden corridors of the Larchmont Beach Club lockers, Bernie stopped and pointed out a certain corner under a certain skylight. "I always liked the light at this spot," he said. "I used to take pictures of Amy [his younger daughter] right here."

To the rest of the world, Uncle Bernie was Bernard Birnbaum, a legendary producer for CBS News. He was compassionate and cared deeply for and about not only his family and the people he worked with but also many of the people whose lives he covered. At the age of 89 his big heart finally gave up. With my cousin Debbie's permission, I missed the funeral in order not to miss my flight to Tel Aviv. This is not so unusual in our family. Uncle Bernie would sometimes miss family gatherings because he would be in Italy, India, Vietnam or a few dozen other places.

Bernie went to work for CBS in 1951 and stayed for over 40 years. He didn't just produce TV news, he was one of the people who invented it. If you're old enough to remember shows like Omnibus and Camera Three or when the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite went from 15 to 30 minutes, then you remember what I knew as Uncle Bernie's shows. You young folks may have noticed his credits on Sunday Morning. During his career he covered serious topics like political conventions, the civil rights movement, the Eichmann trial, Vatican II, the Kennedy and Oswald assassinations, the Vietnam War and most of the rest of the history of the second half of the last century. But he also produced shows in a lighter vein, like the report on the Bossa Nova craze sweeping up from Brazil to the USA. Or stories about ordinary people living their lives which came to full fruition with the series "On The Road with Charles Kuralt." Bernie was famous for thinking of what would make a story hit home and then getting it on film. Like the mother of a Boston auto rental clerk who lived in fear of the Boston Strangler or a live interview with Marina Oswald just days after the assassination. The latter made Dan Rather into a national star (and a life-long friend).

Bernie never admitted how he got Mrs. Oswald on camera but his usual technique involved a lot of charm and winning someone's trust. Or sometimes it was just reverting back to his Brooklyn roots. Like that time he set up his film crew on a Jerusalem street across the street from the courthouse where the trial of Adolph Eichmann was about to begin. A man who objected to CBS News cluttering up his sidewalk leaned out from a balcony and started yelling at Bernie, first in Hebrew and then in Yiddush. That did it. Bernie says he told the guy a few things, also in Yiddush, using some expletives that we will delete here. Not 15 minutes later, Bernie, now lighter by two cigars and $50US had rented the balcony for his camera crew. Bernie thought the shot would be better from one story up.

One of the stories Uncle Bernie told me starts with Bernie having breakfast in a bar (a number of his stories start this way). This particular breakfast took place in late November, 1963 in Dallas. Bernie was having breakfast with Fred Friendly, then head of CBS News. They were discussing how best to cover the ongoing story of JFK's assassination. The networks' national news crews were packing up to follow the story from Dallas to Washington for the funeral and the start of the Johnson Administration. But Fred and Bernie concluded that the arrest and trial of JFK's alleged assassin was also major news worthy of leaving a national crew in Dallas with the resources to broadcast live. When word got out that CBS was staying, ABC and NBC also decided to stay. And so, Lee Harvey Oswald became the first person to be assassinated on live television. And, thanks to the then-high tech device of kinescope, his was also the first assassination to be shown on instant replay.

Uncle Bernie also had some of the character traits of an absent-minded professor (this amused the children while exasperating my Aunt Ronnie). For example, there was the time Uncle Bernie sat with Liz and I in his Larchmont living room and told us that he once had the opportunity to get a real insider's take on what had really gone on in Vietnem. Bernie having breakfast in a bar in Bangkok with a four-star general. The general said to Bernie, "You know, most people don't understand that Vietnam........" I never heard the rest of the story. Uncle Bernie suddenly remembered something that needed his attention, stood up, walked up the stairs and never came back to the story.

Bernie produced numerous documentaries over the years. But the one that gets referred to most often is "Christmas in Appalachia." With Charles Kuralt in front of the camera, Bernie brought into millions of homes the horrors of crushing poverty and environmental ruin wreaked upon people living in the wake of the coal industry. Christmas in Appalachia didn't just win Bernie his first Emmy award, it also helped stir a public debate that lead to the Johnson Administration declaring a War on Poverty.

Unfortunately, that war and much of its good intentions got lost in the jungles of Vietnam. Today, over 40 years after Uncle Bernie's show was broadcast, not all that much has changed. I got a lesson in poverty and compassion in early November when I went On the Road in Appalchia with Ranya the Shoe Lady.

[To be continued.]

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