A Word for a Man of Words: Edwin Newman (1919 - 2010)

[Scott originally published this obituary in 2010 in Net1News. ] 

There are people whose faces and voices make indelible in our minds the scenes, the places, and the times we’d see and hear them.  For me, I remember afternoons in the art studio, my mother working on some project, probably for a client in an oil company office — oilmen loved paintings of wildcat oil rigs, and Mom probably painted hundreds.  There was light coming from all directions, the ever-present smell of linseed oil and turpentine, and from a portable GE television perched precariously on a folding chair, or some such contraption, the sound of something benign and non-intruding, like “Jeopardy” or the NBC game show that followed it — something that Mom could occasionally bark the answers to.  “Ming Dynasty! . . . Henry the Sixth! . . . Boysenberries!”

I learned to tell time using the news.  I knew the news was more important than anything else, because Mom would only insist that I shut up when the news was on — no other time.  As a toddler, I assumed that anything more important than myself must be of royal stature and significance.  So there was a special meaning in my life to 11:55.  It’s when the game show would end and NBC’s afternoon news bulletin would begin.  There, I’d see people important enough to pay attention to, more than me.  That’s the time I was introduced to people like Nancy Dickerson, Robert Goralski, and Edwin Newman.

Edwin Newman was everywhere, and yet it never seemed he got enough credit for it.  He was everyone’s stand-in, the pinch-hitter, the man whose name followed the phrase, “Substituting tonight is. . .”  When Brinkley or Huntley was off, it was Ed; if Hugh Downs was on vacation on Today, back in a time when no one would think of letting Barbara Walters take the center chair, there would be Ed.  He had the simplest, most plain-spoken, most unassuming personality.  He never embellished his sentences.  He had a face more like a sandwich — soft along the sides, meaty in the middle — and I probably began associating Ed with sandwiches as an infant because his bulletin came on at about my lunchtime.

So I cannot think of his face or his voice, or his presentation that was drained of all pretentiousness or illusions of majesty, without remembering being happy.  I’ve always believed that I wanted to be a journalist, along with everything else I wanted to be, because at an early age, I was shown by example that the news was important above all — literally the only thing my mother would shut me up for.  It was the 1960s, when there were four channels, color was something that merited its own fanfare, and news was compressed into five or fifteen or twenty-five minutes of hush time.  There was no time or space for levity or banter or political diatribes.  There was a war on, and at a time when I drew everything I saw or mimicked everything I heard, I’d fill pieces of paper with the images I collected from television: dozens of NBC “snake” logos all in a row, and columns of numbers with labels I could barely spell, and meanings I hadn’t yet gleaned:  “Killed. . . Wounded. . . Missing.”

Later in my life, at the point where a boy decides to either act like the person he wants to become or the person he wants others to think he is, I chose the former.  I reclaimed my love for the English language, the tool that helped me resolve the inner disputes one fosters when growing up among divorced parents.  And it was at this time that the language acquired a new champion, a familiar voice making the case for using this tool as it was designed, not just however we please: Edwin Newman.  Like my other hero at that time, James Thurber, Ed had collected thousands of cases of words or phrases typically born of the need to sound pretentious, but which had ironically become colloquial and used by folks who had no idea of their true meaning.

Ed made a kind of cause celebre out of the misuse of language, or often the use of it to make one seem smarter by virtue of being misunderstood — for instance, using “cause celebre” when “campaign” would suffice.  In his two best-sellers of the 1970s, Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue, Ed compelled people to listen more closely to what they said and why they said it, and to ask themselves why they don’t take as good care of their language as they do their automobile or their wardrobe or their children.

So it was that I took up the Edwin Newman banner, especially after reading segments like this from Strictly Speaking:

Can a phrase be repealed?  I have in mind Y’know.  The prevalence of Y’know is one of the most far-reaching and depressing developments of our time, disfiguring conversation wherever you go.  I attend meetings at NBC and elsewhere in which people of high rank and station, with salaries to match, say almost nothing else.

For a while I thought it clever to ask people who were spattering with Y’knows why, if I knew, they were telling me?  After having lunch alone with some regularity, I dropped the question.  In Britain, a National Society for the Suppression of Y’know, Y’know, Y’know in the Diction of Broadcasters was organized in 1969.  It put out a list of the broadcasters who were the worst offenders.  Reporters then interviewed the offenders and quoted all the Y’knows in their answers when they were asked whether they really said Y’know that often.  Nothing changed.

Once it takes its grip, Y’know is hard to throw off.  Some people collapse into Y’know after giving up trying to say what they mean.  Others scatter it broadside, these, I suspect, being for some reason embarrassed by a silence of any duration during which they might be suspected of thinking about what they were going to say next.  It is not uncommon to hear Y’know used a dozen times a minute.

There were some folks who accused Ed of being a snob or a highbrow after his books were released, but anyone who read them thoroughly learned that he never fought on that false level.  Indeed, he took folks to task for exuding machinations that sounded like high English to the untrained ear, but once examined with any critical eye whatsoever, revealed their true identity: fancy ornaments for empty packages, like pinstripes on an economy car.  William F. Buckley, Jr. was an occasional target.  “Buckley does not so much speak as exhale,” Ed wrote, “but he exhales polysyllabically, and the results are remarkable.  ‘Epiphenomenon,’ says Buckley, ‘epistemology, maieutic,’ and, so we are led to believe, people swoon all over the nation.”

You can’t read Ed Newman without hearing that simple, direct, unwavering delivery.  His voice was like the “tromboon,” that ridiculous hybrid instrument that Peter Schickele created for concerts featuring his fictitious 18th century composer, P. D. Q. Bach.  He had absolutely no “gravitas,” and there’s no doubt in my mind that, from his home in London where he spent the remaining years of his life very privately, he winced every time he heard that word.  He probably took note of when Katie Couric was hired at CBS, how folks asked whether she’d have the “Cronkite gravitas;” then when the ratings didn’t improve, whether CBS had “lost its gravitas,” or whether the network could find anyone who could restore it.  I can see Ed devising a “Lost Gravitas” poster to be tacked onto street poles: “Cute, fuzzy, adorable, answers to the name of ‘Walter.’  Reward offered.”

I can imagine that Ed probably deplored the Internet, and perhaps avoided reading it altogether.  I’ve written thousands of things called “articles” online over the years, though upon imagining Ed reading one of them, I dread the thought of him dropping his meaty jaw in disgust.  “You wrote, ‘Inconceivably,’” I can picture him saying to me, “before describing a scene that you most certainly would have had to conceive.”  And for a man who drew his sword at every Y’know, he would have directed cannons at LOL, IANAL, BRB (a derivative of the TV phrase, “We’ll be right back,” which Ed had already called out as a lie, noting people only said it before going away for quite some time) and a certain target he had already set in his sights, “like.”  I can only imagine the epic tome he would have penned for “At the end of the day.”  If ever there were an obituary Ed Newman would have loved to write, it would have been for that phrase.

Despite having famously interviewed Marshall McLuhan at length, he refused to accept the moniker “media” as attributable to him.  “My vendetta against the term media,” he wrote in A Civil Tongue, “arises . . . because it implies a go-between, one who takes orders and carries messages, one who is employed by others for their purposes.  There is no suggestion of the quality we need most, which is independence.  When I hear somebody say media, I think of a phrase heard long ago from somebody whose English was ungrammatical but eloquent:  ‘I ain’ in dat.’  My difficulty arises from the fact that so many people won’t believe that I ain’.”

It isn’t generally known how Edwin Newman spent his last years, although we know he lived in London with his family, simply because he loved London.  I would hope he kept his memory of his vendettas and his cause celebres (perhaps I should tack on an accent acute to the end of “celebrés” just to tease him), and that the images in his mind were of the many places he’d seen and the people he’d come to love.

People tend to forget the stand-ins, the substitutes, the supporting players, the sidekicks.  We make folks into stars and stars into heroes, often before dehumanizing them and tearing down their images like fallen idols.  Sometimes I wonder whether the personalities behind those idols even existed as people.  Edwin Newman avoided that entire morass, by being who he was — a man of integrity, clarity, and straightforward honesty.  On the day he decided whether to become the man he might have wanted others to think he was, or stay the true man of principle he always was, he chose the latter, for whatever the cost.  I hope he left this world in a happy place.

Edwin Newman, Correspondent, NBC News

Edwin Newman, Correspondent, NBC News