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Scot Lehigh

A consummate newsman, gentleman

(Associated Press)
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / July 9, 2010

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JOHN HENNING is gone. The news hits like a blow, turning a beautiful July day into a time of mourning.

During a career that spanned four decades and included anchoring jobs at the three major Boston stations, he was the consummate TV newsman.

Tall to the point of towering, distinguished looking, with a booming voice, he was right out of central casting. But the fact that he looked the part wasn’t what made him a local legend. Rather it was because he was the part.

Among the print press, some TV types have a reputation for being glib, self-aggrandizing, and a wee bit clueless.

Not John. He was the antithesis of the Ted Baxter or Ron Burgundy newscaster.

He lived politics, he loved politics, he got politics. And that gave him X-ray insight when it came to elected officials. He was quick to grasp underlying motivations and impatient with political cant.

I first came to admire that combination of qualities at a press conference in the mid-1980s. Citizens for Limited Taxation was pushing a ballot question to roll back the so-called Dukakis surtax. Beacon Hill Democrats, knowing it would pass, had decided to take pre-emptive action and repeal it themselves, while declining to acknowledge that CLT’s ballot question had forced their hand. An impatient Henning focused on that omission in a formulation both wry and pointed. In my memory, I can still hear him speaking.

“The one person missing from this festive table is Barbara Anderson,’’ he said, and proceeded to ask whether the real credit didn’t rightly belong to the CLT president.

But if he was pointed and persistent, John was also fair. And he never had an agenda. Privately, he’d offer droll asides about the vanity or hypocrisy of certain political figures, but in the many years I knew him, I never got a sense of what his own politics were or of which candidate he favored in this race or that.

His political knowledge and his reputation for evenhandedness earned him a well-deserved stature, and that stature made him a natural choice to moderate televised political debates. It was a role he performed as well as anyone I’ve ever seen, including all the national figures who have presided over presidential debates.

Of our many conversations over the years, one in particular sticks in my mind. It was November of 1990, just after Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Silber had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, in no small part because of an off-putting performance in an at-home-with-the-candidate segment with Channel 5’s Natalie Jacobson.

During the campaign, Silber had been caustic about the media, and at a press conference after his defeat, reporters weren’t going easy on him. When Silber tried to downplay that cantankerous interview and asserted that the press had distorted the issue of his temperment, Henning zeroed in. Silber, he said, sounded a bit like Captain Queeg, the paranoid skipper in “The Caine Mutiny,’’ in implying everyone was out to get him.

As we walked out afterward, Henning told me he felt bad for Silber, who had seemed beaten down at the press conference. He respected the man, he said, and regretted his spur-of-the-moment Queeg reference. It was a bit of introspective honesty I’ve always remembered and admired.

Yesterday, Silber chuckled in recalling the press conference. “He was one of our finest local reporters, very straight and objective,’’ he said. “Even when his coverage of me was unfavorable, I don’t ever recall thinking it was unfair.’’

Although an institution in Boston journalism, Henning was friendly to everyone in the press corps, from fellow veterans to young reporters just starting out. Channel 5’s Janet Wu says she’ll always remember the way, though a competitor, he helped her when she was trying to establish herself as a young TV reporter in the overwhelmingly white male atmosphere of the State House in the late ’70s.

“He took the time to be nice because he was a gentleman,’’ Wu says.

Yes he was. A consummate gentleman, one whose professionalism and generosity made him truly special.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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