Sunday, September 13, 1998

Death Of A Newsman: John Holliman

Amid all the other news that grabbed the television and newspaper headlines this weekend, you might have missed the story of the death of a newsman.
John Holliman died early Saturday morning in a car accident not far from his home in Georgia. My sympathies and best thoughts go to his son, Jay, and his wife, Diane. I can't let his death pass without sharing a few personal memories.

I got to know John about five years ago after he did a presentation at the Smithsonian about what it had been like to be in Baghdad on the night the allied air attack began during the Gulf War in January, 1991. He had a great sense of humor, and I was so taken with his storytelling that night that I approached him afterwards and invited him to come on my show to share some of those stories and more. He accepted right away, although it was several weeks before his CNN schedule allowed him the free time to spend the morning with me in the studio.

For John, this was a joyous return to Washington morning radio, where he had worked many years earlier as a newsman for WASH-FM (when it was owned by Metromedia and still had an actual news department). For me, it was an opportunity to get to know a man whose work I admired, and to listen to him describe the emotions and journalistic thrills of some of the events he had covered.

John's travel schedule prohibited him from making a return visit to my show for awhile, but we spoke on the phone every once in awhile. He shared with me the joy of having his new baby boy come into his life, and how much being a father meant to him. When my daughter was born the next year, he congratulated me and welcomed me to the great adventure of parenthood.

Although he was most famous as one of the three Boys In Baghdad (along with Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett), John reported thousands of stories in a career that included long stints at both the Associated Press and CNN. He won a Peabody Award in 1976. He was the first correspondent CNN hired for their Washington bureau and was part of their original on-air team when the network signed on in 1980. He covered the White House, weathered hurricanes, covered the Tianamen Square story in 1989, and for a long time had been the network's go-to guy on all space stories.

In fact, it was a space story that was the basis of John's last visit to my show, in the summer of 1997. He had moved to Atlanta by then, and was anchoring coverage of NASA's unmanned mission to Mars, which was beaming live television pictures back to Earth. I called him because I had seen many of his reports, and was again impressed with his ability to make the complexities of this scientific miracle seem so simple.

That's what made John Holliman so good at his job. He was able to tell the story. What more could you ask of a newsman?

During our discussion on the air, we talked about the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, and he said he thought it was possible in our lifetime. He talked about the delight of seeing his by-then-4-year-old son Jay accessing the Mars mission on the internet. Then, John reported -- for the first time anywhere -- that although it hadn't been announced publicly, "I've been hearing from people who I trust at NASA and him himself, who tell me that probably next summer we'll see John Glenn from the flight deck of the space shuttle." He was only off by a few months. Glenn's launch date is October 29th, and John was scheduled to co-anchor CNN's coverage of the mission with another TV space-aholic, Walter Cronkite.

I asked him if he wanted to go into space. Without hesitation, he said, "I'd love to go on the shuttle if they'd let me." Off the air, he surprised me by divulging that he had already had several discussions with some NASA big shots, and that the wheels were supposedly in motion to actually make it happen. That would have made John the first journalist in space.

Unfortunately, John never reached that goal, and we're all a little poorer for it. Had he been able to make the trip, he would have brought an everyman quality to the mission and shared the experience with us in a way that would have made each of us feel as if we were along for the ride.

John Holliman would have been able to take that amazing adventure and do what he did best -- tell it to us as one great story.