TV newsman Bob Brunner looks back on his 10,000 stories
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Back when he was one of West Virginia's most familiar faces on statewide TV news, Bob Brunner had to let his reporting and news desk anchoring do his talking.
Now that's he is retired -- with an occasional freelance sortie to cover the Legislature -- Brunner is willing to let fly without mincing words about people he covered, such as Arch Moore, Gaston Caperton and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, former West Virginia governors all.
Sample comments from an interview about his new book, "Bob Brunner's Reporter's Recollections":
On Rockefeller: "He probably regards me with a bit of disdain and suspicion -- and I probably regard him as not one of the more intelligent people I've ever known."
On Arch Moore: "He was kind of a visionary bulldog -- and he just happened to be corrupt."
Brunner's unvarnished views on these and other politicos, as well as highlights from a career of stories -- from disasters like Buffalo Creek to reputed monsters like the Point Pleasant Mothman -- are gathered together in a recently released self-published book.
While the front bears photos from a lifetime of interviews and stories, the back depicts Brunner in full-bore Elvis gear, with text noting that his many public Elvis imitations were an "open secret" from his "other life."
Among other places, the book is available through the West Virginia Book Co. at wvbookco.com and at an upcoming June 17 book signing at Tamarack. It will be of special interest to longtime followers of West Virginia politics and news.
The book tracks Brunner's career as a TV newsman and anchor at WSAZ from 1968 to 1990, through his exit from TV news into the Statehouse to work for the Caperton administration, then back into TV news in Beckley and outside West Virginia.
"The first 60 percent is my travels through the world of politics and people I covered the last 40 years," said Brunner. "The last 40 percent are the most fascinating stories -- UFOs to Mothmen to sex trials. All those things that made my socks go up and down as a reporter."
There is an extended section on Rockefeller, who first came to West Virginia in 1965 as part of a federal program to provide community support to underserved rural areas. Brunner describes a story he reported that explored Rockefeller's military draft status and deferments that kept him out of the Selective Service System, in which most eligible males were classified 1-A unless granted an exemption. He writes in the book:
"Then, on the verge of facing that One-A status, Rockefeller was granted a new deferment of the rarest kind. He had decided to go to Japan, accompanied by a bodyguard and companion John Altano, to immerse himself in an in-depth study of the Japanese language. The deferment was for 'studying a language critical to the defense needs of the United States.' Wow.
"When the deferment expired, Rockefeller returned to the Washington, D.C., to make some career plans. That's when he was advised of the Justice Department Community Enhancement program, which brought him to West Virginia. Yes, it provided an additional year's deferment."
Brunner's story was picked up by The Associated Press, he writes, at a time when Rockefeller was facing off with Arch Moore for the governor's office:
"Rockefeller's media relations machine went into high gear. He was 'outraged' by the suggestion that he avoided military service. His staffers ripped into me for reporting the story. I was accused of being a 'shill' for the Moore campaign. The story was called a 'cheap campaign smear.' But you know, Rockefeller never denied it."
Brunner goes on to note in the book that Rockefeller's senatorial service has been marked by concern for veterans and that "he is considered by veterans' rights advocates to be a leading ally in Congress."
While describing Rockefeller's eight-year governorship as "mostly mundane," he lays out the corruption in the Moore administration that eventually sent Moore to federal prison. In interview remarks about the book, Brunner said: "I personally liked Arch Moore -- I don't know whether he'd say the same of me. He called me names and et cetera, et cetera."
Before he was finally brought low by long-rumored corruption charges, Moore was in his element, Brunner writes:
"Moore relished the political warfare. He seemed to come alive when the battle was joined. I'll never forget his first Christmas in the governor's mansion when relations with reporters were still relatively amicable. There was an annual reception for the media involving drinks, food, and off-the-record conversation. Several reporters had gathered around Moore for some back-and-forth. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Moore was making a brief stop at the statehouse and had his eye on Jennings Randolph's Senate seat. But Moore suddenly became serious and looked out at us and said in his most serious voice, 'Fellows, I love this job.' He meant it.
"The diminutive Moore had some unusual security requests. As you might assume, most state troopers were large, burly men. When they surrounded the governor, he tended to disappear in a sea of uniforms. Moore asked his state police superintendent Bob Bonar to remedy that. For the next six years, Moore was surrounded by the shortest troopers in the 600-man force."
Later in his career, Brunner stepped across the aisle into the office of the governor, joining the Caperton administration in 1990 as communications director. Brunner describes the rocky outset of the businessman and political outsider's administration and the complications as Caperton's marriage to then state legislator and former Miss West Virginia, Dee (Kessel) Caperton, dissolved in pubic view.
At the time, Don Marsh, then editor of The Charleston Gazette, told Brunner he was making a bad decision, especially as the Caperton administration seemed to be floundering at the time.
Brunner, in interview remarks, noted that: "Don Marsh stopped me in a parking lot and said 'Please don't do this.' Caperton's a political dead man and you'll regret it for the rest of your life."
Marsh's remarks "gave me a lot of pause," said Brunner.
But Brunner said he was burned out with being a TV newsman. In the WSAZ archives, he said, "they had 10,000 stories on file under my name. There's only about 50 stories a reporter does -- that means I'd done each 200 times."
Plus, unlike his complicated feelings about Rockefeller and Moore, he esteemed Caperton's motivations and outlook, said Brunner. "I finally went back to Don and said, 'Don, he's honest and he cares. And I haven't run into too many people around here who have those qualities.'"
How does he sum up the one big left turn out of his life as a newsman?
"I would say most of my time with Caperton was positive and productive. There were some obvious frustrations. Nothing caused me to change my mind about him -- he's honest and he cares."
Want to go?
WHAT: Bob Brunner will sign copies of his book, "Bob Brunner's Reporter's Recollections"
WHEN: June 17, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com or 304-348-3017.