Why Peter Jennings chose to become an American by Randy Boswell

Jul 8, 2003

Source : Ottawa Citizen

After pondering the idea seriously for a decade -- and weathering a recent controversy in which his Canadian roots were an issue -- ABC News anchor Peter Jennings has become an American citizen.

The Toronto-born journalist, who was raised in Ottawa and still retreats from fame every summer to a farm in the nearby Gatineau Hills, said yesterday the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. and his recent travels throughout the country have made him feel "much more connected to the Founding Fathers' dreams and ideas for the future."

Mr. Jennings, who turns 65 later this month, has been working in the U.S. since 1964 and has been anchoring the ABC network's nightly newscast since 1983.

"It's been on my mind for many years, obviously, I've been here such a long time," he told CanWest News Service from his office in New York. "As a Canadian friend said to me today, I've always made clear my love for America. And it was a good time to formally declare that affection, along with a sense of debt and gratitude to the country that's made it possible for me to have a wonderful life both professionally and personally."

Mr. Jennings, who will retain his Canadian citizenship, quickly added: "That does not for a second, as any smart American will tell you, mean you have to renounce your roots."

The broadcaster's formal pledge of allegiance came during a regularly scheduled citizenship ceremony on May 30 at a government office in Lower Manhattan.

"The Immigration Service said, 'Well, we just thought that if you really wanted to tell your friends first, we'd keep this a little bit quiet,' " Mr. Jennings recalled. "But I went in the front door and came out the front door. They were regular people. They were very touching. And I cried a little bit -- my kids didn't cry, but I cried a bit -- but I'm a fairly emotional character anyway.

"The process to become an American citizen is neither quick, nor easy," he added. "Among other things, you have to take a test. I'm very proud: I got 100. Good thing, too, as I'd just finished a book on America with a friend of mine."

In fact, says Mr. Jennings, it was while travelling to write and then promote the book -- titled In Search of America -- that he decided to apply for U.S. citizenship.

"I think that 9/11 and the subsequent travel I did in the country afterwards made me feel connected in new ways," he said. "And when we were working on the America project I spent a lot of time on the road, which meant away from my editor's desk, and I just got much more connected to the Founding Fathers' dreams and ideas for the future."

At this time last year, Mr. Jennings was at the centre of an uproar over the scratching of a jingoistic country song from the lineup of a live Independence Day telecast he was hosting. A decision by producers to drop Toby Keith's Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue -- which includes a line warning potential foes that the U.S. will "put a boot in your ass" -- made Mr. Jennings and his Canadian citizenship popular targets for attack on talk radio stations and Internet sites.

"I thought that was a bit silly to be honest," he said, insisting that the issue played no part in his decision to apply for American citizenship.

"Of course not. You don't make decisions like this based on political grounds. I'm aware that, over the years, that if people took exception to me it was, on occasion, easy to club me around a bit, saying, 'Well, he's Canadian'... (But) one doesn't make life-defining decisions for superficial reasons."

Mr. Jennings said the strong cultural nationalism of his parents had prevented him from giving serious thought to dual citizenship before their deaths. His father, Charles, was a pioneering CBC broadcaster and his mother, Elizabeth, who died in 1992, was a prominent supporter of the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company.

"I clearly was never going to be really active about it while my mom was alive. I think she would have been surprised, to say the least. My mom was very, very, very deeply Canadian, and to some extent quite anti-American."

Mr. Jennings first mused publicly about becoming a U.S. citizen last September in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, in which he admitted feeling "more American than Canadian."

He said yesterday that he consulted his wife, Kayce Freed, his adult children Christopher and Elizabeth, and his sister Sarah -- an Ottawa writer and businesswoman -- before making his final decision.

Last week, barely a month after being granted his American citizenship, Mr. Jennings was invited to make a toast to the United States at a Fourth of July ceremony in Philadelphia.

"After giving this toast on Friday night, I was sitting next to Justice (Antonin) Scalia of the Supreme Court, who said, 'Well, not bad for a Canadian.' And I said, 'Well, can you keep a secret?' He said, 'What?' I said, 'I'm actually an American.' "

With news of his American citizenship to be revealed in the U.S. today, Mr. Jennings said he wanted to alert Canadians at the same time "that my life has changed."

His annual vacation in Canada, he said, "gives me such spiritual refreshment as a human being. We're getting to that time of year where we're on our way up there for a month, and that will forever be 'going home.' "

© Ottawa Citizen