Back in 1951 Robert MacNeil was working as a disk jockey for CJCH in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His job was characterized by such unusual stunts as narrowly escaping from the hot pursuit of a female admirer, tightroping a snow-slicked ninth-story ledge outside the radio's control room, and, his first bit of big news, announcing over the air and hot off the station's teleprinter the death of King George VI. Certainly MacNeil has come a long way from what would seem an inauspicious start to his present position as co-founder and co-host of the most highly and widely acclaimed television news show in the United States today: The MacNeil-Lehrer Report.
The 24 years that have marked MacNeil's rise to prominence are superbly documented in ''The Right Place at the Right Time,'' an autobiography. As the title suggests, MacNeil has been in the middle of some of the biggest news stories in the past 20 years. He was there when the Berlin Wall was raised, when JFK was assassinated, and he was the lone American correspondent in Cuba during the missile crisis. There are quite a few more large-scale stories to whet the reader's palate as well as a number of stories of considerably lesser worldwide concern, but nonetheless just as entertaining.
MacNeil's personal history, however, hardly coincides with the paradigm climb to the top followed by the American journalist of today. He was born in Canada, and after two years of college he floundered around somewhat, first at sea then at the Halifax radio station. The idea of becoming a journalist never entered his mind until he reached London in 1955, and even then it was ''the need to make a living'' that drove him to it, and as soon as he ''struck gold as a playwright'' he would be gone. But gradually a growing sense of professionalism, competence, and opportunities paved the way for his career in journalism. By September of 1960 he was in the Congo as a foreign correspondent for NBC.
The Vietnam war marked both a professional and personal turning point for MacNeil. The hollow official rhetoric and the insufficient explanations of the government, and the cool, antiseptic attitude of the broadcasting ''blew the complacency'' out of him.
''. . . my growing conviction that, despite the coverage, the meaning of the war was being hidden from the people, gradually made me look more closely at the kind of journalism that was evolving in television. . . .''
In 1967 he left NBC for a weekly BBC documentary news show, ''Panorama,'' which allowed him 20 minutes or sometimes an hour to deliver his story. His experience with this show had a lasting effect on his attitude toward television news. TV ''needed to slow down, take its time and pick its way a little more coherently through the complexities of the day,'' he writes.
It is with his unerring ability to take his time and pick his way coherently through the complexities of his life and times that MacNeil tells his story. His anecdotes and personal recollections are always fresh and colorful. Perhaps his earlier dreams of high-seas adventure and then smash plays were assimilated rather than lost or forgotten. His view of his work, his time, and his life might best be reflected in his attitude toward France. ''I have seen what is squalid about France and, obviously, what is elegant, but I doubt that I will ever look at it quite objectively; I love it too much, as one is inclined to love things one can't quite contain, like mastery of the French language.''