[18 July 2009]
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Kansas City Star/MCT)
ORLANDO, Fla. — Walter Cronkite formed such a powerful bond with viewers that the CBS anchor came to be regarded as the most trusted man in America. He valued the title, gained in an opinion poll, but also accepted it with wry humor.
“About the highest compliment a journalist can have is to be trusted,” he said. “Once people say they trust you, you can’t do any more to be trusted.”
In a long and distinguished career, he did quite a lot to gain the public’s respect. His death Friday at age 92 revives memories of another television era, before cable news channels, when watching the evening news was a national rite and an anchor commanded unswerving loyalty.
Cronkite’s trademark was his parting words each night, “And that’s the way it is.”
CBS vice president Linda Mason said Cronkite died at 7:42 p.m. with his family by his side at his home in New York after a long illness.
Cronkite’s career encompassed many of the greatest stories of the 20th century, from World War II and President John Kennedy’s assassination to the Vietnam War and the U.S. space program. His tenure at CBS mirrored the growth and influence of television news. To many viewers, he was the consummate anchor who set the standard for all that followed him, including Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings.
To younger viewers who never saw Cronkite as anchor from 1962 to 1981, he will probably be best known for one bit of oft-repeated footage. In announcing that President Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963, Cronkite removed his glasses and briefly seemed shaken.
In a 1996 CBS special, he revealed that he almost lost his composure. He stepped off camera only to hear from a viewer complaining about his “crocodile tears.”
Cronkite won acclaim for his enthusiasm in covering the U.S. space program. He said he took pleasure from that assignment and saw the conquest of space as perhaps the most significant story of the 20th century.
“He really did his homework extremely well and, of course, it showed up in his comments,” astronaut Alan Shepard once said.
Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War was equally memorable and more influential. He said it evolved from “childish enthusiasm” to disillusionment.
He closed “Report From Vietnam,” a 1968 documentary, with a commentary stating that the only way out for the United States was to negotiate. In the 1996 special, Cronkite said that might have been egotistical. But President Lyndon Johnson saw Cronkite’s commentary as a turning point.
“Lyndon Johnson looked at Walter’s report and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,’” author Ward Just recalled in a PBS documentary. “Cronkite expressed what most Americans felt, but expressed it better.”
In preparing for the CBS at 75 special in 2003, Cronkite expressed frustration with some practices of television news today. The blending of news and entertainment worried him.
“What bothers me about cable is they attempt to entertain,” Cronkite said. “There’s a tendency for that in networks as well. It used to be called worrying about ratings. Worrying about ratings and the tendency to entertain is the same ball of wax.”
He fretted that the news media weren’t doing more to combat the public’s ignorance.
“It’s the journalists’ job, should be our motto, to tell people what they need to know,” Cronkite said. “Scandal sheets tell them what they think they want to know. That’s not our job. It is our job to determine what’s important in the daily news and make sure it’s communicated so people understand its importance.”
Cronkite was born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo. In a 1990 interview, he said he gained his most important lesson in a high school journalism class: “That’s the need to be fair, impartial and as factual as you can get.”
He attended the University of Texas at Austin from 1933 to 1935 and worked for Scripps-Howard Newspapers. From there, he went on to The Houston Post and radio announcing jobs.
He worked for United Press from 1937 to 1948 and was a European correspondent during World War II. He flew in Allied bombing raids over Germany and covered pivotal events, such as the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1985, as London marked the 40th anniversary of victory, Cronkite recalled how the war had shaped him and continued to haunt him.
“It was exciting, and I hated it simultaneously,” Cronkite said. “It’s part of the mixed emotions of war that I suppose we all carry with us for the rest of our lives. Looking back, you remember the camaraderie, the friendships and the good times in the pubs of London, for instance, and are inclined to forget the sheer terror of many hours of bombing and the rest of the horrors of war and losing friends in combat.”
He returned to radio work in the U.S. in 1948 and jumped to CBS in 1950. He went to CBS because Edward R. Murrow offered him “pretty good money,” he said. “I figured if things didn’t work out at CBS, I could go back to United Press.”
Things worked out splendidly, although he had some unusual assignments, such as working with puppets on a morning news show and briefly serving as a commercial pitchman.
The latter job ended when a cigarette maker despised his changing its motto to be grammatically correct: “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.”
He worked as a Washington and New York correspondent before graduating to anchor in 1962. He covered presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan and gained kudos for long hours of anchoring political conventions starting in 1952.
Through all the years logged at CBS, he became known by the nickname Uncle Walter, a steady figure through tumultuous times. But the public didn’t see him as a star.
“I wasn’t paid like it either,” he said. “You can’t advertise you’re paying people millions of dollars and have people ignore it.”
He made a famous cameo on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” where he met the fictional anchor Ted Baxter (played by Ted Knight), a pompous nitwit who was the opposite of everything Cronkite represented.
In later years, Cronkite said he left the CBS anchor seat too early. He continued to have a contract with CBS, but expressed disappointment that the network used him so little in the Dan Rather era.
Cronkite also worked on documentaries, hosted the Kennedy Center Honors and introduced PBS’ New Year’s Day concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic. He loved sailing on his 48-foot yacht and wrote three books about his travels.
“Just as he’s a tyrant in the newsroom about accuracy and facts, he’s a tyrant as commodore of his yacht,” colleague Andy Rooney once said. “He’s very fussy about detail. He gives everybody all kinds of directions.”
“A Reporter’s Life,” his autobiography, appeared in 1996. In it, he praised his wife, Betsy. “I attributed the longevity of our marriage to Betsy’s extraordinary keen sense of humor, which saw us over many bumps (mostly of my making), and her tolerance, even support, for the uncertain schedule and wanderings of a newsman.”
She died in 2005.
In his book, Cronkite recalled that a defense secretary challenged him and other journalists for lacking patriotism during the Vietnam War.
Cronkite replied: “Is patriotism simply agreeing unquestioningly with every action of one’s government? Or might we define patriotism as having the courage to speak and act on those principles one thinks are best for the country?”
He wrote a syndicated newspaper column that he acknowledged had a liberal slant.
“It’s a different feeling, being able to say what I feel,” he said. “I’ve gone from the most trusted man in America to one of the most debated.”
But to most viewers who remember him on the CBS Evening News, he will remain a top-flight anchor.
In 2003, Cronkite readily assessed his career achievements.
“I’m proud of becoming a newspaperman in the first place,” he said. “I’m proud of being a reasonably successful war correspondent with difficult assignments in World War II. I’m proud of being a pioneering news person in television. Along with leadership at CBS, I was able to help in setting standards that are still looked up to today.”
And that’s the way it will always be.