A few minutes before 7 p.m. in New York, on an otherwise ordinary evening early in Ronald Reagan's presidency, a 64-year-old, gray-haired former wire service reporter with a neatly trimmed old-fashioned moustache and an avuncular manner added a personal note at the end of a nightly show that had become an American tradition.
"This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News," Walter Cronkite said into the camera, not displaying a flicker of emotion. "For me, it's a moment for which I have long planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we've been meeting like this in the evenings, and I'll miss that...Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away. They just keep coming back for more. And that's the way it is, Friday, March 6, 1981."
So ended the most extraordinary run in broadcast history – before or since. From the moment he succeeded Douglas Edwards in 1962, in an era when the nightly news was 15 minutes and a correspondent's report from Paris delivered via the Telestar satellite was cutting-edge technology, Cronkite reshaped television news in his own image. For nearly 19 years (even when he was competing with the all-star team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC), Cronkite's broadcasts were unequaled for their journalistic authority, their fluff-free seriousness and their role in fostering a kind of national unity among all Americans (Democrats and Republicans alike) who cared about that ephemeral thing called the "news."
Walter Cronkite died Friday night at his home in New York at age 92.
It is difficult for anyone who is too young to remember Vietnam, Watergate, or the space program climaxing with the moon landing 40 years ago to understand Cronkite's reportorial style and cultural stature. The few fleeting news clips of Cronkite at the anchor desk during epochal moments, (the JFK assassination, the moon landing), available on YouTube
, are too truncated to make him more than a generic authority figure from a bygone age. Only by seeing Cronkite's news broadcasts and documentaries in their entirety can an emissary from the 21st
century understand his reassuring presence as an exemplar of journalistic verities. To refresh my own cultural memories of Cronkite, I spent several hours at the Paley Center for the Media
in New York, watching TV shows that are not available on the Internet.
The single broadcast that best symbolized Cronkite's influence was a 30-minute documentary on Vietnam that aired in late February 1968. Cronkite's report began with him far away from the anchor desk, surrounded by rubble, on a South Vietnamese battlefield. "Hundreds died here," Cronkite declared in his authoritative voice. "Here in these ruins you can see the physical evidence of the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive. Far less tangible is what these ruins mean. And like everything else in this burnt, blasted and weary land, they mean setback or victory based on who you talk to."
Forget the politics of 40 years ago, forget the tragedy that was Vietnam, forget even the continuing historical debate over which side really won and which side lost during Tet. What Cronkite's broadcast offered was vivid, arresting, even poetic description and reporting from a recent battlefield. At the end of the prime time documentary, Cronkite stepped out of character as a neutral journalist and offered what he described as "some personal observations" about the Vietnam War. As Cronkite put it, in words that rattled the china in Lyndon Johnson's White House, "To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past...To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion."
As Cronkite recalled in his 1996 memoir, "A Reporter's Life," Richard Salant, the president of CBS News, warned him before he went on the air "that I was placing my reputation, as well as CBS's, on the line and that we were putting ourselves in jeopardy." But Salant never tried to prevent Cronkite from following his own script for the Vietnam broadcast.
At the White House, a disconsolate LBJ (who was to drop out of the 1968 presidential race five weeks later) told aides, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Just think about that presidential remark for a moment. Could you imagine Barack Obama ever saying, "If I've lost Rachel Maddow, I've lost Middle America"? Or the president somehow believing that Brian Williams or Katie Couric boasts viewpoint-changing credibility with more than a minute slice of the electorate?
Cronkite may have excelled on television because he believed in phone calls and reporting more than in Q ratings (measuring on-air likability) and being well-coiffed on camera. In fact, when the legendary Edward R. Murrow tried to hire him for CBS Radio in London during the final months of World War II, Cronkite backed out of a handshake agreement after his employer, United Press, raised his salary by $25 a week. In recounting the story, Cronkite later told Murrow's biographer, Joseph R. Persico, "I always thought (radio) was a schlock kind of business to tell you the truth."
After two years as the wire service's bureau chief in Moscow, Cronkite finally hit the top of the parsimonious salary scale at United Press. Only then did he reluctantly switch to radio before moving on to CBS TV's Washington affiliate, where he made a name for himself with his coverage of the 1952 conventions. Before one gets too misty-eyed over his fidelity to the highest standards of his chosen calling, it should be remembered that Cronkite shared an anchor desk in the 1950s on the CBS Morning Show with a lion puppet named Charlemagne. Far more embarrassing for Cronkite than his inanimate sidekick was the necessity to do commercials for the Morning Show's sponsors. As Cronkite tells it in his autobiography, the low point came when he lit a cigarette on air as he announced in a burst of grammatical accuracy, "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should." The sponsors began smoldering over Cronkite's failure to mimic ad-speak by saying "....like a cigarette should."
As anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, Cronkite created a broadcast with the production values and reporting muscle of the so-called Tiffany Network and the seriousness that viewers now find only on the PBS Newshour. Watching in retrospect Cronkite's newscasts from the 1960s and 1970s, what is stunning is what was missing. There were no soft-focus health segments, no generalized consumer tips – and few references to celebrities unless (like Ronald Reagan) they were in politics. The 22 minutes that Cronkite had to tour the world every night were too precious to be frittered away with heart-warming human-interest features and pundit roundtables in which every development was viewed through the lens of political gamesmanship.
William Paley, the creator of the modern CBS, was already losing corporate power by the time Cronkite gave way to Dan Rather in 1981, so wrenching change at CBS News was probably inevitable. As Cronkite wrote with more than a hint of bitterness in his autobiography, "At CBS News the new look was one of neon lights and whirling mirrors...Infotainment was (the) game." The promises made to Cronkite of a continuing major role at the network with documentaries and reporting assignments were as (shocking news ahead) insincere as an infotainment executive's smile.
Less than a year after Cronkite left the anchor desk, a highly successful and widely imitated syndicated news show called The McLaughlin Group was launched in which Washington pundits yelled at each other to advance predictable partisan points of view. In short, the modern era of sound-bite-and-scratch TV news had been launched.
Walter Cronkite – born during World War I and who first achieved journalistic success through his coverage of World War II – was a throwback to an earlier era of broadcast journalism. But in recalling Cronkite's remarkable life and career and his never-to-be-matched hold on the national psyche, it is hard not to believe that – in many ways – things were better when Uncle Walter was at the anchor desk.