Remembering Famed Newsman Walter Cronkite
From baby boomers to the Greatest Generation, journalist Walter Cronkite will be remembered as a voice of calm and reason whenever the nation was shocked by disaster and instability.
The deep-baritone Cronkite died Friday at his New York home at 92. CBS vice president Linda Mason said Cronkite died at 7:42 p.m. after a long illness with his family by his side. They had previously said he was ill with cerebrovascular disease.
Helming CBS News With Walter Cronkite from 1962-1981, "Uncle Walter" came into our living rooms each weeknight, providing news of the day that included signature events; the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, Apollo moon landing and Watergate. Throughout, Cronkite's comforting, authoritative style earned him iconic status as the "most trusted man in America."
"I had a pretty good seat at the parade," Cronkite once said, reflecting on the 20th century. "I was lucky enough to have been born at the right time to see most of this remarkable century."
Portly and mustachioed, Cronkite would be considered an anachronism in TV news today, a 24/7 environment marked mostly by style over substance. But journalism was in the University of Texas dropout's blood as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Times, later as a radio announcer and then for 11 years at United Press, the wire service where he eventually became a World War II correspondent covering North Africa and Europe and the post-war Nuremberg trials. He began working for CBS' nascent TV news division in 1950, eventually anchoring the first nationally televised Democratic and Republican national conventions, later hosting the "You Are There" documentary series.
"He was the personification of an era," says media critic Andrew Tyndall of tyndallreport.com. "At a time when the entire nation could only get information from a few sources, he's indelibly linked to telling us about iconic events."
Cronkite was on air for a staggering 27 of the 30 hours it took NASA to land men on the moon during the Apollo IX mission in 1969, dubbed "Walter to Walter" coverage by his peers. When astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surfaced, Cronkite was almost speechless for the first time in his storied career.
Cronkite earned viewers' respect for his just-the-facts style, rarely displaying much emotion on air. But there was a memorable moment in 1963, when he briefly lost his composure while announcing on live TV that President Kennedy has been shot and killed in Dallas.
"I choked up, I really had a little trouble ... my eyes got a little wet," he said in a 2003 interview. "Fortunately, I grabbed hold before I was actually (crying)."
Cronkite's influence was such that after he ended a 1968 broadcast following a trip to South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive by telling viewers that the war could not be won, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told his aides, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."
It was Cronkite's lifelong fascination with flight - and his unabashed enthusiasm for the U.S. space program - that may be his enduring legacy: His power as a broadcaster was such that he helped stir the public's support for space exploration.
"In that age of TV," 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt said, "Walter Cronkite was as well known as John Glenn."
He was on NASA's list to be the first journalist in space, a project scrubbed after the Challenger explosion.
"I can't imagine any red-blooded person not wanting to get into space," Cronkite told USA TODAY in 1998 before he co-anchored CNN's coverage of John Glenn's return to space at age 77. "Shaking off that idea lacks a certain imagination, a spirit of adventure. I can't think of anything better out there."
Cronkite retired in 1981, replaced by Dan Rather. Cronkite was supposed to have a continuing relationship with the network, but it didn't work out that way, and in ensuing years he smarted at the way CBS rarely invited him back on its air.
"CBS did not live up to the arrangement we had," Cronkite said. "I thought I was only stepping down from the Evening News, but I'd continue to do special events coverage and in-depth reporting. They chose not to use me. I was very unhappy the way it worked out. I kept saying, 'Maybe I could do this,' but it never quite worked out."
Yet in the next breath, Cronkite acknowledged that CBS didn't boot him out on the street, either. He maintained a large office and acknowledged that the network paid him "a magnificent amount of money" over the years, reportedly $1 million a year to do virtually nothing, which made him rich and enabled him to write, travel and found his own TV production company.
Cronkite was married for nearly 65 years to Betsy Maxwell, who died in March 2005. In recent years Cronkite wrote a syndicated column, contributed to The Huffington Post blog, received NASA's Ambassador of Exploration award and was the subject of a PBS documentary in 2006 and a 90th birthday party on CBS in 2007.
How did he become "the most trusted man in America?" It was a Roper survey for U.S. News & World Report, Cronkite once said, and he won "because they didn't poll my wife."
And about all this Uncle Walter stuff?
"I like to think it started when I got my third chin," he said.
Actually, TV was still new in the kinder, gentler '50s and '60s. Tuning into Cronkite and letting him into your home involved a certain intimacy, especially if you were sitting there in your shorts or PJs. So he became Uncle Walter, the most trusted man in America.
"I felt it was a characterization of some appreciation," he said. "I couldn't object to it at all."
The man who just once gave his opinion on CBS Evening News was, in fact, very opinionated and in August 2003 began writing a syndicated column for King Features called And That's the Way I See It - a play on his CBS News signoff.
In his later years Cronkite decried the large salaries of TV news broadcasters, which he said created a journalism elite.
"When you're making six- and seven-figure incomes, it's hard to understand the concerns of most Americans, no matter how good a reporter you are," Cronkite said. That included himself. "I don't do personal shopping. I don't have to stand in line. They're not, I'm not, living the frustrations of the average man."
He kept homes in Manhattan - he feuded with developer Donald Trump who successfully built a high rise next to Cronkite's apartment complex - and Edgartown, Mass., where he kept a 48-foot ketch, Wyntje, equipped with a bathtub.
But if you sat down in person with Cronkite in recent years, the anchor faded away. He was an old newspaperman at heart, who hung out in police precincts, bars and strip joints in his day, told his share of dirty jokes and still talked fondly of his 11 years at the old "UP."
Unlike today's broadcasters, who work local TV eyeing the network big leagues, Cronkite joined CBS News in 1950 because the money was better, he had a family to support and CBS' legendary Edward R. Murrow wanted him.
But he didn't stay an ordinary Joe, especially after fame and fortune attached themselves to him. Presidents and generals had chiefs of staff, and so did Walter Cronkite. Marlene Adler guarded him and his schedule for years. In recent years he had a knee replaced and wore two hearing aids.
When President Bill Clinton admitted that he had had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky - and then went on his annual summer vacation to Martha's Vineyard with wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea - it was Cronkite who brokered a peace between the couple and took them for an afternoon sail aboard the Wyntje.
Like Clinton, Cronkite says he never inhaled.
Walter Cronkite? Pot?
"Oh sure, I tried it," Cronkite told USA TODAY. It was during those tumultuous anti-Vietnam days, when many kids and parents (the Cronkites included) disagreed on virtually everything. When kids said you can't knock it if you haven't tried it. So Cronkite got some pot from an assistant, and one night he "puffed away."
Cronkite, a longtime pipe smoker, never inhaled. It apparently didn't occur to him to do so. "Nothing happened," he said. "It wasn't any big deal."