Walter Cronkite: Damn Fine Run

Walter Cronkite, America’s preeminent television journalist of the 1960s and 1970s who as anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News” played a primary role in establishing television as the dominant national news medium of that era, died today in 2009 at the age of 92, CBS reported. He died at his home in New York, the network said; Cronkite had been suffering for some years with cerebrovascular disease, his family said recently.

Cronkite’s career reflected the arc of journalism in the mid-20th century. He was a wire service reporter covering major campaigns of World War II before working in radio and then joining a pioneering TV news venture at the CBS affiliate in Washington. Later in New York, he anchored the network’s nightly news program from 1962 to 1981, a period in which television established itself as the principal source of information on current events for most Americans.

CBS was widely considered the best news-gathering operation among the three major networks, and Cronkite was a major reason why. With his avuncular pipe-and-slippers presence before the camera and an easy, yet authoritative, delivery, he had an extraordinary rapport with his viewers and a level of credibility that was unmatched in the industry. In a 1973 public opinion poll by the Oliver Quayle organization, Cronkite was named the most trusted public figure in the United States, ahead of the president and the vice president.

“He was the voice of truth, the voice of reliability,” said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor and sociologist. “He belongs to a time when there were three networks, three oil companies, three brands of bread.” He was the personification of stability and permanence, even when, in Gitlin’s words, his message was “that things are falling apart.”

In the decades before media outlets and media audiences splintered into numberless shards, Cronkite’s broadcasts reached an estimated 20 million people a night. His name became permanently linked in the minds of millions of Americans with the major news events of his time: the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the triumph of the first moon landing; the Watergate scandal; the return of American hostages after the Iranian Revolution; and a series of political conventions, national elections and presidential inaugurations.

Cronkite was often viewed as the personification of objectivity, but his reports on the Vietnam War increasingly came to criticize the American military role. “From 1964 to 1967, he never took anything other than a deferential approach to the White House on Vietnam,” Gitlin said, but added, “He’s remembered for the one moment when he stepped out of character and decided, to his great credit, to go see [Vietnam] for himself.”

In 1968, following the surprise Tet Offensive of the communist North Vietnamese, Cronkite went to Southeast Asia for a firsthand look at the war. His reports on the “Evening News” and in a half-hour special were instrumental in turning the tide of American public opinion against U.S. policy.

“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,” he said, casting doubt in the minds of millions of Americans on official versions of the war. Cronkite’s viewers were certain that he would never lie to them, and the White House and the Defense Department did not command that level of credibility.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was widely quoted as having told aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Cronkite took pride in being unemotional on the air, but the one occasion when he lost his composure, for the briefest of moments, became an indelible part of the nation’s communal memory.

“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official,” he reported on Nov. 22, 1963, while sitting at his newsroom desk in shirtsleeves, “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time. . . . ”

He removed his black horn-rimmed glasses, paused as he choked back a sob and then continued reporting about the whereabouts of then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, soon to be sworn in as president.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, he exhibited almost a boyish glee when reporting on U.S. space triumphs. “Man on the moon! . . . Oh, boy! . . . Whew! Boy!” was his description of the spacecraft Eagle’s landing on the moon July 20, 1969. “Boy! There they sit on the moon! . . . My golly!”
Known as “old ironpants” for his durability, Cronkite spent 27 of the next 30 hours on the air.

“The race to the moon was, I think, the quintessential story of the American Century,” he often said, adding: “Our escape from our earthly environment is what will dominate history’s memory of us a half millennium from now.”

News was a stepchild of the television industry in 1962 when CBS asked Cronkite to be its evening news “anchorman,” a term CBS coined and a job Cronkite shaped for decades to come. At the time, network executives did not see television news as a profit center; it would take “60 Minutes,” created in 1968 by Cronkite’s former executive producer Don Hewitt, to change that belief about profitability. Nightly news programs lasted only 15 minutes, which permitted little more than a bare summary of the day’s front-page news.

On Sept. 2, 1963, Cronkite and CBS made television history with the first half-hour edition of “CBS Evening News.” It included an exclusive interview with President John F. Kennedy. Two weeks later, NBC expanded its nightly news program, with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, to 30 minutes. ABC went to a half-hour format in 1967.

By 1968, Cronkite and CBS had established a dominance in the evening news viewer ratings that would remain unchallenged for the rest of his tenure as anchor and managing editor. He became the standard against which other television network anchors were judged, and his face became one of the most recognized in America.

So widely did Cronkite become known that eventually it interfered with his ability to cover politics, which had always been one of his passions. “I get off the bus in some small town and the crowd is around me rather than the candidate,” he once said. “Not only is it embarrassing, it gets in the way of working. Instead of getting the crowd’s reaction to the candidate, I’m dealing with the crowd’s reaction to me.”

His newscasts were based on a fundamental premise: “to tell it like it is without gimmicks,” and he signed off each night’s broadcast with the same line, “And that’s the way it is.”

Cronkite might have been a calm, unflappable presence on the air, but “he was always a hard-driving, fiercely competitive newsman off camera,” David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times noted in 2003. The Times media critic recalled spending a day with him for a 1979 magazine profile.

“Throughout the day,” Shaw recalled, “he was calling sources, prodding subordinates, asking questions, editing copy, deciding how stories would be played on that night’s broadcast. At one point, when someone handed him a statement that had come in earlier from the Iranian Embassy, answering several questions he’d been pursuing, he exploded. . . .

“He continued to fume and fret and drive and demand through the day, right up until 6:28, when he combed his hair, put on his jacket and — two minutes later — began the broadcast with his calm and customary, ‘Good evening.’ ”

Cronkite said he never anchored a single newscast that left him fully satisfied. He watched NBC’s nightly news program each evening after finishing his own, and his staff lived in mortal terror of the explosions of anger that would surely follow if NBC had a story or even a fact that had not been on Cronkite’s show.

“I want to win,” he once said. “I not only want to win. I want to be the best. I feel very badly if I can’t be.”

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo. He grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and later Houston, where his father served on the faculty of the University of Texas dental school. As a junior in high school, he read a short story about the exploits and adventures of a foreign news correspondent, and he decided then and there that he wanted to be a journalist. He got his first look at television at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.

He attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked part time as the campus correspondent for the Houston Post, as sports announcer for a radio station and as a state capitol reporter for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain. He concluded after two years that covering the state capitol was more exciting than studying political science at the university, and he dropped out of college to become a full-time reporter.

Cronkite worked at the Houston Post for a year, then joined the staff of a Kansas City radio station, where he worked as news and sports editor. Later, he became a sports announcer for an Oklahoma City radio station, where he developed a reputation for imagination and creativity for his colorful re-creations of football games based on nothing but wire-service copy.

In 1939, he became a reporter for the United Press wire service and soon was covering combat during World War II. He covered the sea battle in the North Atlantic, went along on the first B-17 bombing raid over Germany, landed with Allied forces in North Africa and waded ashore in the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944. Later, he accompanied the Allied breakthrough at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

After postwar assignments in Nuremberg and Moscow, Cronkite returned to the United States in 1948 and served as Washington correspondent for a group of Midwestern radio stations until joining CBS News in 1950, shortly after the Korean War broke out. He had hoped to cover the fighting but was instead charged with developing the news department of what was then WTOP-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington.

Although he came to the job with no TV experience whatsoever, he developed what he called “a gut feeling that television news delivery ought to be as informal as possible [and spoken] to that single individual in front of his set in the intimacy of his own home, not to a gathering of thousands.” His “script” for each broadcast “consisted only of a list of the subjects on which I would report, proper names I would need to remember and the occasional precise figure I might need.”

Later with the network, he covered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the United States, the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, Calif., and the early space flights of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper and Walter Schirra. When asked to anchor the evening news program, succeeding Douglas Edwards, Cronkite insisted that he also be named managing editor in an effort to emphasize that it was a news — not an entertainment — broadcast. At the time, all three networks were operating with limited news staffs and were dependent on the wire services for much of their material. Over the next several years, Cronkite worked with CBS News President Fred Friendly and others to build up a newsgathering organization that reached all parts of the globe.

As early as 1952, Cronkite had predicted that television would someday dominate American politics, and he was sensitive about the enormous potential of his broadcasts to mold and influence public opinion. Only after hours of soul-searching, for example, over whether the pictures were fair to U.S. policy in Vietnam and the Marine Corps did he decide to go ahead with a broadcast of what subsequently became a famous film sequence of U.S. Marines burning a Vietnamese village in August 1965. His authority at CBS was such that colleagues sometimes called him “the gorilla,” because “whatever Walter wants, Walter gets,” and some complained of “Walter-to-Walter coverage” of such events as political conventions, presidential inaugurations and the broadcasting of election returns. By the time he stepped down, he had become a known and familiar fixture at such gatherings. At his last convention, the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York, the intensity of a farewell demonstration for Cronkite surpassed that of the reaction to Jimmy Carter’s speech accepting renomination for a second term. Delegates gathered on the floor of Madison Square Garden chanting “Wal-ter, Wal-ter, Wal-ter.” ABC turned its television cameras on Cronkite addressing his audience from the CBS broadcast booth. CBS broadcast a mini-special on Cronkite’s three decades of covering political conventions.

It was a major national news event itself on March 6, 1981, when Cronkite anchored his last “CBS Evening News” broadcast, noted by both rival networks and virtually all major American newspapers. Cronkite remarked only that “those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid, have made too much.”

Six weeks before stepping down, Cronkite received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In retirement, he drew a $1 million-a-year salary, served on the CBS board of directors and continued to do a variety of news and features specials for CBS.

His retirement agreement stipulated that in 1988, when he turned 72, his salary would drop to $150,000 a year and he would continue to be available for a variety of services.

As a special correspondent, he covered the 40th anniversary of V.E. Day, the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the 25th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He also hosted the newsmagazine program “Walter Cronkite at Large” from 1986 to 1988 and “Walter Cronkite’s Universe,” a science series broadcast from 1980 to 1982 that included reports from such disparate places as the Army’s “City Under the Ice” on the Greenland ice cap to a chimpanzee rescue team in Africa.

As the years passed, he lost some of his reporter’s reluctance to express an opinion. In 2006, he told a gathering of reporters that his proudest moment as a journalist was the night he delivered his editorial about the futility of the Vietnam War. Had he still been a network anchor, he said, he would have tried to deliver a similar editorial about the Iraq war.

Cronkite married Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Maxwell, a columnist and women’s editor for the Kansas City Journal, on March 30, 1940. She died three weeks before their 65th anniversary.

They had three children, Nancy, Kathy and Walter L. “Chip” Cronkite III. As a widower, Cronkite was the companion of opera singer Joanna Simon, the older sister of pop singer-songwriter Carly Simon.

In 2006, NASA presented Cronkite with an Ambassador of Exploration Award, making him the only recipient who was not an astronaut or NASA employee.

Years earlier, he had been selected as one of 40 civilian finalists to fly on the space shuttle, but the program was canceled after the 1986 Challenger disaster. He was deeply disappointed that outer space remained beyond his reach.

“He keeps looking into the sky at night and saying, ‘I have to go there,’ ” his wife once recalled.

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