Walter Cronkite 1916 - 2009 (CBS News)
I know that the memories and worldview of Boomers are things of derision for more 'relevant' generations; who the hell cares what we remember. However, for most of my childhood and early adulthood, there wasn't a single major event that didn't have the voice of Walter Cronkite narrating it.
The Cuban Missile Crisis; The arrival of The Beatles; John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963; the war in Vietnam (1962-1975); Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy's assassinations in 1968; Chicago during that years' Democratic Convention; the first landing of human beings on Earth's Moon on July 20, 1969; the Watergate hearings in 1973; the collapse of Richard Nixon's presidency and resignation in 1974...
...and it wasn't only the signal events between 1962 and 1981 which Cronkite narrated which made him an icon. It wasn't even the thousands of mundane items that he introduced or reported on for over twenty years. It was the sound of Cronkite's voice. Even if you only had the CBS evening news on in the background, that voice added to what made up the continuity of our times.
Cronkite represented a connection to news reporting that reflects the Reality of what was occurring (he wouldn't have made it as a Fox Entertainment 'journalist'). He was also willing to court physical risk to discover what that Reality was, and translate the essence, the Truth of it, as best he could. Beyond all that, being a reporter was his job; he wanted to do it as best he could.
As a 25-year-old AP reporter, Cronkite covered America's war in the Mediterranean and Europe at its beginning. From Operation Torch in North Africa in November of 1942, he went to England -- where he gained a reputation for going on more 8th Air Force daylight bombing raids over Germany than any other reporter. On D-Day in 1944, Cronkite was one of the first correspondents ashore; later that year, he was landing by glider behind German lines with the 101st Airborne in Operation Market Garden. He was in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. And he covered the Nuremberg trials of the twenty-one major nazi war criminals.
In 1962, CBS created the 30-minute news-program format. News on the radio had been commonplace for forty years, but it had never been presented on television. The program would go out live in New York, but taped for delayed broadcast in Central and Pacific time, to be received in millions of American homes at 6:00 PM, Monday through Friday. It was an innovation -- and some thought, risky: Would people accept the idea of a news program broadcast when most people were eating dinner? More important -- would they watch the commercials? And CBS' choice to be the lead commentator, the "anchor" for a lineup of filmed segments filed by other reporters, was Walter Cronkite.
CBS' decision was based on the fact that he appeared so completely mainstream, so inoffensive. His baritone voice sounded authoritative, like the radio news broadcasters most people were familiar with -- H.V. Kaltenborn, or Edward R. Murrow, who had moved on to television. Cronkite was a solid, thorough reporter who had paid his dues; he had a reputation for "Iron Pants" -- sitting still through the most boring assignments, never sounding or appearing anything but interested, never losing his temper or melting down on the air.
And unlike Murrow, Walter had no apparent interest in using the television soapbox he was about to be handed to express any... uncomfortable opinions. He didn't like to throw controversial questions in an interview, and was known to toss "Softballs" to subjects like Eisenhower, Nixon or Kennedy. When Murrow had taken on Joseph McCarthy and the endless 'Red Scare' hearings of his Senate committee, CBS lost advertising revenue. That fact was not lost on CBS' Chairman, the redoubtable William S. Paley, who had to approve the choice of Cronkite for this new venture.
The format was a hit. Apparently, people did watch television news while they ate their evening meals, and liked it. The Neilsen ratings agency said so, and the advertising revenue began to roll in. The other major networks copied CBS, a sure sign of a winning trend. CBS affiliate stations (like the main network, dependant on advertising dollars) loved Walter because he was making them money.
People at home, watching their RCA or GE or Magnavox Teevees from the dinner table, instead of each other, thought Cronkite was so... trustworthy. People had liked Edward R. Murrow -- but when he broadcast, Ed sounded like some critical relative, lecturing you about a choice of meat for dinner, or scolding your children for running with scissors. You knew he was smart, but America doesn't like smart that much; it's not neighborly. Nobody really likes someone better than you.
But -- if you had "accidentally" borrowed money from the 4-H petty cash and couldn't pay it back; or couldn't decide whether Polaroid at $3.50/share was a good deal; or your girlfriend had missed her period... for 1962 America, Cronkite looked like the Dad or Uncle you could confide in. He'd never lecture you like that prissy Murrow, or sound like that undertaker, Chet Huntley; or that Mr. Peepers-type with the glasses, John Chancellor, on NBC.
You could see just by looking at him that Uncle Walter had been around; he knew what was what, but somehow, it hadn't changed him. He didn't believe he was better than you. He'd give you straight advice. And even if you'd utterly and irredeemably fucked up, and his advice was to face the music and dance... you'd know he was right and still go away feeling good about yourself.
Cronkite had come up as a reporter when radio was king, and the best-known broadcast commentators all had signature 'hooks' -- Murrow's opening was the famous, "This -- is London", during the Blitz in 1940; Walter Winchell's was, "Good Evening, America, and all the ships at sea". Lowell Thomas' closing line was, "So long, until tomorrow!" So, early in the CBS Nightly News, Cronkite adopted his own famous signature close, which he would repeat for the next nineteen years: "And that's the way it is: Friday, July Seventeenth, Nineteen Sixty-Four; this is Walter Cronkite. For CBS News -- goodnight." It stayed in our heads as well.
And when JFK (initially concerned that Cronkite was a Republican, and so might skew his reportage -- he wasn't; he was a registered Independent) was murdered, it was Uncle Walter who broke the bad news, first, to the nation -- and who sat up with the country for hour after hour over the next days, through the pomp and circumstance and unbelief. More than Chet Huntley or David Brinkley's voices on NBC, or Eric Sevaried's on ABC, it was Walter Cronkite's voice that bridged that period between the end of Camelot, and whatever was to come next.
All this gave him the necessary credentials when, five years later, Cronkite publicly questioned the wisdom of America's involvement in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers would reveal that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident (pretext for the next eight years of escalating war in South Vietnam) had been a sham. Cronkite, who had excellent sources, might have suspected the war had been engineered, but never questioned it on those grounds. Like many of his viewers, he had supported America's mission in Vietnam -- but only until it was plain that we were mired in a conflict that could not be won under post-WW2 rules of engagement: It wasn't the kind of classic, "Good War" between Light and Darkness which he had seen first-hand.
After a series of journeys to Vietnam and long interviews with everyone from Diplomats and Generals to Grunts, Cronkite came to the firm conclusion that we couldn't win. He wasn't interested in the details, so much as the broader questions -- In a world with nuclear weapons, can we win this war? And, is it worth it? He believed another solution was possible, and necessary; and it would include pulling our troops back from Southeast Asia.
It was 1968, with Martin and Bobby already both assassinated. It was an election year defined by the war; by three years of race riots, National Guard soldiers in the streets. It was a year defined by the Counterculture, and by an antidraft, antiwar movement. Cronkite decided to do what CBS' executives never though he would -- to tell America that uncomfortable truth from behind the Anchor's desk on the CBS Nightly News. In a closing commentary reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow, Uncle Walter said "In this reporter's opinion", that the Vietnam war simply wasn't winnable; "that perhaps we should say, 'We did the best we could'," and bring our boys home.
President Lyndon Johnson, watching the broadcast, knew it was a watershed moment: If Walter Cronkite had said America should pull out of Vietnam, Johnson told an aide when the broadcast was over, "then I've lost the war". Little more than a week later, LBJ went on national television to say he "would not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
Cronkite and his CBS team in Vietnam, 1967 (Public Domain)
Cronkite broke the code of silence that made up so much of life in post-World War Two America; he was calling things by their right names, reality with a Capital R. I remember watching Cronkite deliver that message in 1968. It was the sort of moment I hoped some other American broadcast journalist would come to during the "Lil' Boots" Bush years. Finally, Keith Olbermann did, a little late in the day, and not entirely because he had come to a heartfelt conclusion about the disaster of Lil' Boots' presidency... but also because it meant good ratings for MSNBC, something Cronkite would have barely considered.
Our leaving Vietnam would take another four years, and cost additional thousands of American lives. Richard Nixon was elected claiming he had a "secret plan" to end the war. That turned out to be more escalation, CIA assassination squads; J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO; the 1970 invasion of Cambodia and a heavy crackdown on antiwar demonstrations; The Plumbers and black-bag jobs and 'Enemies Lists', and cozy relations between the GOP and the Mob-run Teamsters' Union. After the killing of four students at Kent State in Ohio, Cronkite lashed out at Nixon's policies, and his stand gave other reporters and networks the courage to voice their own opinions in closing segments.
In response, Nixon put heavy pressure on William Paley to muzzle Cronkite's criticism; then, Vice-President Spiro Agnew went after America's media in a series of speeches, essentially accusing national news outlets, and figures like Cronkite, of treason.
Nixon's pressure and threats had a chilling affect. In 1970, after a broadcast criticizing the government's attempt to threaten journalists into silence, ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds was forced to resign. The war went on; bombings of North Vietnam escalated; the whole period was a reminder of the blacklisting and censorship of the McCarthy period -- which Cronkite's CBS colleague, Edward R. Murrow, had famously stood up to.
For network television news anchors, Murrow's courage in criticizing the bullying atmosphere of fear which Tail Gunner Joe created set the bar for future television journalists to defend their ability to inform Americans what is happening in, and to, their country. Cronkite maintained that tradition, not backing down despite the obvious threats made by The President -- and Cronkite knew Nixon was famous for using the power of his office to take revenge. It helped that CBS' executives stood behind him (Something they didn't do for Dan Rather, thirty years later -- but, in these days, truth is highly overrated in the
Even backstopped by CBS, Walter had professionally put his ass on the line. He knew it didn't matter what his reputation was, whether he was considered a presence on television. Cronkite knew the other side of Murrow's defiance of McCarthy; Murrow had been a legend, too -- and came within a hairsbreadth of being fired (rent Good Night and Good Luck, again) by the same Bill Paley whom Nixon was calling to express his wattle-jowled displeasure.
At the same time, Cronkite had been as close to actual combat situations as a noncombatant can; something like Nixon or Agnew coming at him only made him angry. He must've had a moment of satisfaction, watching Agnew forced to resign under indictment for talking over $300,000 in bribes when Governor of Maryland; and later, watching a paranoid, self-destructive and self-pitying Nixon, pinned down by Watergate, resign himself. And, as with JFK's assassination almost eleven years before, the voice of Uncle Walter took us from the "long national nightmare" to whatever would come next.
People who didn't grow up with him as a fixture won't understand the context within which he was important, or how he's missed. It isn't nostalgia for a simpler time -- it's that in 2009, television news is simply another form of corporate entertainment. It's always been an Establishment mouthpiece in one way or another -- except for people like Cronkite, who believed that facts didn't need to be presented like movie trailers, or with political spin. Cronkite intensely disliked the media style of Limbaugh, Wiener and O'Reilly because for him, it distorted the Truth, the Facts: Fox and other networks' use of this kind of format wasn't about news, but personalities, and a political agenda.
Few people have the opportunity to reach so many other human beings, a fixture in our cultural memory, without being corrupted somehow in the process. After nineteen years as CBS' anchor, Cronkite retired -- like any working person, putting in their twenty and then calling it quits -- and didn't look back.
Cronkite never used status for personal gain or to create another career. He always reminded me of another man from Missouri, Mark Twain -- though without the bite of wit, or his obvious humor; but still an honest and quintessentially American observer. He never ran for office; never appeared in films (in 1984, approached to appear as himself in the film version of The Right Stuff, even with his interest in America's space program, Cronkite said no; they had to use Eric Sevareid instead).
He declined, gracefully, to capitalize on his image in a way that would be accepted as normal today (and I shudder to think what that says about contemporary culture). David Halberstam, another legend as a reporter and writer, once observed about Cronkite that "He liked, indeed loved, being 'Walter Cronkite', being around all those celebrities -- but it was as if he could never quite believe that he was a celebrity himself."
Cronkite participated in developing the Illusion Factory television has become, but I think the reason he never took his status seriously was that he never confused Walter Cronkite, the image and voice on millions of television screens, with Walter Cronkite, a guy doing a job. It may seem incredible, especially with the cynical take many of us have on the age we live in, but I swear it's probably just that simple.
He was as ambitious as the next person; when some lucky breaks arrived in his job, he took them. But when he saw something he believed was wrong, he judged his chances and then stood up and spoke out -- even at the risk of losing that job. He worked for a living, tried to meet his bosses' expectations, and (because he was very much aware of his own status) live up to the standards of his profession as he saw them; doing a 'good job' mattered. At night, he went home to his wife and children.
Regarding himself, he never said, Hey, what's all the fuss about?; he knew. He was, after all, like the Uncle Walter we believed he was, the guy who had been around -- but for all that had been unchanged. Unlike media personalities in 2009, Cronkite was a reporter who never believed in his own press.
And that's the way it is.