Walter Cronkite: That’s the way he was

It is inconceivable that another TV news anchor could ever be to Americans
what Cronkite was during the 1960s and 1970s: a sort of national family
uncle, wise, reassuring, understanding, a man they could trust to tell them
the news ? to borrow his own sign-off line from the CBS Evening News ? the
way it was.

The clout of network TV news back then is hard to grasp for anyone reared
exclusively in the modern universe of the internet, blogs, and 24/7 cable
news channels. CBS Evening News, which under Cronkite overshadowed the rival
programmes at NBC and ABC, had a viewership of some 20 million, almost as
much as the combined audience of the three shows today, when the national
population is half as large again.

At the height of his career, Cronkite was arguably the most famous and
influential individual in the US. The moment when he told his countrymen of
the death of John F Kennedy, his composure for once crumbling, his eyes
misting with emotion as he slowly took off and replaced his black-rimmed
glasses, is seared into America’s collective memory scarcely less deeply
than the dreadful images from the motorcade itself. “From Dallas,
Texas, the flash, apparently official,” he intoned. “President
Kennedy died at 1pm Central Standard Time.”

Instinctively, Cronkite was what today would be called a liberal. On screen,
however, impartiality was his trademark, an impression amplified by his
deliberately slow delivery and taste for understatement. At one point he was
voted the most trusted man in the country ? a point brought home to
President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 with the most momentous consequences. After
the Vietcong’s Tet offensive that January, Cronkite went to South Vietnam
for a first-hand look at what was happening. His TV editorial concluding
that the war was a stalemate, and that a negotiated settlement was the only
way out, shocked Johnson, as it laid bare the infamous “credibility gap”
between the administration’s rosy depiction of the war, and the ever more
obvious reality.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” LBJ is said to
have remarked to an aide. Within weeks, the President announced that he
would not seek a second elected term, and vowed to search for a negotiated
peace ? just as Cronkite had urged.

But Americans adored him, too, for a boyish excitement, never more visible
than when he covered the Apollo 11 moon mission in 1969. “Man on the
Moon … oh boy … whew, boy,” were his words as the lunar module
Eagle touched down. “There they sit on the Moon … by golly.” At
Cronkite’s last national convention in 1980, when the Democrats renominated
Jimmy Carter, the delegates chanted “Walt-er, Walt-er” with a
passion that eclipsed their feelings for the incumbent president. His last
evening in the anchor’s chair, on 6 March 1981, was a major news event in
itself. Weeks before, T-shirts appeared with the legend, “Oh my God,
what are we going to do without Walter Cronkite?” It was a joke, but
not entirely.

His career amounted to a history of the American news business in the middle
and late decades of the 20th century. From his high-school days in Texas, he
wanted only to be a journalist. After working for a year at the Houston
Post, and then as a news and sports announcer for radio stations in Kansas
City and Oklahoma, Cronkite joined the United Press, then the pre-eminent US
news agency. Soon he was a hardened war reporter, covering the allied
bombing campaigns against Germany, the 1944 Normandy landings and the Battle
of the Bulge. After the Nazi defeat, he was UP’s chief correspondent at the
Nuremberg war trials, before spending two years in Moscow, as the Cold War
began.

In Moscow, he resisted the initial attempts of Ed Murrow, the bureau chief of
CBS radio and future patron saint of the network’s entire news division, to
recruit him. But in 1950, back in the US, Murrow and CBS got their man, and
Cronkite’s television career began. The medium was then in its infancy, but
Cronkite quickly realised it would soon overtake radio and print journalism
to become the prime source of news for Americans, and a crucial factor in
its politics. Even early on, it was plain that his natural, avuncular style
(which today would probably be derided as pompous) connected with viewers.
By 1962, CBS had named Cronkite as the first of the newfangled “anchormen”
for its flagship television evening news programme. In September 1963, it
became the first network to extend the usual 15-minute programme to half an
hour, launching the first expanded format with an interview with JFK. Just
two months later, Cronkite was covering the President’s assassination.

He was 64 when he was eased out of his evening news chair to make way for the
young Dan Rather ? a retirement he regretted almost the instant he stepped
down. He continued to make programmes for some years, but always resented
the way that he had been treated. If CBS seemed to forget him, however,
Americans never did, and to younger generations of reporters and anchors he
was a father figure.

In retirement, his liberal colours showed more clearly. Cronkite was a fierce
opponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion, insisting that had he still been behind
the anchor’s desk he would have condemned George Bush’s intended war just as
he had condemned LBJ’s war 35 years before. The Cronkite era, though, could
never return. In his heyday, he was the first true celebrity newsman, more
famous than the politicians and stars he covered. But he was also a
consummate professional, fiercely competitive and always mindful of his
start in wire journalism, then as now the coalface of the news industry. “I
want to win,” he said once. “I not only want to win, I want to be
the best.” He was.

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