Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite


There is a lot of attention being paid to the coincidence of Cronkite's death coinciding so closely to the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. That seems appropriate to me, as he was a chief cheerleader of NASA's efforts, beginning with the first manned space flight in 1961. Who can forget his childlike wonderment when Neil Armstrong made those first footprints on the lunar surface? I recall those moments as they happened. (By the way, Armstrong's hugely quoted first words from the moon have been a cause of debate for four decades: did he say "One small step for Man..." or did he say, "One small step for a man..."? I'm here to tell you, he said "One small step for a man." I remember it so clearly because the next day, all the newspapers were misquoting it, and I wondered why. So take my word for it.) I seem to have wandered offtrack. Back to Cronkite:

Walter steadfastly maintained that sending men to the moon was the single greatest achievement of the 20th century, and he should know, as he lived through much of it. He was born during World War I, and began his news career during World War II, as a correspondent for United Press (later "UPI"). He covered the Nuremberg war trials and headed the Moscow bureau for several years before being recruited by Edward R. Murrow for CBS.

His career with CBS corresponded with the network's move from radio into television, and its growth into "the Tiffany Network of News." He made a splash anchoring the 1952 presidential conventions, the first to be reported on TV. Later in the decade, he spent time on The Morning Show, sharing the screen with a hand puppet named Charlemagne. Around this time, he got into some trouble with the show's sponsors, for whom he was required to do commercials. In one instance, he took a drag on a cigarette and proclaimed, "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should," instinctively correcting the grammar of the company's established slogan, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should."

Cronkite was relieved of such duties when he was named to anchor the CBS Evening News in 1962. It was around this time that the term "anchorman" was invented, and Cronkite became so synonymous with it that his own name became the term in other languages (in Sweden, anchormen are called "Kronkiters"). Walter barely had time to warm his anchor seat before he was breaking into a live broadcast of As The World Turns to report the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Throughout the next several decades, he delivered good and bad news (mostly bad) to the nation from his anchor desk (the program expanded from 15 to 30 minutes early in his tenure, but he never achieved the full hour of nightly news he believed was required to adequately inform the nation). He was famously named "The Most Trusted Man in America," and some historians believe it was his pessimistic review of the Tet Offensive which marked the turning point of the Vietnam War. During a special report from Vietnam, he declared the country to be "mired in a stalemate", after which President Johnson decided against running for reelection. "If I've lost Cronkite," he famously said, "I've lost Middle America."

Though the Watergate break-in and political cover-up were first reported by The Washington Post, it was Cronkite's reporting which gave the scandal broad national attention. From the various assassinations of the sixties to the Iranian hostage crisis which ensured the Reagan victory of 1980, the nation turned to Cronkite for the news, plain and simple. On rare occasion, he provided a bit of entertainment as well, such as during his cameo appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1974, but it seemed to be his coverage of the space program which brought him the most satisfaction. He won every journalistic award available, including Emmys for his coverage of the first moon landing in 1969, and of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission of 1970 (take a look at Ron Howard's exciting film version of Apollo 13 to see archival footage of Cronkite's non-stop reporting of the disaster).
Uncle Walter was not-too-subtly nudged from the anchor chair at the age of 64, to make room for Dan Rather. Though retained by CBS as a consultant, he himself has said he was never consulted.
Walter Cronkite died yesterday at the age of 92.
"I had a pretty good seat at the parade."