He led us to Saigon, to Jonestown, to Selma, to Attica.
He took us around the planet and he showed us to the moon.
As anchorman of the “CBS Evening News,” Walter Cronkite — who died Friday at age 92 after a period of failing health — not only narrated a tumultuous era in American life, but presided over the instant that television achieved its thunderbolt potential to be the most powerful communication tool in history.
That defining moment unfolded Nov. 22, 1963, after Cronkite was drawn to the urgent, five-bell summons of the United Press International ticker in the CBS newsroom. Three shots had been fired at the motorcade of President John F. Kennedy.
It would take 20 minutes for a camera to be sufficiently warmed up to broadcast his image, so Cronkite interrupted “As the World Turns” and reported the news over a screen slide that said “Bulletin.”
An hour later, on the air in his shirt sleeves, Cronkite was handed a sheet of paper. He paused, swallowed, removed his glasses and looked into the camera.
Viewers could already surmise what was coming next, and it came in a grim, quavering voice:
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
For the next four days, he led a mourning nation through wrenching grief. For anyone alive in that time, the TV images of the Kennedy funeral procession, the salute of little John-John to his dead father and the jailhouse execution of Lee Harvey Oswald are indelibly stored in memory.
Television’s speed, reach and impact had come of age, and Cronkite’s Midwestern timbre provided the soundtrack.
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born November 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., son of a dentist. His family lived in Kansas City and then moved to Houston when he was 10.
By age 13, he had settled on journalism as his career. He wrote community news items for The Houston Post while in high school and dropped out of the University of Texas in Austin during his junior year for a newspaper job.
He went on to a variety of radio news positions in the Midwest, then joined the United Press in Kansas City in 1937. He liked the deadline-every-minute pace of wire service reporting and rose to be one of the top correspondents of World War II.
He flew on bombing raids over Germany in a B-17 Flying Fortress, landed in a glider after the D-Day assault and wrote from the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he covered the Nuremberg trials before being posted as UP’s Moscow correspondent.
In 1950, he joined CBS and held a variety of assignments, including hosting “You Are There,” which re-enacted historical moments with actors, and “The Twentieth Century,” a documentary series.
In April 1962, he replaced Douglas Edwards as anchorman of the “CBS Evening News,” a position he would hold for 19 years, through the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Only once did he lose his temper on the air, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. While Chicago police battled anti-war protesters outside, a security officer punched reporter Dan Rather to the convention floor.
As the confrontation went live on CBS, Cronkite growled, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”
But it was the space program in the 1960s and ‘70s that held special excitement for Cronkite. He became a regular at Cape Canaveral as the nation reached for the heavens.
He explained the rocketry in precise but simple terms. He noted in his 1996 autobiography, “A Reporter’s Life,” that it was an unusual role for a man who flunked first-year physics at the University of Texas.
“If my professor had heard me explaining orbital mechanics to an audience of trusting millions, I’m afraid he would have spun in his grave.”
When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon on July 20, 1969, with less than 30 seconds of fuel reserve, Cronkite was uncharacteristically speechless.
“Man on the moon,” he declared, then stammered for the next two minutes as he listened to the cross-chat between Houston and the Sea of Tranquility. “Oh, jeez . Oh, boy. ... Whew. Boy. Oh, boy.”
A definitive turn in his career came in 1968, when he returned from a reporting tour of Vietnam convinced the war was unwinnable. He talked it over with CBS News President Richard Salant, who suggested Cronkite do a commentary at the end of a Vietnam special report.
Cronkite was uncertain whether he should let his opinion into a news program. But Salant said, “You know, the person they believe is you; why don’t you go and tell them the truth?”
Cronkite decided to do it, and was prepared for the consequences. “If the people felt that that debased the currency to the degree I ought to leave the ‘Evening News,’ I’d do it,” he said in a 1981 interview.
Cronkite, by then firmly in first place in the evening-news race and often called “the most trusted man in America,” told viewers it was time for the United States to withdraw.
President Lyndon Johnson watched it, and then is said to have remarked: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Cronkite loved to sail, and his custom-built ketch Wyntje, named for a Dutch ancestor, was often seen in coastal Carolinas villages in summers and fall.
In 1982, he and his wife, Betsy, got caught in a fierce nor’easter, and they put in to Elizabeth City, N.C., to ride it out. As winds up to 80 mph raked the coast, they became celebrities of the storm. Autograph-seekers greeted him every time he poked out of the vessel.
In the 1980s, CBS had a rule that everyone retired by 65. This allowed management to uproot the aging Cronkite in place of the up-and-coming Dan Rather, who was expected to woo a younger audience.
Rival ABC wanted Rather for their evening news. CBS didn’t want that to happen. Cronkite was cut loose from the anchor desk in March 1981 with the promise he would do other shows, but his subsequent work with the network amounted to little.
Cronkite played nice at the time, but he had been stung by the succession. Rather subsequently drove the newscast into third place.
Cronkite’s spite became clear when Rather finally left CBS in disgrace in 2005 — at age 73, the retirement policy having faded away — after a botched “60 Minutes Wednesday” piece about President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard.
Bob Schieffer, not Rather, should have replaced him on the news, Cronkite told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview.
When asked why, Cronkite delivered a pent-up blow: “It surprised quite a few people at CBS and elsewhere that, without being able to pull up the ratings beyond third in a three-man field, that they tolerated his being there for so long.”
And Cronkite got in one final lick. When Katie Couric took over as anchor in 2006, it was his voice that introduced the newscast.
After his retirement, Cronkite was a pointed critic of television news, particularly a trend toward superficiality on local broadcasts.
“It seems to me as I travel about the country, that all it takes today to be an anchorperson is to be under 25, fair of face and figure, dulcet of tone, and well coiffed. And that is just for the men,” he cracked in 1981.
He also had complaints about network news being only 30 minutes long. “We must compress to near the point of unintelligibility,” he said.
Cronkite closed each newscast with “And that’s the way it is,” followed by the date.
Though it became his signature, it never was meant as a standard sign-off. When Cronkite took over the newscast in 1962, he wanted to find an irony-of-fate story to finish the broadcast each night, and that line was written to follow it.
Though he started his career in an era of typewriters and radios, Cronkite advocated technological advancement, particularly in news dissemination. In his autobiography, he forecast a future of revolutionary possibilities driven by a digital age.
“I expect to watch all of this from a perch yet to be determined,” he added. “I just hope that wherever that is, folks will still stop me, as they do today, and ask: ‘Didn’t you used to be Walter Cronkite?’”
(c) 2009, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
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