Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite

He was "the most trusted man in America." In an era when there were only three television networks, Walter Cronkite dominated American television sets for more than a decade. His amazing career spanned from World War II to the Reagan Presidency and beyond. He not only covered historical events, he made history. He was the reason I became a journalist. He was the reason I went to work for CBS.

I was a teenager when Cronkite announced President John Kennedy's death on November 22, 1963. "From Dallas Texas, a flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 pm central standard time." In a rare show of emotion, a shaken Cronkite paused briefly, removed his glasses, then pulled himself together and continued reporting the story. President Kennedy had died, but the power of television had been realized. Cronkite anchored the dramatic events of the next three days for a nation gathered in front of their television sets watching history unfold live before their eyes.

Cronkite had dropped out of college to pursue his passion for journalism. The legendary Edward R. Murrow had recruited him for CBS News in 1950; he had been so impressed with Cronkite’s reporting during World War II. Like many other kids growing up in the fifties, I watched You Are There and the Twentieth Century, two programs about historical events anchored by Cronkite. In 1962 Cronkite took over as anchor of the CBS Evening News and the program was expanded to a half-hour. This newscast became part of my family's daily routine.

The sixties were a turbulent time in American history. The surging civil rights movement and the controversial Viet Nam War unleashed a tsunami of protests across America against authority and the establishment. Young men were being drafted and sent to fight and die in what was clearly an unwinable war. Yet forces were being increased while the Pentagon touted misleading military assessments. I watched coverage of the war on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and the painful images of death and destruction would take their toll on public opinion.

The Viet Cong and North Viet Nam launched the Tet Offensive in early 1968 against South Vietnamese and American targets. Although the offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong, it had a profound affect on the American public. Cronkite had gone to Viet Nam to cover the offensive. When he returned I watched as Cronkite took the unprecedented step of editorializing on The CBS Evening News. "For it seems now more certain than ever," Cronkite said, "that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." After watching Cronkite's broadcast, President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying. "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

Cronkite covered America’s space program with enthusiasm and exuberance. In 1961, President John Kennedy had made landing a man on the moon within a decade a goal for America. The Soviet Union had embarrassed the United States by being the first to launch a satellite into space. In an amazing display of American know-how, on July 20, 1969 American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. I watched Cronkite’s historic broadcast with several friends. As the manned lunar module landed on the moon Cronkite exclaimed, "Man on the moon!" "Oh, boy!" and then, "Whew, boy!" He was speechless.

As a new a producer for CBS News a couple years later I soon learned that a “WW” story was a “Walter Wants.” He set a high standard for journalism. He wanted to inform, not entertain. He was a reporter first. Facts and accuracy won out over style. He was incredibly competitive and engaged. He asserted his authority as managing editor, and came to be known as the first “800 Pound Gorilla.” As the leader of CBS News’s worldwide news organization, Cronkite drove the news organization’s outstanding Watergate coverage, which helped lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Three years later he helped bring Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin together using what was dubbed as "Cronkite diplomacy."

Walter Cronkite not only covered history, he was himself a historical figure in American history. It is unlikely, with the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and cable, that one journalist will ever command the attention that Cronkite did. He succeeded because he demanded excellence. He surrounded himself with talented producers, writers and reporters, because he attracted the best people. I am deeply grateful to "Uncle Walter" and incredibly fortunate to have worked for him.

Three months after President Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term, Walter Cronkite was signing off as anchor of The CBS Evening News. "It's a moment for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness." he would say. "Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away; they just keep coming back for more. And that's the way it is: Friday, March 6, 1981. I'll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night."

That is the way it was.

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