Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cronkite, Hewitt and Kennedy

The recent death of three giants in my life is sad as well as cause for reflection. Walter Cronkite, Don Hewitt and Senator Ted Kennedy each made an indelible mark on their vocation as well as this country. Their legacies stand out for all who follow.

Walter Cronkite was an icon in his industry. He achieved greatness because of his principled and resolute commitment to accuracy, fairness and decency. He reported the news as it happened. No ruffles and flourishes, rather a straight and unadorned presentation of the facts as he knew them. His approach was the same for Watergate and the Vietnam War as it was for a local fire. He loved a good story. His competitive juices drove him to seek the truth and impelled all those who worked with him. This was most apparent during his historic coverage of the assassination of President John Kennedy and man's first landing on the moon. Sure he suffered ratings setbacks along the way, especially early on to NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, but, as any good sailor, he stayed on the right course. He was the reason I went to work for CBS News.

Don Hewitt created the most successful television news broadcast ever, 60 Minutes. His formula was simple: "tell me a story." He entered television when the medium was in its infancy. "We were just making it up," one of his colleagues would say of those times. Don's creativity, kinetic personality and youthful exuberance were instrumental in building the foundation, the approach and lingo that are still today television news. His flair and brashness got him fired as executive producer of the CBS Evening News in the early sixties. He was devastated but he was not defeated. He took some time to pursue his idea of creating a "Life" magazine for television that included three fifteen minute pieces. He persuaded Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner to do a pilot and then spent weeks trying to get CBS to air the program. His force of personality and tireless devotion to this project got him a time slot and the rest is history. I was fortunate to work closely with this human dynamo for many years.

Senator Edward Kennedy was the youngest brother in a family filled with ambition and promise. And after the tragic deaths of his brothers, Joe in World War II, and Jack and Robert at the hands of assassins, the torch was passed to Teddy. He became a father figure to all 13 of their children. But the burden of expectation wore heavily on his shoulders. And he feared assassination, once reportedly saying, "I know that I'm going to get my ass shot off one day, and I don't want to."

Senator Kennedy became more reckless and wild, as amplified by two headline grabbing events. In 1969 he drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island leaving 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne dead. He did not report the incident for several hours, later saying he made a mistake. And in 1991 his nephew William Kennedy Smith was charged with raping a woman after a night out with the Senator during Florida's spring break. Smith was acquitted, but Kennedy was damaged.

In 1980 Senator Kennedy tried to unseat incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter. I remember covering the rugged campaign and witnessing the Senator's erratic performance from stop to stop. Reporters called it "The Bozo Zone." And the end came when Kennedy stumbled through an answer to CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd's question, "Why do you want to be President?" He could not clearly and resolutely state a reason. And I believe he really never wanted to be president.

In 1991 Senator Kennedy met his beloved wife Vicki and settled down. At the time of his death he was one of the most prolific and respected people to ever have served in the United States Senate.

Each of these men made history, made a difference with their lives. Each of them sailed into the wind. A long the way the faced unimagined challenges. Each of them overcame failure with great success. We owe each of them our thanks and we can learn a lot from each man's journey.

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