Beverly Keel: My chat with Mr. Cronkite

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:18pm
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The late Walter Cronkite

As Walter Cronkite entered his 19th floor corner office at CBS in New York City — a newspaper poking out of his back pocket — I wondered how nervous I would be about interviewing the most trusted man in America for a 2005 story in Franklin-based American Profile magazine.

For a journalist, interviewing the ultimate interviewer would be like a basketball player taking on Michael Jordan.

His understated room was a working office, not a museum celebrating the accomplishments of the broadcast journalist for whom the term “anchorman” was created. His Emmys were discreetly displayed on a shelf behind his desk, near the part-time sailor’s collection of waterway guides.

Instead of wall-to-wall photographs of Cronkite posing with numerous world leaders, he opted for only a small photo of him and his wife, Betsy, with President John F. Kennedy, along with a few handwritten words from the president sent in September 1963, which hung in the corner. A framed editorial cartoon, depicting the day Cronkite retired from his evening-news anchor’s chair on March 6, 1981, shows Mickey Mouse, another broadcast icon, weeping in front of a TV set as a voice from inside the television says, “…and that’s the way it is” — Cronkite’s trademark sign-off.

Before the interview, his chief of staff, Marlene Adler, told me that I needed to sit close to Cronkite and speak loudly because of his hearing problem, which I found to be a cruel irony for one of the 20th century’s greatest communicators. After sitting down in a chair planted about 18 inches from mine, he exclaimed, “My, we’re close!” I was so embarrassed that it took me a moment to recover.

But I quickly became at ease as I began chatting with a man who seemed like family. After all, like millions of Americans, ‘Uncle Walter’ was a familiar presence in our home during dinnertime for so many years. I felt like I was talking to my long-lost grandfather.

Cronkite, who died Friday at age 92, was 89 at the time of the interview and still too busy with current projects to spend much time reflecting on his career history. He moved slowly because he tore his Achilles tendon while playing tennis in 2001 — yes, it was a singles match — and it hadn’t healed properly.

Though his face was rounder and his jaw softer, he was the same iconic presence that delivered the news to the nation each weekday evening from 1962 until 1981. He had an impressive shock of white hair and an impeccably groomed trademark mustache. “I grew it when I was 19 to look older, and it’s long since outlived its usefulness in that regard,” he said. “Particularly after I got into television, I was kind of stuck with it at that point. If I would have shaved it off, everybody would have made some comment about it, so it's there.”

As he faced his ninth decade, he was still traveling internationally to deliver about a dozen lectures annually. “I don’t do a canned speech,” he said. “I do ad-libbed comments on the day’s news and answer questions. That has been a very successful format for several years now.” He created about 12 documentaries annually for National Public Radio and its international counterpart, Public Radio International, and made television documentaries for PBS and other networks.

“I like historical material, having lived quite a long time now and been a journalist for a great part of that time,” he said. “I have witnessed quite a lot of our very troubled history of our last 50 years. Therefore I consider myself, if not an expert, at least an eyewitness who can add a little something, perhaps, to a look at our past history.” His good friend, Andy Rooney, told me, “He’s just so concerned with the world and thinks about it all the time. He has got all sorts of ideas about what should be done to make this world better.”

Although his professional schedule had remained the same for the past several years, his personal life had been dealt a heartbreaking blow about six months earlier, when Betsy, his wife of nearly 65 years, died of cancer at age 89.

“I am still too affected by it to really discuss it, I cry a little now,” said an emotional Cronkite, who has three children—Nancy, a writer and yoga instructor; Chip, a New York documentary producer; and Kate, an author—and four grandchildren.

Early influences

Cronkite was born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., the only child of a mustached dentist and his beautiful wife. The family relocated to Kansas City, Mo., when little Walter was 2. At age 6, Cronkite felt the call to report the death of President Harding to the neighbors, and soon after began selling magazines and delivering newspapers.

When he was 10, his family moved to Houston, a relocation that would ultimately shape the rest of his life.

“I was fortunate enough to be in high school in Houston, which had perhaps the first high-school journalism class in the country, as far as I know,” he says. Fred Birney, a former editor of the Houston Press, volunteered his teaching services to five Houston schools.

“I was lucky enough to be in his class,” says Cronkite, who became editor of the school’s newspaper. “He inspired me to want to be in journalism. He was so firm, really tough about any suggestion of putting your private opinion into an article of any kind. That stayed with me all my life. And then his other commands of accuracy and fairness were well implanted in me.”

After attending the University of Texas, Cronkite worked for the Houston Post before joining United Press in 1939. As a UP correspondent, he covered many important World War II battles, including the pivotal United States’ attack on North Africa and the Allied invasion of Normandy. “It shook up a whole generation of those who lived through it,” he says of the war.

Cronkite told me he wanted to spit on the Nazi war criminals on trial in Nuremberg in the late 1940s for killing millions of innocent people. He said covering wars allowed him to see the best and worst in people.

“The thing I am afraid we’ve learned about people is that some of those who seem to be the most civilized – the Germans, after all, were very noted for their arts and music and writing and religion – could be led by leaders of ill intent to a degree that none of us ever believed would be possible…. I couldn’t believe that my grandmother and grandfather, who were first generation Americans from German stock, could be of a people that could possibly have gone out and murdered others of their neighbors, simply because, in this case, of their Jewish forebearers.”

CBS' anchor

He joined CBS in 1950 and was named to host the CBS Evening News in 1962, just as the nation was entering one of its most tumultuous decades.

Perhaps his most memorable newscast occurred when he announced, with tears in his eyes, the death of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Footage of his report itself has become a part of history and frequently is shown in TV documentaries.

“It seems to show up everywhere, anytime someone talks about the assassination,” he said of the news clip. “I really don’t understand why that should be such an icon of the assassination. To me, it seems like there are other shots I would use if I was trying to get a quick picture of the assassination.

“But I am not ashamed of it in any way. I did indeed have to brush away a tear, and I have gotten awfully tired of seeing me taking off those glasses. It surprises me every time it pops up again.”

He said expressing an emotion while announcing this national tragedy was different than expressing an opinion.

“You might contend that it is an opinion in the sense that you hated to lose that individual; you felt we had a great loss,” he said. “If you were really a Kennedy-hater, I can understand how your values might be so distorted that you think, ‘Well, look at that fool, crying over this man’s death.’ I imagine there were some people like that out there, but I don’t think very many that day.”

Cronkite has been lauded—and criticized—for being a neutral observer who did not reveal his personal opinions while delivering the news.

“He was so careful, all those years he was on the air, not to reveal his opinions about politics or anything else,” Rooney told me. “People didn’t know whether he was a Republican or Democrat. It was very difficult to do, and something that no one is doing today.”

Cronkite viewed his position as being "the front page" of the newscast, while TV commentators were "the editorial page."

“Those who write for the front pages… are obligated to try to not show prejudice in their reporting,” he said. “If they have prejudice, as much as possible they should put it aside and understand that their responsibility as journalists is to tell the story without injecting their personal opinion.”

But he was convinced to express his opinion in February 1968 after returning from a trip to Vietnam during the war’s Tet offensive. He anchored a prime-time special on the air, and at the end, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Cronkite said the commentary was not his idea, but that of CBS news president Dick Salant.

“As I was writing my piece, he asked me how I felt about it,” he recalled. “I said to him at that time what I said later on the air, that it seemed to me it was a time for us to admit that we had done the best we could, spent a lot of blood and money to try to preserve Southeast Asia against Communist incursions, and we tried to save Vietnam. However, it had cost us too much and we had not succeeded. Let’s admit that we had not and get out. He said, ‘I think you ought to put that in your piece.’ ”

“I said right away, ‘Oh boy, I have permission to do something I’d really like to do.’ I left his office, went around to my desk and hit the old typewriter and began writing that piece.”

After the piece aired, President Lyndon Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” a comment which Cronkite remained unaware for several months.

In Walter we trust

By the 1970s, Cronkite’s newscast was hands-down the most popular network newscast in the nation and a 1973 poll named him the most trusted man in America.

“When I read those polls the first time, I thought, how silly,” he said. “I really did. I still feel pretty much that same way. It [made it seem] like I was more trustworthy than all of the members of the Supreme Court, the president and the bishops. That is perfectly ridiculous. That was only because I was the one person that was known all over the country because of being on national television.”

In many ways, Cronkite was the antithesis of the stereotype of the modern anchor — good looks, blow-dried hair, multi-million-dollar salary and a large ego to match. As President Johnson noted, Cronkite was able to remain closely bound to middle America, despite the circles in which he traveled.

After all the years, Cronkite told me still felt modest about his work. “I know that I could do better than what I’ve done, and I don’t really think about this, being modest or famous. Being famous always surprises me.”

After much thought, Cronkite decided to retire in 1981 when he turned 65, a decision he regretted almost immediately.

“I made a mistake stepping down at 65,” he said. “If I had known that my health was going to be so good for so long, I wouldn’t have done that. If I had known I was going to have all of these years, I wouldn’t have stepped down at that time.

“As a matter of fact, I regretted it within a couple of weeks. I had just stepped down when the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan took place. Here the story was, and I was missing it. Every time there was a big story, I wished I was involved in covering it in some way. That still goes on today.”

When the interview concluded, Cronkite said, “That was a very good interview.” Those words meant more to me than any award that comes to mind.

I left his office, walked down the hall and made it to the elevator before the tears began to form. And like Cronkite’s legendary tears, I was not the least bit embarrassed, because every once in awhile, your heroes are more wonderful than you dared imagine.

Keel is a veteran Nashville journalist now serving as a recording industry professor and as director of the Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Her Cronkite remembrance piece is largely based on her 2005 American Profile interview.

 

1 Comment on this post:

By: Captain Nemo on 7/22/09 at 7:48

The day he retired is the day journalism started it's downward desent toward tabloid deterioration.

He will be missed.