Saturday, July 18
And That's the Way It Was
Walter Cronkite was America's first anchorman. Literally.
He got the title from Don Hewitt, who later gained his greatest fame as the creator of 60 Minutes. Hewitt was looking for a term to describe the role he wanted 35-year-old Walter Cronkite to play as the main "presenter" during CBS' coverage of the Democratic and Republican political conventions in 1952. He wanted a team effort, all of the CBS News stars working as a unit, a relay team, with one man handling the "anchor leg." That man was Walter Cronkite, and he became the model for every anchor everywhere in the world ever since. Now he's dead at 92.
My purpose here isn't to offer a definitive obituary or a ringing eulogy. Far more learned people are writing lengthy (and well-deserved) tributes. My purpose here is to be brief and to be personal.
Quite simply: Walter Cronkite narrated my life and got me interested in television news.
There really was no television news until November 22, 1963. The CBS Evening News had recently expanded from 15 minutes to a half-hour. Affiliates of the three networks broadcast from roughly 7:00 in the morning (The Today Show) until 1:00 a.m., then signed off with the "Star Spangled Banner." TV was in black-and-white, there was no videotape, no local microwave trucks or satellites. Any story--every story shot in the field--had to be processed and edited and sent down an AT&T line to New York for broadcast.
It was, by today's standards, primitive. And then John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and Walter Cronkite told the world.
"From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: "President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time." 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago."
Few living Americans had experienced the shock and grief of a presidential assassination. All Americans gathered around their televisions. It was the first time TV had become the focal point for news and information. It had immediacy, it had impact: and Walter Cronkite on CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC became our town criers.
I remember watching NBC, live, two days later when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, with Correspondent Tom Pettit doing, literally, the play-by-play. LIVE! Nothing like it had ever been seen before.
There was no sign-off that weekend. The networks stayed on round-the-clock: sometimes with news, but often, overnight, with prayer services and memorial concerts and political round-tables. Television became our national church.
I was 16 back then. They let us out of Mrs. Wagner's algebra class that Friday afternoon and sent us home, where our mothers and fathers tried to explain to us that the world was going to go on. They were reassuring, but were they sure?
America stopped that day. And when it restarted it was a different country and a different world and television was at the center of it. Suddenly TV news was an indispensable service--like electricity, or running water, or your phone--you had to have it.
And I think I decided then that I wanted to be a part of it.
Walter Cronkite narrated our collective journey over the next two decades. When he expressed his doubts about the Vietnam war, President Lyndon Johnson new it was a lost cause. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy, and rioting broke out in the streets (and in the halls at the Democratic National Convention in Mayor Daly's Chicago), and Walter Cronkite gave it to us straight. When men landed on the Moon, it was Walter Cronkite who showed us it was OK to show tears of joy on television.
Somewhere in there I got out of college and went to work in television news.
CBS didn't do any really original reporting on Richard Nixon's Watergate scandals: but when Managing Editor Walter Cronkite decided to focus his broadcast's attention on it, Watergate reached what we today would call a "tipping point." Nixon resigned not long after.
Why? Because Cronkite was seen as (and named in a nationwide poll as) "the Most Trusted Man in America."
He was larger than life, but never larger than the story.
A final note. I met him once, for about ten seconds: time enough to shake his hand. I missed my big opportunity by a couple of months.
I joined WISH-TV in Indianapolis in the summer of 1976, at the height of the Carter-Ford political campaign, but after the primaries. So I missed the night Cronkite and company came to town to cover Jimmy Carter's primary campaign as it swung through the heartland.
The way the story goes, the phone rang in the newsroom late one night and a voice said, "THIS ... is WALL-turr CRON-kite. I need directions to your station."
The intern who answered the phone said, "Nice try, but not a very good imitation" and hung up phone. A half-hour later there was a knock on one of the the full-length windows that glassed in the newsroom. Outside were Walter Cronkite and a CBS production crew numbering about ten!
And that's the way that was!