Cronkite Remembered As The ‘Most Trusted Man In America’
First Published: July 18, 2009 11:40 AM EDT Credit: Getty Images
NEW YORK, N.Y. -- The death of Walter Cronkite elicited tributes from colleagues, presidents past and present, world-famous astronauts and those who hoped in vain to fill his empty anchor chair, all honoring the avuncular face of TV journalism who became the “most trusted man in America.”
Cronkite died with his family by his side Friday night at his Manhattan home after a long illness, CBS vice president Linda Mason said. Marlene Adler, Cronkite’s chief of staff, said Cronkite died of cerebrovascular disease. He was 92.
“It’s hard to imagine a man for whom I had more admiration,” Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” said on CNN. “… He was a superb reporter and honorable man.”
Cronkite was the face of the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981, when stories ranged from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to racial and anti-war riots, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis.
It was Cronkite who read the bulletins coming from Dallas when Kennedy was shot Nov. 22, 1963, interrupting a live CBS-TV broadcast of a soap opera.
“Walter was who I wanted to be when I grew up,” said CBS’s “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer, 72, who began working at CBS News in 1969.
“He set a standard for all of us. He made television news what it became.”
Cronkite died just three days before the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, another earthshaking moment of history linked inexorably with his reporting.
“He had a passion for human space exploration, an enthusiasm that was contagious, and the trust of his audience. He will be missed,” astronaut Neil Armstrong said.
President Barack Obama issued a statement saying that Cronkite set the standard by which all other news anchors have been judged, echoing sentiments from former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.
“He invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down,” Obama said. “This country has lost an icon and a dear friend, and he will be truly missed.”
Cronkite was the broadcaster to whom the title “anchorman” was first applied, and he became so identified in that role that his name became the term for it in other languages. (Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters; in Holland, they are Cronkiters.)
“Walter Cronkite was and always will be the gold standard,” said ABC News anchor Charles Gibson. “His objectivity, his evenhandedness, his news judgment are all great examples.”
CBS has scheduled a prime-time special, “That’s the Way it Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite,” for 7 p.m. Sunday.
“He was a great broadcaster and a gentleman whose experience, honesty, professionalism and style defined the role of anchor and commentator,” CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves said in a statement.
A former wire service reporter and war correspondent, Cronkite valued accuracy, objectivity and understated compassion. He expressed liberal views in more recent writings but said he had always aimed to be fair and professional in his judgments on the air.
But when Cronkite took sides, he helped shape the times. After the 1968 Tet offensive, he visited Vietnam and wrote and narrated a “speculative, personal” report advocating negotiations leading to the withdrawal of American troops.
“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said, and concluded, “We are mired in stalemate.”
After the broadcast, President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
He also helped broker the 1977 invitation that took Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, the breakthrough to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Off camera, his stamina and admittedly demanding ways brought him the nickname “Old Ironpants.” But to viewers, he was “Uncle Walter,” with his jowls and grainy baritone, his warm, direct expression and his trim mustache.
When he summed up the news each evening by stating, “And THAT’s the way it is,” millions agreed. His reputation survived accusations of bias by Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, and being labeled a “pinko” in the tirades of a fictional icon, Archie Bunker of CBS’s “All in the Family.”
Polls in 1972 and 1974 pronounced Cronkite the “most trusted man in America.” Like fellow Midwesterner Johnny Carson, Cronkite seemed to embody the nation’s mainstream. When he broke down as he announced Kennedy’s death, removing his glasses and fighting back tears, the times seemed to break down with him.
Cronkite was the top newsman during the peak era for the networks, when the nightly broadcasts grew to a half-hour and 24-hour cable and the Internet were still well in the future. In the fall of 1972, responding to reports in The Washington Post, Cronkite aired a two-part series on Watergate that helped ensure national attention to the then-emerging scandal.
As many as 18 million households tuned in to Cronkite’s top-rated program each evening. Twice that number watched his final show, on March 6, 1981, compared with fewer than 10 million in 2005 for the departure of Dan Rather.
Rather, who replaced Cronkite at the anchor desk, called Cronkite “a giant of the journalistic craft.”
Cronkite had stepped down at a vigorous 64 years old with the assurance that other duties awaited him at CBS News, but he found little demand there for his services. He hosted the short-lived science magazine series “Walter Cronkite’s Universe” and was retained by the network as a consultant, although, as he was known to state wistfully, he was never consulted.
He also sailed his beloved boat, the Wyntje, hosted or narrated specials on public and cable TV, and issued his columns and the best-selling “Walter Cronkite: A Reporter’s Life.”
For 24 years he served as onsite host for New Year’s Day telecasts by the Vienna Philharmonic, ending that cherished tradition only in 2009.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cronkite was asked to introduce the postponed Emmy awards show. He told the audience that in its coverage of the attack and its aftermath, “television, the great common denominator, has lifted our common vision as never before.”
Cronkite joined CBS in 1950, after a decade with United Press, during which he covered World War II and the Nuremberg trials, and a brief stint with a regional radio group.
At CBS he found a respected radio-news organization dipping its toe into TV. He was named anchor for CBS’s coverage of the 1952 political conventions, the first year the presidential nominations got wide TV coverage. From there, he was assigned to such news-oriented programs as “You Are There” and “Twentieth Century.” (He also briefly hosted a morning show, accompanied by a puppet named Charlemagne the Lion.)
On April 16, 1962, he replaced Douglas Edwards as anchor of the network’s “Evening News.”
“I never asked them why,” Cronkite recalled in a 2006 TV portrait. “I was so pleased to get the job, I didn’t want to endanger it by suggesting that I didn’t know why I had it.”
He was up against the NBC team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, which was solidly ahead in the ratings. Cronkite lacked Brinkley’s wry wit and Huntley’s rugged good looks, but he established himself as an anchorman to whom people could relate.
His rise to the top was interrupted just once: In 1964, disappointing ratings for the Republican National Convention led CBS boss William S. Paley to dump him as anchor of the Democratic gathering. Critics and viewers protested and he was never displaced again.
Cronkite won numerous Emmys and other awards for excellence in news coverage. In 1978, he and the evening news were the first anchorman and daily broadcast ever given a DuPont award.
Cronkite’s salary reportedly reaching seven figures, he was both anchorman and star — interviewed by Playboy, ham enough to appear as himself on an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But he repeatedly condemned television practices that put entertainment values ahead of news judgment.
“Broadcast journalism is never going to substitute for print,” he said. “We cannot cover in depth in a half hour many of the stories required to get a good understandingof the world.”
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., the son and grandson of dentists. The family moved to Houston when he was 10. He joked years later that he was disappointed when he “didn’t see a single damn cowboy.”
He got a taste of journalism at The Houston Post, where he worked summers after high school and served as campus correspondent at the University of Texas. He also did some sports announcing at a local radio station.
Cronkite quit school after his junior year for a full-time job with the Houston Press. After a brief stint at KCMO in Kansas City, Mo., he joined United Press in 1937. Dispatched to London early in World War II, Cronkite covered the battle of the North Atlantic, flew on a bombing mission over Germany and glided into Holland with the 101st Airborne Division. He was a chief correspondent at the postwar Nuremberg trials and spent his final two years with the news service managing its Moscow bureau.
Cronkite returned to the United States in 1948 and covered Washington for a group of Midwest radio stations. He accepted Edward R. Murrow’s invitation to join CBS in 1950.
In 1940, Cronkite married Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Maxwell, whom he met when they both worked at KCMO. They had three children, Nancy, Mary Kathleen and Walter Leland III. Betsy Cronkite died in 2005.
In his book, he paid tribute to her “extraordinarily keen sense of humor, which saw us over many bumps (mostly of my making), and her tolerance, even support, for the uncertain schedule and wanderings of a newsman.”
AP National Writer Hillel Italie, AP Television Writer David Bauder and Associated Press writers Polly Anderson, Virginia Byrne and Cristian Salazar in New York City contributed to this report.
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