A consummate professional. A true gentleman, generous and slow to criticize, except when criticism was justified. An icon from America’s troubled twentieth century. A broadcasting professional once names “America’s most trusted man.” Walter Leland “Uncle Walter” Cronkite, Jr, a dentist’s son, was all of this, and more. Last night, July 17th, he passed away at his New York City home at the age of 92.
I read CNN’s very nice news report on his passing through tears for his news broadcasts formed a large part of my younger years. I still remember his straightforward and almost low-key coverage of the early US manned missions in space. He conveyed the sense of drama and history in the making without turning to sensationalism or spin like current news flacks seemingly can’t avoid.
Reflecting on his broadcasting career at CBS truly leaves me feeling old. When his nightly television news broadcasts began in the early 1960's, they lasted 15 minutes, were in black and white, and, on occasion, relied on day old news footage. On Labor Day, 1963, his broadcast expanded to 30 minutes, with an interview of President Kennedy as the broadcast centerpiece.
It was his coverage of JFK’s assassination three months later that likely did more than any other story that endeared him to the country. While seeking to remain professional in his tone and approach, still, his emotions crept in to his voice, and, while they weren’t copious, still, on camera, he did shed some tears while reporting the sad news. During that weekend, when Jack Ruby gunned down Oswald on national TV, again, his approach used an entirely appropriate tone devoid of editorializing, fluff or spin.
Indeed, his signature broadcast sign-off became part of the American vernacular while he was still on the air. I doubt that anyone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s will fail to recognize his unique way of summing things up with “And that’s the way it is . . . this is Walter Cronkite, good night.”
So now Uncle Walter has signed off for the final time in this life. He was one of a kind, a newsman who took accuracy in reporting very seriously. Perhaps more importantly, he kept news reports and editorial comments clearly separate, the way they should be. At times he could be a difference maker without becoming the focus of the news, unlike current news hacks.
Indeed, in 1968, he traveled to Viet Nam, to report from there for a change. What he saw led him to editorially criticize the war as “mired in stalemate.” This criticism led then President Johnson to remark that “if I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” A few months later, President Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election as President. Johnson was savvy enough to realize that, without the support of Cronkite, re-election would be impossible to achieve. Such was the influence that he quietly amassed.
So yet one more high profile American has passed from the scene, joining Paul Harvey, Ed McMahon, Bea Arthur, John Updike, Michael Jackson, among others, who are now no longer with us. Each in his (or her) own way will be missed by those to whom they either were important or mattered.
As for me, well, “every man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of all mankind. And send not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” (John Donne)
And that’s the way it is, Saturday, July 18, 2009. Good night, Walter Cronkite, good night.