Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite 1916 - 2009

Another iconic figure of my formative years goes into that good night.

Walter Cronkite, who pioneered and then mastered the role of television news anchorman with such plain-spoken grace that he was called the most trusted man in America, died Friday at his home in New York. He was 92. ...

From 1962 to 1981, Mr. Cronkite was a nightly presence in American homes and always a reassuring one, guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike, from moonwalks to war, in an era when network news was central to many people’s lives.

He became something of a national institution, with an unflappable delivery, a distinctively avuncular voice and a daily benediction: “And that’s the way it is.” He was Uncle Walter to many: respected, liked and listened to. With his trimmed mustache and calm manner, he even bore a resemblance to another trusted American fixture, another Walter — Walt Disney.

That photo to the right is how I remember him: his hair and sideburns a little longer in the style of the '70's. A little whiter also. I don't remember "the flash from Dallas, apparently official" or his declaration that the Vietnam War was lost. I don't really remember the Apollo missions or the conventions he covered. I just recall that his was the voice of reason and authority in our house. At a time when there was only thirty minutes of national news a day, beginning promptly at 5:30 p.m. Central -- and you had three choices where to get it -- he was 'the gold standard', as longtime producer Don Hewitt has said. He certainly invented the post of broadcast news anchorman, though he referred to himself by a newspaper term, managing editor. (In Sweden, newscasters are actually called Kronkiters.)

Some viewers thought Cronkite was liberal, and they were right. But he wasn't a Democrat. (A personal aside: mine was a Democratic and union household growing up, but my wife's was Cuban-born and Republican. She said her father suspected his political leanings, and thus they were presumably a Huntley-Brinkley home.) Cronkite lived during an era when "liberal" and "conservative" applied to both political parties evenly.

Now, of course, all the thinking conservatives have abandoned the GOP. But I digress.

On Oct. 27, 1972, his 14-minute report on Watergate, followed by an eight-minute segment four days later, “put the Watergate story clearly and substantially before millions of Americans” for the first time, the broadcast historian Marvin Barrett wrote in “Moments of Truth?” (1975).

In 1977, his separate interviews with President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel were instrumental in Sadat’s visiting Jerusalem. The countries later signed a peace treaty.

“From his earliest days,” Mr. Halberstam wrote, “he was one of the hungriest reporters around, wildly competitive, no one was going to beat Walter Cronkite on a story, and as he grew older and more successful, the marvel of it was that he never changed, the wild fires still burned.”

Rest in Peace, Uncle Walter.

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