Growing up, we had few family rituals. Walter Cronkite was one of them.
Every evening, after the dinner dishes were done, we gathered in front of the black-and-white Zenith in my parents’ bedroom and watched Uncle Walter on “CBS Evening News.” It was as close to a family hearth as would ever exist for us.
My father, a fiercely intelligent educator, held The New York Times in Biblical esteem. Still, no story was set in stone until he had heard it from Walter Cronkite. That unmistakable gravelly timbre, while not the voice of God, projected the same gravitas as that of Charlton Heston‘s Moses.
And that’s the way it was for millions of us. Before cable TV, before the internet, before Twitter, Facebook and killer apps, Walter Leland Cronkite Jr., the Missouri-born son and grandson of dentists, defined and delivered the news.
From 1962 to 1981, the world, as we knew it, was filtered through his eyes, and we trusted his vision. If Cronkite said it, it had to be true.
Now he’s gone, at 92 a victim of cerebrovascular disease. And with his death yesterday goes the last of the truly iconic newsmen. Occupants of that pantheon — Brinkley, Sevareid, Smith, Collingwood, Murrow — preceded Cronkite long ago.
Though he came from strong stock — his mother lived to 101 — Cronkite felt increasingly mortal with each of their passings. When David Brinkley died in 2003 at age 82, Cronkite, then 86, told this reporter he felt the loss “very keenly.”
“What you don’t realize until you get to my age is that when someone of your generation dies, it is a little loss of your own memory. There’s no one I can chew the fat with about the old days.”
Cronkite didn’t scream. He didn’t interrupt. With one infamous
exception, he didn’t editorialize. Hell, he didn’t even like adjectives in his copy. Magically, it all worked. For 14 consecutive years, until his forced retirement at age 65 – yes, 65!!! – “CBS Evening News” was the country’s most-watched newscast.
In the 1976-77 season, for example, Cronkite drew an astounding 30 percent of all viewers at 6:30 p.m. In today’s 500-channel universe, that’s the average for ABC, CBS and NBC. Combined.
Cronkite didn’t just inform us, however. He calmed us, comforted us, made us less afraid during some of the most traumatic events of the 1960′s and ’70s — the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the resignation of Richard Nixon.
Slow, steady, serious — that was the Cronkite way. His was the voice of video reason. In the words of 30-year former CBS correspondent Bill McLaughlin, “he just breathed decency.” In the rare moments when he lost his composure, we prepared for the worst.
In what has become a YouTube classic, Cronkite pauses, removes his glasses and tears up, just for a moment, as he breaks the news of Kennedy’s death. In that peak behind the curtain, we realize he is as shocked as we are.
Then, just as quickly, it’s back to business for “Iron Pants,” nicknamed for his ability to stay on the air for long stretches without answering nature’s call.
Cronkite was such a prism of the national psyche that his pronouncements affected affairs of state. After returning from visits to Vietnam in 1968, he said in an unusual commentary that the war was unwinnable and the troops should come home.
To anti-war protesters such as myself, it was as if Mt. Rushmore had joined the picket line. President Johnson knew it, too. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” he said, “I’ve lost middle America.” And he had.
Cronkite’s influence even extended to language. Don Hewitt, his first executive producer on “CBS Evening News,” coined the term “anchor” to describe Cronkite’s role. In Sweden, desk reporters were called “Cronkiters” for years.
A college dropout, Cronkite even had a journalism school named for him, at Arizona State. Sadly, the significance is lost on much of the student body, according to Aaron Brown, the first Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism.
“The kids don’t know Walter from the man in the moon until I tell them about him,” Brown told this reporter in June.
To Brown, Cronkite was the most important anchor in TV history. “He almost literally invented the job because he was in the chair when JFK died, which was the moment contemporary TV news was born and the anchorman became a kind of cathartic center.”
The last time we felt that catharsis was 9/11, with Brokaw, Rather and Jennings. Respected newsmen, all, but not in the icon stratosphere. Given our polarization as a culture and disdain for “mainstream” news, it’s doubtful any individual will reach that status again.
Cronkite himself admitted he would have a hard time getting hired today.
“When I went on the air, it was ‘Open, Sesame,’” he said in the 2003 interview. “There wasn’t anybody else doing it. Today, for Heaven’s sake, there are thousands of people all competing for the next job.
“I think I’d have a terrible time.”
No, dear Mr. Cronkite. The terrible time is ours.