For anyone under 45 years old, the stature, power and influence that Walter Cronkite had in the 1960s and 1970s is likely hard to understand.
The best way I can explain it is to tell you a little about my family.
My dad was born in 1911, five years before Cronkite was born. My dad was a young man of 18 when the depression hit. As with many people from that era, the depression had a lasting impact upon my dad. For the remainder of his life he believed that cash was king, and that debt—and credit—were to be avoided at all costs.
My dad had just turned 30 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he volunteered for, and became an officer in, the Army Air Corps, which was the predecessor to the Air Force.
To say that my dad was conservative, both fiscally and politically, is almost an understatement.
After the war my parents got married, and had two sons. My older brother and I became part of the Baby Boomer generation.
Though of the generation that fell in love with the movies, our dad was never seduced. His entertainment of choice was reading, primarily history.
He never watched a lot of TV. One program that did become a staple in our house was “The 20th Century.” It ran on CBS on Sunday nights at 6 pm (later at 6:30pm) for most of my formative years. The program featured stories of the events and the people that shaped the 20th century. Cronkite was the narrator.
The other program my dad watched with regularity was Cronkite’s evening newscast. Though we had the Los Angeles Herald Express (later the Examiner) delivered in the late afternoon, the Cronkite newscast became a must in our household.
In those days, information was neither instantaneous nor ubiquitous. Millions and millions of Americans depended upon the evening newscast to catch up on the day’s events.
Like my dad, Cronkite was a veteran of World War II. My dad clearly respected the newscaster. Back in those days people on TV and in movies had great voices, and Cronkite’s timbre was authoritative yet not overbearing.
The big split in our household centered around the Vietnam War. My dad was a proponent and my brother was demonstrably against it. The arguments they had would often ratchet up to yelling and screaming between them, usually concluding with my brother storming out of the house.
Until, one fateful night, when Walter Cronkite turned against the war. In what I recall was almost shockingly uncharacteristic for Cronkite, he broke out of his familiar “news reader” mode to editorialize that the war could not be won.
I could tell that my dad was visibly surprised by this pronouncement. My dad was a thoughtful man, and not a knee-jerk conservative. But on the issue of the Vietnam War he had not budged. The arguments between my brother and my dad about the war had produced a serious rift between them. By this point they were barely speaking to one another.
And then, suddenly, my brother had an ally in a man who had a lot of influence in our father’s mind: Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, I’m sure my dad would have said, was smart, sensible, and cautious. And, my dad would have noted, Cronkite was both a contemporary of his and, like my dad, a veteran of the second world war.
If Cronkite had decided the war couldn’t be won, that meant something.
In fact, in thousands of households like ours, it meant a lot. Walter Cronkite, this calm, polished, learned man who was so good at explaining the news to us—news we didn’t know about until he told us about it every day—had actually come out against the war.
Unlike the current war in Iraq, fought with all-volunteer servicemen and servicewomen, there was a draft during the Vietnam War. So one way or another, every home that had young men in it was very much directly affected by the war.
Cronkite’s coming out against the Vietnam war was the beginning of our dad changing his mind about the conflict. Our dad finally decided it was not a war we should be fighting. He and my brother reconciled.
President Johnson reportedly said after the CBS newscast that night that since Cronkite had come out against the war that the country would also turn against it. Cronkite’s pronouncement was clearly a factor in Johnson not seeking re-election.
Today, with the fragmentation of media and the fact that we now get our news instantaneously on the Internet or from the all-news cable outlets, there’s no newsperson who has the singular voice—literally and figuratively—that Cronkite had.
A short eight months after Cronkite’s last broadcast at age 65, my dad passed away, far too young, at age 70.
Six years ago Cronkite told Time magazine that he thought he had stepped down from his news anchor chair too early.
But I think my dad, and millions of others of us, would demur with Cronkite’s re-evaluation. Time has not been kind to the traditional news business, both on the distribution and content fronts.
Reporting about stains on a blue dress and stars found dead in closets in Thailand after masturbating are not events those of us who grew up watching Cronkite picture him reporting.#