By Tom Shales
News that Walter Cronkite’s health was failing, and that his death seemed impertinently imminent, spread through the nation’s newsrooms many weeks before the venerable and venerated newsman actually died. When he did, many tributes had already been written and stored for future use. He would have understood. That’s the way “the business” works.
When “Meet the Press” anchor Tim Russert died, the ceremonial mourning seemed to go on for weeks—it really got to be a bit much—though there certainly can’t have been many obits and appreciations written in advance. Even now the anniversaries of Russert’s passing are noted with studied solemnity by such surviving colleagues as Brian Williams of NBC News. You’d think Russert was the equal of Edward R. Murrow. He wasn’t.
Russert’s career in broadcast journalism was a mere peep compared to Cronkite’s long run. But Russert died at the age of 58, and Cronkite at 92. Cruel as it sounds, people expect you to die when you get to be 92. Russert’s death, meanwhile, reminded a generation of baby boomers that they were mortal—a thought that apparently hadn’t occurred to some of them, at least not so vividly—and they reeled in sorrow and panic.
For those of Cronkite’s generation, however, the ultimate reality had been faced before, and they’d come to terms with it. They were the grown-ups.
One of the sad things about Cronkite’s passing was immutable: So many of his colleagues and contemporaries had preceded him in death that few were left to give him a proper memorial or to speak of him as a personal friend—something of a party boy, in fact, as well as a charmer, and a gentleman of what used to be called “the old school.” It seems now like the old school closed down long before Cronkite left. The great graduates of that school, the men who invented broadcast journalism and TV news, have largely departed.
Not enough attention was paid to them while they lived, so it’s hardly a shock that too little was paid when they died—Murrow and Friendly, Brinkley and Huntley (and the man who made them stars, the brilliant and irascible Reuven Frank), Roone Arledge (relatively young for the group), Eric Sevareid and Dick Salant and other past presidents of CBS News, and the leaders of the other network news divisions as well. These were the people who built a new kind of journalism and who established most of the traditions that came with it—traditions that now may seem as quaint as the “Declaration of Principles” that Charles Foster Kane wrote for the front page of his first newspaper in “Citizen Kane.”
They are legion now, and legend. They came home from World War II and helped build the better, nobler part of what Eric Barnouw christened “the image empire.” Walter Cronkite played proudly on that team. He brought honor to it and helped keep it honest, or as honest as humanly possible.
It’s a famous story: how David Brinkley, covering a political convention, recoiled in disgust when delegates rushed up and asked him for his autograph. He didn’t want to be a star, he wanted to be a journalist. Cronkite was less appalled by the fatherly or grandfatherly or avuncular role he was called upon to play. He just sort of grew into it, and before he knew it, someone had hung that “most trusted man in America” motto around his neck. It did seem to fit; he looked and sounded trustworthy, and his sing-song delivery had the soothing effect of a dinnertime lullabye. The world could be splitting asunder but Walter Cronkite’s mere presence made it clear that things would be all right.
Cronkite’s devotion to journalism didn’t make him a fuddy-duddy. He crossed over the line into the entertainment world more than once—the celebrated guest appearance on “Mary Tyler Moore,” the annual gig as host of “The Kennedy Center Honors” and a memorable edition of his short-lived series “Universe” in which he donned top hat and tails and tap-danced to illustrate some point about gravity.
It was gravitas, not gravity, that he brought to the evening news—no matter how many little show-biz gigs he performed—and his very reliability helped ritualize it into something integral to our national life, something that seemed indispensable but which time, in its cruelty, subsequently dispensed with. Dan Rather was a first-class reporter and anchor, but he never became quite the icon (oh inescapable word) that Cronkite did. And now that icons are a dime a dozen, and now that the term is applied to everything from a wedding dress to an Oreo cookie, there probably won’t be any more real icons, nationally unifying icons, anyway, except for those elected to national office.
Cronkite also belonged to a generation that liked to tipple. They didn’t smoke pot; they drank 25-year-old Scotch, or older. There are many stories about Cronkite’s fondness and capacity for recreational imbibing. One sort of involves me; a New York party was being planned for my first book, a collection of columns and reviews that turned out to be an ignominious flop. But everybody at the publishing house was thrilled when Walter Cronkite himself RSVP’d “yes” to the book party.
And the instant he did, the liquid menu was upgraded from beer and wine to the hard stuff, because you didn’t serve Pinot Noir to Walter Cronkite.
Another time, either earlier or later, Cronkite was involved in some kind of CBS press event on an island off San Francisco. During the boat ride back, the party hosts did the unthinkable; they ran out of booze. Walter Cronkite knew what to do; he simply ambled down to the engine room, played his celebrity card, and bargained some of the sailor boys into giving up a few bottles of liquor. The party wasn’t over until Cronkite said it was.
The party’s over now.
Tom Shales is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and columnist for the Washington Post.