Sunday, July 19, 2009

WHY CRONKITE MATTERED

Over the next few days you will hear people talking about Walter Cronkite in the same tone they would talk about a relative, longtime co-worker or lifelong friend. He was all of that. He was part of the American family, a guy who always seemed to be working for us, intent on making sure we knew the truth. Walter Cronkite was to 20th century America, as critically important to the public good as any man has ever been.

As a newsman, Cronkite was the epitome of a straight arrow. He conveyed information in a steady cadence that lulled our intellect, and he looked straight into the lens as if he were standing in our living room breathing the same air as we breathed. He managed to do that until one night in February, 1968 when he said this: “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.”

It was as stunning a moment in television as had ever been seen. Cronkite never shifted his gaze from the camera, not for a millisecond. He meant what he said, and he wanted you to know what was true about the debacle that was Vietnam. In those days Cronkite was the anchorman for the CBS Evening News, and it was the practice during Vietnam for news programs to tell the total number of dead U.S. soldiers every day. Perhaps Walter Cronkite wearied of reporting the tens of thousands of Americans who were dying for nothing in a tiny place just South of China that most of us had never heard of. Or maybe it had to do with his up close and personal view of Vietnam. He went there in 1968 to report on the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, an attack by the Viet Cong which showed a cunning and aggression that none of us had known they had. Without Cronkite’s report, most of us would never have understood how significant the attack was. And without his courage to editorialize on television for the first time, it would have been difficult for him to tell us the full truth of Vietnam. Watch:

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He was universally applauded for his guts and for his candor. Reportedly, Cronkite had been an opponent of the war as far back as 1965, but never publicly uttered one slanted word about the war until his conscience would no longer allow him to remain neutral. So many public communicators today could gain so much from Cronkite’s unprecedented example of self-restraint.

Five years earlier, most of us saw for the first time, Cronkite’s real mettle. It was the day John Kennedy was assassinated. Cronkite was reporting live on air when the first call came in about the President having been shot. We were a different America then. We were still na├»ve. We were still early 20th century mentality, rather than late 20th century mindset. That a President could be killed in cold blood was not remotely considerable prior to November 22, 1963. So we needed a steady voice and controlled guide to gently usher us through the horror of it. Cronkite stepped up to do that for us. And yet, the moment he told us of JFK’s death, we saw his heart, if even for a brief moment. What follows is the footage from CBS in the several minutes leading up to official word that Kennedy was dead. Kennedy was on his way to a luncheon at a downtown ballroom, and in this clip you will see fascinating footage of what was going on in the ballroom as Cronkite and his associates reported the series of events. Watch:

Walter Cronkite mattered not only because of who he was, but also because of when he was. He took over the anchor chair at CBS in 1963, just as the country teetered on the precipice of social chaos. He occupied the chair from 1963 to 1982, first through a decade when our leaders were repeatedly shot dead on pavements coast to coast. In between it all, some say slavery finally officially ended as the civil rights movement resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Cronkite spoke out against the Vietnam War he was 52 years old, at a time when most of the anti-war movement participants were college age. As such, he truly legitimized the movement. When Cronkite told us Martin Luther King was dead, he rightly referred to him as the “apostle of non-violence” in the first sentence of his report. He presided over America’s greatest adventure, the Space Age, and when men finally did walk on the moon, it was Cronkite that two of every three Americans were tuned in to, just so they could be sure it was true. His unbridled glee upon reporting on the Apollo 11 moon walk was infectious and brought us all together at a time when we were nothing, if not splintered. Watch:

His was the voice we depended on during Presidential conventions, to guide us through the confusion and allow us to understand how our system operated. When the Watergate debacle came, Cronkite was among the earliest to recognize the true weight of the events, and one could say it was he who allowed us to understand that President Nixon must resign. By that time, I, and many others in my generation had opted for journalism school. Because of people like Cronkite, David Brinkley, Eric Severeid and John Chancellor, we saw journalism as something bordering on noble. We learned by watching them that information is critical and truth is something you just have to keep pushing and pushing. Although by the early 1970s when I was in school, Cronkite was not really yet considered the legend that he is now, he was nonetheless the name that came up most frequently in reporting and writing classes. Cronkite started out as a print journalist, and then took such huge risks as reporting World War II from the front. We were dazzled by the gigantic leaps he took in his career. No one else seemed as passionate about getting the word out to you and me.

With Cronkite, integrity, hard work and determination trumped the yet-to-be-born Internet, or Twitter or Facebook. He didn’t need any of it, because he was all about simply communicating the real world to real people. I believe I quietly observed Cronkite all of my life. I loved watching him get old, and older still (right, with Joanna Simon, who became his companion after the death of his wife) because of the way he continued to go at it into his 90s. He restores our faith in ourselves because collectively we decided to trust Walter Cronkite a long, long time ago. As it turns out, our trust was perfectly placed. We knew what we saw when we saw it. He is, above all else, the true story of the best of 20th century America. Born in 1916, he was privileged to live to see the bulk of a full century, and it was our privilege to hear about his time and learn about our world from him. From our industrialized nation to our age of information, he was able to stay in step and keep us aligned with him.

For the past several days reporter after broadcaster after journalist has said, “There will never be another like him.” I am hopeful that there will be others like him; that he set the bar high enough for people to want to emulate his adventurousness, his ease of communication and his dedication to truth. Walter Cronkite gave us all something to aim for, and we thank him.

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