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“Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley

By Robert MacNeil,

For anyone interested in the evolution and power of broadcast news, this book is a tremendous read, minutely documenting TV journalism’s most remarkable phenomenon, Walter Cronkite.

As a junior competitor in the profession and later a casual friend of Cronkite’s, I thought I understood the dimensions of his legend — until I read this book. Douglas Brinkley reveals a surprisingly Odysseus-like figure of twists and turns; a man physically and morally courageous, but full of fears; a bold risk-taker, but innately self-protective; ambitious for fame, fiercely jealous of rivals; easily shamed, swift to turn on his detractors; a most genial companion with a glass of bourbon in hand and a brilliant raconteur, but “brutal” to some colleagues as managing editor of the “CBS Evening News”; a man with a bold eye for a fetching female but intensely loyal to Betsy, his wife of 65 years. What a piece of work! Brinkley’s book brings this man intimately to light, in all his petty maneuvers and all his grandeur. I gobbled up every page.

David Halberstam told Brinkley he should write this book because Walter Cronkite was “the most significant journalist of the second half of the twentieth century.” Brinkley does less to analyze that bold claim than he does to delineate how Cronkite made his countrymen believe it.

To accept Halberstam is to accept that broadcasting exceeded print in importance. Even those of us in radio and television in our hearts deferred to print, where most of us matriculated — in my case, like Cronkite’s, at a wire service. But the public voted otherwise. In 1967 a Burns W. Roper survey reported that 64 percent of Americans polled said they got most of their news about world events from television, and much of it came from the ubiquitous Walter Cronkite: announcing President John F. Kennedy’s death, later declaring Vietnam a stalemate and still later rejoicing in the landing on the moon.

Louis Menand has argued cogently in the New Yorker that the aura of legend enveloping Cronkite overstates the claim that when he called Vietnam a stalemate, he caused President Lyndon Johnson to refuse re-election — Cronkite’s coming out, so to speak, ended the war. Yet that idea has morphed into a general civic belief. So has the idea that it was Cronkite who told the nation that JFK was dead. Many others did so, including my then-colleagues at NBC. But they vanish behind endless replays of Walter taking off his glasses. Brinkley quotes one of Cronkite’s closest colleagues, producer Sandy Socolow, describing that moment: “He was like an actor in the middle of his performance of a lifetime. It’s possible that the scene of him taking off his glasses was consciously staged. Any director would tell you that what Walter did with those glasses, the fidgeting, was a fine prop to convey both human emotion and an air of spontaneity. The performance worked. . . . Everybody knows it.”

At NBC in the 1960s, we thought Cronkite a little fusty, stodgy, old-fashioned. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley’s more conversational style kept them on top of the ratings until the end of 1967. They had a fresh, sometimes ironic take on the world that seemed to suit America, at least before the JFK assassination. The contrast showed at the 1956 conventions, when New York Times critic Jack Gould called Cronkite painfully “dead pan” and added: “If something quirky happened in Chicago or San Francisco, Huntley and Brinkley laughed. Cronkite, by contrast, reported that something funny had happened.”

Cronkite’s style evolved, however, as he balanced contradictory tendencies: to play the news absolutely straight and objectively, but occasionally and strategically, to “uncork” himself (Brinkley’s term) and say what he felt. And such were the moments in which the Cronkite legend gelled; his rare resort to personal opinion has become commonplace on cable news.

Cronkite came in different guises. In his ardor for the space program, Brinkley writes, he “cloaked his reporting in almost jingoistic, high-octane nationalistic, anti-communist rhetoric. He was more NASA collaborator than reporter.” But whichever way he tacked — playing it safe, then taking big risks — his synthesis, instinctive or calculated, gradually created around him an aura of trust, until by 1968, he had “come to epitomize old fashioned values in an era of rote lies. America asked for truth about Vietnam, and Cronkite dutifully delivered.”

At the beginning, he wavered between print and radio.

For radio, the main qualification was a voice, and to the program director at KCMO in Kansas City, the 19-year-old Cronkite had “the best radio voice” he’d heard. Infant radio news had no standards, but young Cronkite had learned a little before dropping out of the University of Texas, bored by two years of engineering classes. He’d written for the college paper, freelanced for the Houston Press and was a campus reporter for KNOW, the largest radio station in Houston. He picked up some serious notions about journalism with the Austin bureau of the International News Service, Hearst’s wire service, and then as a rewrite man for the Houston Press.

But a visit home to Kansas City pushed him back to radio. Hired by KCMO for $25 a week, Cronkite made an early deposit in the bank of integrity: insisting on the facts. His boss’s wife called, saying three firemen had been killed in a fire in the city hall. Ordered to go on the air, Cronkite refused until he had checked. The program manager went on the air himself, while Cronkite discovered that the fire was minor and no one had died. The next day he was fired for insubordination.

Print lured him back, first to the Kansas City office of the United Press, later to UP New York and ultimately to London, where his World War II reporting won him many accolades and eventually opened the doors at CBS.

As his fame rose, he loved being Walter Cronkite and wasn’t shy about it. In the study of his brownstone on East 84th Street in New York, one wall was devoted to framed magazine covers bearing his face. When the Cronkites moved to an apartment at U.N. Plaza, some of his Emmy awards were on display in the living room. He loved going into top New York restaurants, always getting a table and very attentive service.

I admit some partiality in discussing Cronkite. For the last 15 years of his life, he was exceedingly generous, privately and publicly, in praising the “NewsHour” on PBS. He had tried to expand the “CBS Evening News” to an hour, but the network affiliates wouldn’t go along, so it pleased him that public television could make it happen.

Brinkley’s version of TV news history is, inevitably, quite CBS-centric. But what other figure in the same period of TV journalism would justify such a hefty biography? Even Edward R. Murrow did not retain the legendary status that the nation conferred on Cronkite.

Yet in today’s media world, seething with change and uncertainty, fame is fleeting, as Brinkley illustrates in a story about Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s “Nightline.” Koppel asked young interns hoping for a career in broadcasting if they could tell him anything about Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Frank Reynolds, Chet Huntley or John Chancellor. He got blank stares or “not a twitch of recognition.” Koppel added, “Walter Cronkite may be glad to learn that a lot of young people still have a vague recollection that he once worked in television news.”

How long will that be true? Perhaps Brinkley’s book will add some years.

bookworld@washpost.com

Robert MacNeil worked for Reuters, NBC and the BBC, culminating with 20 years on PBS as executive editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.”

CRONKITE By Douglas Brinkley Harper. 819 pp. $34.99

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