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.”