A Backward Look at the Times Of 'Uncle Walter' Cronkite

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

More than once he's referred to by his old nickname, "Uncle Walter," by talking heads on tonight's PBS "American Masters" report, "Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." Clearly, though, he is Grandpa Cronkite now, or perhaps Great-Grandpa. Partly because of how he is photographed and partly because time will not be held back, Cronkite looks every minute of his 89 years.

Not visibly but discernibly, however, Cronkite is still a man of gusto and vitality, and he seems to enjoy the luxury -- who wouldn't? -- of being present at, and participating in, what amounts to his own memorial service. It's hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since Cronkite stepped down as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," and just as hard to realize how far into memory his era has receded.

His career was all-encompassing, or nearly so. He got a job with the United Press in 1937 and never left journalism after that, joining CBS News in 1950 and for nearly two decades serving as anchor of "CBS Evening News." As is said of a fictitious press baron in the film classic "Citizen Kane": "All of these years he covered; many of these years he was."

For all that, Cronkite deserves a better documentary than the one that writer-director Catherine Tatge has put together. It registers in the high end of mediocrity, only occasionally striking a stirringly evocative note. The best parts, as one would expect, are the vintage news reports and the iconic moments that several generations will forever associate with Cronkite: his "Whew, boy!" when he watched, with us, an American set foot on the moon -- and at the other extreme of the emotional spectrum, how he took off his glasses, gulped and was struck briefly speechless after telling the nation, "President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central standard time . . ."

Tatge, however, made some curious judgment calls. One was choosing Katie Couric, former co-host of NBC's "Today" show, to narrate the film. Couric, who will inherit the "Evening News" anchor chair from Dan Rather in the fall, does not have an accomplished or commanding narrator's voice. If she had been seen on-camera just a few times during the report, it would have helped establish and justify her presence. But for all her versatility, Couric is not very good at this sort of thing, and hiring her to do it was simply a stunt -- a stunt that thunked.

Rather himself is conspicuously absent from the documentary; he is not interviewed for it and appears only when there is no way to avoid it, as during famous footage of him being shoved around by "security guards" at the Democrats' disastrous 1968 convention in Chicago. "Take your hands off me unless you plan to arrest me!" Rather shouts to one of the hired brawlers, and Cronkite, looking down Godlike from his anchor booth on this displeasing spectacle, says, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan, if I may be permitted to say so."

(The memory of Cronkite's courage in standing up to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's storm troopers is tainted somewhat by another memory not included in the documentary: Later during convention coverage, Cronkite sheepishly invited Daley up to the booth and did a kissy-face interview with him.)

Asked yesterday why he does not appear in the documentary except in historical footage, Rather said from New York, "If Walter had asked me to do it, I would have done it in a second." But Cronkite -- who has had critical things to say of his successor on more than one occasion -- made no such request, said Rather, who implied that no one else associated with the project did, either.

There is, however, a long list of luminaries who do participate in the film -- which is perhaps more of a tribute than a documentary, since Don Hewitt, brilliant founding father of "60 Minutes," says that CBS News will forever be known as "The House That Cronkite Built." It will? Isn't it the house that Edward R. Murrow built? Perhaps Hewitt associates Murrow more with radio than with television, although he certainly mastered both media. It's also widely known within the industry that Murrow and Cronkite were anything but pals and hardly members of each other's fan club; their relationship was reportedly more long-running feud than collegial bond.

Among others testifying as to Cronkite's skills and savvy as a journalist: former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (who says that when Cronkite, almost alone among broadcast journalists, picked up The Post's Watergate stories, "that gave us a big boost"); Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); the venerable Helen Thomas ("I think that he represented the best in America"); Barbara Walters of ABC News; former "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw (looking, as he often does when filmed these days, like the happiest man in the world); columnist Molly Ivins; Sir David Frost; Bill Moyers, so greatly missed by viewers who want more from TV news than it now chooses to give them; and the great filmmaker Sidney Lumet, present not because his films include "Network" but because in the early '50s he directed Murrow and Fred Friendly's classic series "You Are There," which Cronkite hosted.

"He seemed to me incorruptible," Lumet says of Cronkite, "in a profession that was easily corrupted."

Sometimes the documentary is sort of innocently misleading. Videotape of Cronkite telling the nation that President Kennedy had died is intercut with color footage from the famous Zapruder film of the assassination; this could give young or very uninformed viewers the impression that TV coverage of the tragedy included live pictures of the shooting. Tatge also includes color footage of the moon landing, which is certainly not the view we got as it occurred. Why show anything but what viewers saw at those moments? After all, the sight of Cronkite reacting emotionally is locked into millions of minds, and is an important part of the spectacle.

Perhaps the most unforgivable blunder in the documentary is not something Tatge did, although she certainly could have edited it out. It occurs when veteran CBS News writer-producers Shirley and Joe Wershba (Joe wrote for "See It Now") are looking back on the mid-'50s. The NBC News team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley was clobbering Cronkite in the ratings, in the evening news and at political conventions (the latter to such a degree that Cronkite was relieved of convention duties in 1964, though later reinstated).

Shirley Wershba snidely refers to Huntley and Brinkley as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" and calls their show "a cute little act." Trashing two distinguished competitors, both of whom have since died, is taking competitive zeal way, way, way too far, and shows an appalling lack of class.

Even though flawed by errors of various kinds, "Witness to History" generally succeeds at bringing back the three-network era that dominated the first age of television, and in profiling the man who defined what an anchor is, does and can represent.

Inevitably, it is mentioned that polls taken at various times revealed Cronkite to be "the most trusted man in America," and "Witness to History" recalls how he earned that amazing reputation, and, having done so, managed to take it just seriously enough -- too humble to take it literally, but too earnest about his craft not to try living up to it.

Walter Cronkite: Witness to History (90 minutes) premieres tonight at 9 on WMPT (Channel 22) and at 10 on WETA (Channel 26).

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