By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007
Some reporters cover City Hall, some cover the waterfront. Walter Cronkite covered the universe. To Americans of the first TV generations, however, he's revered not just as a reporter, or even as merely the most famous of all network anchors; he's lovable "Uncle Walter," who vicariously guided and nursed us through the trials and triumphs of our lives.
Cronkite has reached the admirable age of 90, an excuse for CBS to toss him another video party, "That's the Way It Is: Celebrating Cronkite at 90," tonight at 8. The hour-long special features encomiums from celebrities who have known Cronkite personally or via the connecting tube of television -- a gathering that proves nothing if not eclectic: Bill Clinton and Robin Williams, Diane Sawyer and George Clooney, Mike Wallace and Spike Lee, and Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead.
Hart says he has known Cronkite for years and once invited the old boy backstage at a Dead concert, where Cronkite met the other members of the band. Many years earlier, we learn later, Cronkite had taken his two teenage daughters backstage to meet the Beatles when they made their American performing debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Such memories of Cronkite's, captured in an interview (he doesn't look a day over 85), are interwoven with biographical tidbits, historical footage and reminiscence from the admirers -- among them such collegial competitors as Brian Williams, current anchor of "NBC Nightly News," and current or previous ABC news stars Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters and Charles Gibson, now anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight." Though deservedly first in the ratings these days, as was Cronkite in his, Gibson could hardly be said to exert the national influence that Cronkite did.
With TV's spectrum and audience now radically fragmented, it's highly unlikely any individual broadcaster will ever achieve such impact.
Katie Couric, who of course occupies Cronkite's old anchor chair, makes a few comments and is seen at one point kneeling at Cronkite's knee, as if she were the first woman to integrate the Knights of the Round Table, with King Walter presiding. Less expected are appearances by Dan Rather, who in 1981 succeeded Cronkite as anchor and who proved explosively controversial in the role.
Cronkite and Rather are not pals -- Cronkite unfortunately made a few disparaging remarks about his successor over the years -- and Rather's departure from CBS News after 40 years there was not an amicable separation. Under such circumstances, Rather seems a good sport -- and, as always, the reliable team player -- for showing up. His name, incidentally, is omitted from promotional materials related to the show.
Maybe he will be among those on hand should CBS ever air a special called "Celebrating Cronkite at 100."
Cronkite distinguished himself as a reporter for CBS Radio during World War II. Against the advice of colleagues, he decided to take a whirl at television when it came along, and materialized in a major way as anchor for CBS coverage of the 1952 Republican and Democratic national conventions. He did not take the nation by storm; CBS was clobbered in the ratings during the '50s by NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, both seen briefly in a clip.
The real reign of Walter began in the '60s, when he took over anchorship of the "Evening News" (then only 15 minutes long) and eventually ascended to the position of "most trusted man in America." He would prove to be the right man for his time, a guiding light -- a comfort as well as a communicator -- through a wrenching decade.
A now-iconic clip of Cronkite telling the nation that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated is played twice on the program. It's still moving: Cronkite's voice breaking as he relays the news ("from Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official . . . "). In fact, Cronkite breaks up again as he looks back on that harrowing weekend in which we were electronically united to mourn a president and, it seems now, the death of our own innocence. Or perhaps the first in a series of those.
Wiping his eyes, Cronkite forces a smile and says apologetically, "Anchormen shouldn't cry." It's hell growing old, but it's good to be of sufficient vintage to remember having witnessed this when it happened. Those too young will never really understand.
Cronkite's presence is part of the nation's communal memory of the tragedy. "He handled it as a human being first and an anchorman second, and I think, at times like that, that's what you want," Couric says of the assassination and its aftermath. "He calmed America down," recalls Don Hewitt, founding producer of "60 Minutes." Rather calls it the moment when "television news as we now know it was born."
Even in person, Clinton says, Cronkite "has a calming and elevating effect on everybody around him." Not that he's stuffy. He likes to drink, likes to dance and will launch into a kind of mock-striptease "at the slightest provocation," according to actor Clooney. Fortunately, there's no tape of that. Not mentioned: He's also known in the business as a notorious tightwad who never picked up a check at lunch. Not shown: a charming moment from a Cronkite series called "Universe" in which Cronkite donned top hat and tails and did a soft-shoe to help illustrate some scientific theory or other.
Many other events, minor and momentous, are recalled, including his role in ending the Vietnam War and his more-than-infectious support of the space program ("Whew, boy!"). When man walked on the moon, it was as if Cronkite were there himself, making those funny footsteps in the gray dust, and us beside him.
Kathy Cronkite, one of two daughters, makes a few observations about her father and her mother, Cronkite's beloved Betsy, who died barely three years ago and of whom Cronkite says, "I miss her every minute."
Watching this chronicle of Cronkite -- seeing him again with presidents and potentates, with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, in a jet over Vietnam and in a NASA training vehicle that simulates weightlessness -- one might think of words printed on the screen during the fake newsreel that begins the movie classic "Citizen Kane." They were corny, and meant to be, but they seem to fit:
"All of these years he covered, many of these years he was."'National Bingo Night'
"National Bingo Night" isn't a television show; it's a malaise. It's a sign of sad times: networks so desperate for quick-buck, high-concept brain-bypassers that they'll try turning even the primitive game of bingo into a pathetic imitation of spectator sport.
Worse than the cheap diversions that NBC regularly heaves into the airwaves at the 8 o'clock hour ("Deal or No Deal" being a relatively respectable exception to the rule), ABC's "National Bingo Night" amounts to little more than the reading of numbers, a contestant hopping himself into an embarrassing frenzy, and a studio audience outfitted with bingo cards and cheering the contestant on even while hoping he'll lose. The contestant's loss is potentially their gain.
The major, perhaps only, twist on bingo as practiced at carnivals and in church basements is that the numbers are chosen by a contestant who pulls an electric "trigger," releasing one oversize ping-pong ball from a huge plastic bubble in which the numbered balls whirl. He guesses whether each number will be higher or lower than the one that preceded it, accruing a jackpot that grows with each correct hunch.
Those numbers correspond to those on bingo cards held by the studio audience and "the folks at home" (apparently viewers will be able to play along via the Internet); thus the contestant loses everything if anyone shouts "Bingo!" once five numbers have been chosen. At least I think that's how it works; I may have dozed off once or twice even with all that hysterical screaming from the audience and repetitious rabble-rousing from a host with an accent similar to that dreadful insurance-company lizard's.
Only about half the premiere episode was available for preview. On behalf of all the hard-working TV critics of America, may I say a heartfelt "thank you" to ABC for that generous shortcoming. It's the only merciful aspect of "National Bingo Night," believe me.
That's the Way It Is: Celebrating Cronkite at 90 (one hour) premieres tonight at 8 on WUSA (Channel 9).
National Bingo Night (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on WJLA (Channel 7) .