Tom Shales: Remembering Legendary CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite

By Tom Shales
Saturday, July 18, 2009

As Walter Cronkite's night of retirement from "The CBS Evening News" grew closer and closer back in 1981, there were signs of palpable public panic -- one of them a briefly popular T-shirt on which was printed the horrified rhetorical question, "Oh, my God -- what are we going to do without Walter Cronkite?"

The sentiment reflected how warmly Cronkite was regarded in the population of American celebrities. Television confers a different kind of stardom than had ever been seen before, more intimate than radio and far more immediate than the movies, and it made Cronkite more than merely an eminent or prominent public figure. He was a private figure, too, welcomed into millions of American homes -- a reporter and anchorman, yes, but also an honorary member of families he had never seen or met.

"Uncle Walter" was a sardonic but sentimental title, and so it is that Americans who grew up turning to Cronkite for the news of the day -- and regular readings of the American mind and mood -- might feel now that they have lost more than an acquaintance, more than an uncommonly well-informed neighbor, more than an abiding avuncular presence in their lives, even though he'd been retired for nearly three decades prior to his death yesterday at age 92.

How can he be gone, this man who'd seen us through so many years of strife and success, progress and poverty, bold dreams and bitter backsliding? He had been not only part of the national scene but also an integral player in the drama and comedy of our times. In the bombastic mock-newsreel that opens the Orson Welles movie "Citizen Kane," there is a line of florid journalese that, with a little adjustment of the years cited, seems to fit Cronkite comfortably: "1895 to 1941 -- All of these years he covered, many of these he was."

It was Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of American broadcast news, who recruited Cronkite to come join CBS News in the early 1950s, after Cronkite distinguished himself in coverage from Moscow of World War II. "My first love was newspapering," Cronkite later wrote. But he could see, "as the 1940s drew to a close [that] television was coming into its own, and it became evident that the young industry would eventually become the dominant form of entertainment and news in the United States."

From the earliest days, Cronkite was prominent in the gallery of TV personalities. News and entertainment, then as now, were not exactly kept separate by an impenetrable wall of demarcation. One of Cronkite's early duties was hosting the "CBS Morning News" -- abetted by such popular puppets of the time as Charlemagne the Lion -- on the network's answer to NBC's "Today" show. Cronkite had faith that "CBS Chairman Bill Paley and President Frank Stanton were already instituting plans that would move CBS to the forefront of broadcasting for the new television age."

In the years to come, Americans got their news from Cronkite but, more than that, joined him in shared experiences that could be inspiring, frightening or almost indescribably painful -- from witnessing the first steps taken on the moon by human beings shot up there by the United States (Cronkite's boyish enthusiasm expressed and captured the pride and amazement of a nation) to, indelibly, informing us one by one, each in his own home or school or workplace, that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

Until he consoled us through that traumatic weekend of grief and horror, Cronkite had been a considerably less popular figure in TV news than the reigning ratings kings, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley over on NBC. But viewers found in Cronkite someone they could not only trust and depend upon; they could take comfort from him. His status rose fairly steadily and his newscast, which expanded from the then-standard 15 minutes to a half-hour, became dominant.

Millions of Americans who'd parroted to each other the famous good-night from "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" -- "Good night, Chet," "Good night, David" -- now found themselves captivated by the man who signed off each night with: "And that's the way it is," followed by the date. Other newscasters would attempt imitations of the Cronkite sign-off -- Charlie Gibson of ABC News has an especially pathetic one these days -- but none ever made theirs as much a part of the national iconography.

Cronkite was more than another part of that system of symbols, catchphrases, familiar faces and self-caricatured faces; his persona became so prominent in American culture (one survey found him to be "the most trusted man in America") that he was credited with massive swings in public opinion -- most notably earning credit for turning the public against the Vietnam War after a visit there. President Lyndon B. Johnson was heard to observe that once he'd lost Walter Cronkite, he'd lost the American electorate, as well. And he'd lost the war.

He took us to the moon, he led us in mourning a hugely beloved leader, he helped bring an end to a disastrous regional conflict, and he played many other roles in the life of the nation and its citizen-viewers. Known to friends in the business for his thriftiness (it was said no one had ever seen him pick up a check at lunch) and a liquor-fueled capacity for impromptu Greek dances (or so it was reported by TV Guide), Cronkite was clearly a man who enjoyed the world on which he so faithfully reported, even when the news was cruel, cold or unbearably sad.

He was ours, we were his, and he didn't so much deliver the news to us as join us in experiencing the world outside our own homes and schools and towns. He won virtually every award that is given out in the annals of broadcasting, but he won a lot more than that. He earned our friendship, our trust and even, as we perhaps now realize more than at any other time in the relationship, our love.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company