Remembering Walter Cronkite

By Tom Brokaw
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite was born in Missouri, educated in Texas and grew up to become the most trusted man in America by a vote of his countrymen. He was a man with many sides: sailor, race-car driver, bon vivant, and, most of all, journalist and role model to so many of us who shared his profession.

For more than half a century he was in the middle of the biggest stories of his time. He covered World War II on bombing runs out of England and on the ground at the Battle of the Bulge for United Press, the clickety-clack news bulletin wire service that formed his journalistic sensibilities for the rest of his career.

When Cronkite made his way to the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News, he became America's old-fashioned managing editor, an avuncular figure so comforting he was widely known as Uncle Walter as he guided the nation through the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr.; Chicago in 1968; Vietnam; man's first steps on the moon; Watergate; the resignation of Richard Nixon; and the meeting of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.

He famously concluded that Vietnam could not be won, and at that moment President Lyndon Johnson knew that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost middle America.

Walter was a seminal force in making the network evening news broadcasts appointment television across the country, a time of day when millions tuned in to find out what had happened in their world.

Those of us at NBC News and ABC News were justifiably proud of the work we were doing on that run of historic news events, but Walter was the marquee name. While he wasn't resistant to the vanities that come with such fame, he was helped immeasurably by the sardonic wit of his lifelong mate, Betsy, who saw her role as the anchor to windward of the most trusted man in America.

On a Kentucky Derby weekend Walter and I were invited to go aloft in separate hot air balloons. As we lifted off, I could hear Betsy saying to Walter over the two-way radio, "We're down here dividing up your things. Do you still want that burial at sea?"

Broadway opening nights and movie premieres -- and they didn't miss many -- were always enlivened by the presence of the Cronkites, who had a wide range of good friends, including John Steinbeck, Eli Wallach, Toots Shor, Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney, Jackie Kennedy, Art Buchwald, and Bill and Rose Styron as well as -- get this -- Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, a fellow sailing enthusiast. Walter occasionally appeared on stage at Hart concerts.

When he left the anchor chair, Walter continued to advance the cause of serious, no-nonsense journalism, often from the journalism school named for him at Arizona State University. He also began to speak out on some political causes that interested him, promoting conservative critics to say, "Aha, I told you so."

Nonetheless, when he died Friday at the age of 92 he remained Uncle Walter to generations of Americans who saw him as a wise and fair man with a nautical title and a sailor's skill of getting them through rough seas by keeping a steady hand on the tiller and his eyes on the far horizon.

Tom Brokaw is a special correspondent and former Nightly News anchor for NBC.

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