Final Signoff for Cronkite

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009 9:29 AM

NEW YORK, July 23 -- He reached tens of millions in his heyday, but here within the magnificent stone-and-brick church on Park Avenue, it was 1,000 invited guests -- some famous, some family, all touched by their anchor -- who bade farewell to Walter Cronkite.

As Andy Rooney used a cane to make his way down the aisle of St. Bartholomew's Church, beneath the massive circle of a stained-glass window, it seemed clear that Cronkite's generation, now fading from the scene, would miss him most of all.

Rooney's voice broke as he began to speak Thursday, and the television curmudgeon was quickly overcome by emotion. He recalled meeting Cronkite, the United Press man, in London during World War II, when they would leave town during bombing raids and then return to file their stories.

"You get to know someone pretty well in a war," Rooney said. "I just feel so terrible about Walter's death that I can hardly say anything. He was such a good friend. Please excuse me -- I can't." Rooney left the lectern, hobbling through a side door to his right.

The afternoon began under slate-gray skies as a dozen cameras recorded the arrival of CBS royalty -- Les Moonves, Katie Couric, Bob Schieffer, Don Hewitt, Morley Safer, Steve Kroft, Harry Smith. They gathered in the front pew, while Dan Rather -- who is suing the network over his departure from Cronkite's old chair -- sat somberly eight rows back. Colleagues and contemporaries from the other networks -- Charlie Gibson, Barbara Walters, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw -- came to pay their respects to Cronkite, who died Friday at 92.

Sandy Socolow, Cronkite's onetime producer, gave the crowd a lighter look at the journalistic war horse, dispelling any notions of legendary perfection. In fact, he said, Cronkite once inexplicably blanked on saying his own name -- he got as far as "this is" -- and had to be rescued by the control room, which cut away.

When security guards at the 1968 Democratic convention manhandled Rather on the floor, Socolow said, Cronkite "shouted about thuggery" on the air and later "felt embarrassed and ashamed that he had lost his cool." When Chicago Mayor Richard Daley -- father of the current mayor -- arrived for an interview the next day, Cronkite "felt he wasn't forceful enough" with the man whose police force precipitated bloody clashes with protesters. "It was one of the low points of his life," Socolow said.

The following year, when Spiro Agnew assailed the media's "nattering nabobs of negativism," "Walter was furious" at the vice president, Socolow said, and insisted on convening a town meeting on the news business in his native Missouri.

Not only could America's anchorman not pronounce February -- they would practice at the end of every January, Socolow revealed -- but he "had this bizarre idea once that he would ad-lib a newscast without a script." Cronkite decreed that "when it came time to roll a piece of film, he would brush his nose." Since it took projectors seven seconds to get up to speed, the timing never worked, and the experiment lasted two days. "It drove everybody crazy. . . . It was utter chaos," Socolow said.

Mike Ashford, an Annapolis sailing buddy who called Cronkite "the Commodore," recalled the anchor's love of the sea. Cronkite's sailing style in bad weather was "not for the faint of heart," he said. They would sail the Chesapeake Bay each fall, Ashford said, rewarding themselves with hot popcorn, cold beer and wine-soaked dinners, followed by a brandy and pipe. The "crusty old sailor" was sentimental, Ashford said, and would "openly and without shame shed tears for a friend whose old yellow Lab had died."

Cronkite's son Chip offered a brief remembrance of his father discussing one night's newscast over dinner, or whimsically asking his mother Betsy in the hallway, "Shall we dance?" Cronkite recalled his mother's memorial in this church four years ago and said he would soon travel to Missouri and "put Dad's ashes next to Mom's."

Before the service, some of the assembled traded Cronkite tales. "Walter epitomized trust, credibility, believability and the old journalism that we all grew up wanting to be a part of," said Connie Chung, who got a congratulatory call from Cronkite when she was named co-anchor of the "CBS Evening News." She said reporters never knew if their stories had been chosen until airtime and "would all sit in the newsroom to see if Walter had anointed us." Former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who recalled feeling "8 or 10 years old" when he first introduced himself to Cronkite during the 1992 campaign, is now the Cronkite professor at Arizona State University. "To have his name on my door is oddly important to me," Brown said.

Back when the CBS anchor was asking to take summers off and retreat to Martha's Vineyard, a network executive joked that he should name his boat the Assignment so an announcer could credibly claim that Cronkite was on assignment.

In their final assignment, as rain began to pelt the stained-glass window while a brass band played "When the Saints Go Marching In," four family members wheeled the casket toward the front of the church. The crowd was left to ponder the words of the Rev. William Tully, who called the departed, "in our own New York religious terminology, a mensch."

The Cop and the Professor

I was on the road yesterday, as you can see above, but I wanted to take a look at the mushrooming Skip Gates controversy.

Whatever you think of President Obama's answer to Lynn Sweet's question, it was a tactical mistake, because it stole the headline from Obama's spiel on health care, which was the whole reason he asked for the prime-time hour. The president was low-key, even professorial, as he repeated his familiar health-care arguments, but impassioned and funny as he turned to the Gates arrest.

Yes, the president probably shouldn't have accused the Cambridge police of stupid conduct. Any number of euphemisms would have gotten the point across. But he was defending his friend, and in a way, it showed this carefully calibrated politician to be human.

The Irish officer, James Crowley, is entitled to defend himself as well. But you'd think he would give an inch with some sort of 'perhaps I should have handled it differently.' After all, if the disorderly conduct charge was so justified, why was it quickly dropped? And if it was dropped because Henry Louis Gates is a prominent scholar, doesn't that mean charges would have been pressed against an average black man?

Politico focuses on the damage control: "The White House spent Thursday trying to both defend Obama's words and to soften his position from the night before, when the president departed from his talking points, aides said, to express authentic disgust at the arrest of a black Harvard professor in his own home."

In a way, says the NYT, it's not news: "In interviews here and in Atlanta, in Web postings and on television talk shows, blacks and others said that what happened to Professor Gates is a common, if unacknowledged, reality for many people of color. They also said that beyond race, the ego of the police officer probably played a role.

"But more deeply, many said that the incident was a disappointing reminder that for all the racial progress the country seemed to have made with the election of President Obama, little has changed in the everyday lives of most people in terms of race relations."

The New York Post plays up the cops vs. Obama angle in this AP piece:

"Many police officers across the country have a message for President Barack Obama: Get all the facts before criticizing one of our own."

Time's Joe Klein says Gates is right but the president was not:

"This was probably a 'mistake' on Obama's part, since it stepped on the health-care part of the program. It was also probably a mistake to delve into a local police matter, even though it involved a friend of his. And we just don't know what happened -- the professor and the police officer are offering dueling accounts.

"I know Skip Gates, like and respect him enormously, and the idea of him being disorderly seems unlikely . . . until you consider the following: the frustration of not being able to get into his own house, the likelihood the he was jet-lagged out of his skull, the sudden appearance of a white police officer treating him like a criminal. My guess is, he blew up. But still: one look at Gates -- he's my age, he needs a cane to get around -- and you know he's not a criminal. The cop undoubtedly blew up, too. I mean, handcuffs? The better part of valor for the police officer would have been to say goodnight, get into his squad car and leave. The president is undoubtedly right, that the police acted 'stupidly.'

"But Obama wasn't exactly being smart when he allowed himself to answer this question at length. It was an unusual lapse of discipline on his part, giving my colleagues an excuse to resurrect all the tired old stuff about Obama and race -- which is understandable since this situation is personal and emotional; the health-care negotiations are technical and abstract."

In his Nightline interview last night, Obama defended his remarks:

"I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who's in his own home."

But even Bill Cosby was distancing himself: "I've heard about five different reports. If I'm the president of the United States, I don't care how much pressure people want to put on it about race, I'm keeping my mouth shut . . . I was shocked to hear the president making this kind of statement."

At the New Republic, however, Jason Zengerle says the president did not go too far:

"As people continue to get worked up about Obama's comments on the Henry Louis Gates story, I think it's important to remember what the president didn't say. He did not call the behavior of James Crowley, the arresting officer, racist. He did call Crowley's behavior stupid. And, really, I think it's hard to reach any other conclusion when you consider that Crowley arrested Gates after he realized Gates was 'breaking in' to his own home. That's stupid -- and Obama's right to say so. Even if Gates did act belligerently toward Crowley, you'd hope Crowley would be professional enough not to respond by slapping cuffs on Gates and taking him down to the station. The 'contempt of cop' charge -- which is what these disorderly conduct charges are often nicknamed -- is really nothing more than an absue of power by the cop."

But conservatives are having a field day, as we see in this criticism from Powerline's Paul Mirengoff:

"Obama admitted that he doesn't know the facts surrounding Gates' conduct and doesn't know whether there was any racism of the part of the police. Obama also knows, or should know, that the arrest was in connection with Gates' conduct once the issue of the break in had been resolved, correctly, in Gates' favor. Accordingly, Obama should have declined to address the issue, which is a local police matter in any event, and certainly should not have opined that the police acted stupidly.

"It is sad, though not suprising, to see our president fall into the familiar trap of ideologues, namely basing their view of what happened in a highly individualized event not on the facts of that event but rather on their prejudices."

Well, however Gates may or may not have overreacted, there are some facts here -- and the disorderly conduct charge was sufficiently flimsy that the Cambridge police quickly abandoned it.

Bill Kristol also jumps on the ignorance theme:

"Does he really know enough about what happened to say that? Maybe it was Professor Gates who behaved stupidly, or at least arrogantly. He is, after all, a Harvard professor. I was once a Harvard professor, and my instinct is to side with the Cambridge cops. But if I were president of the United States, I might pause before casually accusing other Americans of acting stupidly unless I were confident I knew what I was talking about."

And Salon picks up a post from A Phantom Negro, who deconstructs Gates's anger:

"He isn't outraged because he feels he was the victim of racial profiling by the police (that dubious honor goes to his foolish neighbor) [in fact, the woman who called the police is not a neighbor, but works nearby]. He's outraged because he was the victim of class profiling. He didn't resent being identified as black; he resented being identified as that kind of black, the kind of black that can be hassled and pushed around by simpleton cops. How dare you hassle me? I'm Skip Gates: Harvard professor!"

Or maybe he was just plain ol' mad after showing his ID and still being hassled in his own home.

MJ Watch

The L.A. Times reports a potentially serious turn in the case:

"Michael Jackson's personal physician was identified as a suspect in the Los Angeles Police Department's manslaughter investigation into the pop star's death, according to court records filed Thursday in Houston.

"A pair of search warrants filed in Harris County District Court stated that investigators were looking for 'items constituting evidence of the offense of manslaughter that tend to show that Dr. Conrad Murray committed the said criminal offense.' "

I don't think this probe is going to have any trouble attracting media attention.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company