Barack Obama, Katie Couric, Bill Clinton, Celebrate Walter Cronkite's Life

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 9 -- Walter Cronkite got his final send-off in an extravagantly produced ceremony Wednesday at Lincoln Center, that had poignant tributes from two presidents, two anchors, one astronaut and a member of the Grateful Dead.

Under a huge video screen bearing Cronkite's black-and-white visage, President Obama praised the late anchor for "his dogged pursuit of truth" and "his passionate defense of objective reporting," even as he contrasted those traits with blunt criticism of today's media values.

Cronkite's standards are harder to find in a "difficult time for journalism," Obama told the packed audience at Avery Fisher Hall. As newsrooms close and reporters are laid off, he said, "too often we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative reporting he championed."

In such an atmosphere, the president said, "the public debate cheapens." But he said that Cronkite probably would have been able "to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites" and that today's journalists can do so as well, "if we choose to live up to Walter's example. . . . He didn't believe in dumbing down. He trusted us."

"Trust" was perhaps the word that echoed most frequently throughout the high-ceilinged concert hall. As speaker after speaker heaped praise on the CBS newsman, who died July 17 at the age of 92, it became clear that the era he embodied had also slipped away. There was a wistful tone to the remembrances about growing up watching a lone, trusted anchor, an experience impossible to duplicate amid the 21st century's media cacophony.

Bill Clinton drew a laugh when he said his mother had preferred NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley -- until she watched CBS's coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. "After that, we lived with Walter Cronkite," he said.

Clinton recalled the "tumultuous" summer of 1998, when he confessed to a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and Cronkite invited him, Hillary and Chelsea to go sailing off Martha's Vineyard. "Somebody might take a picture of that, but so what," a chuckling Clinton recalled Cronkite saying. "I'll never forget that."

Cronkite's current successor, Katie Couric, said the two discussed "everything from American politics to 'American Idol' " over a dinner at Four Seasons in 2006, as she was about to assume the coveted CBS chair. "I was overwhelmed, sitting across from the anchor, the man for whom the term was coined. . . . He could not have been more enthusiastic or supportive."

Rivals were equally effusive. NBC's Tom Brokaw called Cronkite the "godfather" of television news, "a seminal force in the transformation of this country. . . . I always thought of Walter as a journalist out of 'The Front Page.' He had a romantic idea of what it was like to be a journalist."

Cronkite's boyish enthusiasm for the space program was a recurring theme, brought to life by Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the moon 40 years ago. "Flight after flight, Walter was there as a comforting presence when the mission was a success, and on those painful times when failure came calling, he talked us all through it all. . . . He made voyages to the moon very real for average Americans," Aldrin said.

Andy Rooney, who was overcome by emotion when he tried to speak at Cronkite's funeral in July, appeared through the safer medium of videotape. He wove tales about his hard-of-hearing friend, including the time when a well-wisher asked whether he knew someone and Cronkite said yes, he had occasionally met Jesus Christ.

There were other light moments. Mickey Hart, the former Dead drummer and Cronkite's late-in-life pal who provided entertainment, along with Jimmy Buffett and Wynton Marsalis, invoked a musical discussion he had with Cronkite after one of the band's concerts. "Mickey," Cronkite asked, "how will we know when we have the groove?"

Even the big brass spoke in reverent terms. CBS Chairman Les Moonves said he always wanted to work at the network, not just because of "I Love Lucy" and "Gunsmoke" but also because of the man he called "my hero."

"His death is like losing the last veteran of a world-changing war," said CBS News President Sean McManus. He recalled how a note of praise from Cronkite deeply touched his father, Jim McKay, after the sportscaster's coverage of the massacre at the 1972 Olympics.

Howard Stringer, the former CBS chief who now runs Sony Corp., said Cronkite regarded the anchor role as a "straitjacket, smothering many of his own thoughts and opinions. . . . It could have been a burden which would have crushed a lesser man."

Former colleagues reveled in their descriptions of Cronkite as a witty, barhopping raconteur who could sometimes be exasperating. Bob Schieffer spoke of Cronkite, 10 minutes before airtime, peppering his reporters with questions such as "How much oil is there in the world?" and "How long is Greenland?" Rick Kaplan, now executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," said Cronkite once grabbed the phone when an irate caller was complaining about the anchor and, without identifying himself, said: "Maybe he's gone too far. Maybe he should be disciplined." Eventually the caller allowed that Cronkite was not that bad.

The passing of the generational guard was underscored in a biographical film in which CBS's Don Hewitt recalled how Cronkite was once "the new kid on the block." Hewitt, Cronkite's first evening news producer, died last month.

But the atmosphere was more celebratory than solemn, and the crowd erupted when Marsalis led a six-piece jazz band down the aisles in raucous tribute to the man whose voice still seemed to echo in the hall.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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