Remembering Walter Cronkite

Marlene Adler
Chief of Staff to Walter Cronkite
Monday, July 20, 2009 1:00 PM

Walter Cronkite, known as "the most trusted man in America," died Friday at his home in New York. He was 92. From 1962 to 1981 Cronkite was a nightly presence in the homes of millions of Americans, guiding viewers through wars, deaths, scandals and moon landings. His signature television sign-off was "And that's the way it is."

America's Iconic TV News Anchor Shaped the Medium and the Nation (Post, July 18)

Marlene Adler, chief of staff to Cronkite, was online Monday, July 20, at 1 p.m. ET to recall his career and what he was like to work with.

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Marlene Adler: Hello all. I'm Marlene Adler, Chief of Staff to Walter Cronkite and I'll be with you for the next half hour or so to respond to your questions.

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Fairfax, Va.: I saw on the news that Mr. Cronkite kept detailed files and historian Douglas Brinkley has them and is going to write about him. Did you help him keep those files? What all was saved?

Marlene Adler: Mr. Cronkite's files have been meticulously kept and most of them are housed at the University of Texas at Austin, where he attended school. Mr. Brinkley has proposed to write a biography of Mr. Cronkite and is working with UT, accessing his archives for research. I have been with Walter for the past 20 years and have maintained his files since that time at our CBS office. They, too, will be sent to his library at The University of Texas when appropriate.

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Boston, Mass.: My wife spent time with Cronkite about 10 years back when they were both in a surgical recovery area of a New York hospital. She said he couldn't have been nicer as they chatted away about each other's procedures and family. Was he always this nice to strangers or was it because she's a pretty blond (as she says)?

Marlene Adler: Having a pretty blonde as a hospital mate, I'm sure, had a hand in Mr. Cronkite's speedy recovery. But the truth is, he was a friend to everyone. He loved people and felt akin to all.

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Portsmouth, N.H.: Hearing about Walter Cronkite's death made me remember a funny story involving my son -- then about 6. We were at a diner, and their placemats had pictures of all the presidents of the U.S. Terry looked at all the pictures and frowned -- then looked up and said" They forgot Walter Cronkite! We all got a good laugh -- but it shows how we ALL felt about CBS news and Cronkite. Yes, he was that important! Thanks for the memory!

Marlene Adler: And thank you for sharing that lovely story.

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Bethesda, Md.: I remember seeing Cronkite broadcast the local news in the early 195's on WTOP channel 9 before he moved on to bigger things. Do you know exactly when he worked out of channel 9?

Marlene Adler: I believe it was in 1950 just before he moved to New York City and began doing news broadcasts for CBS.

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Washington, D.C.: When I learned of Mr. Cronkite's death, my immediate thought was that, given his love of the space program, how sad it was that he hadn't lived to see today's 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. My second thought was that the observance would have been painful for him, in light of the slower-than-hoped-for pace of space exploration in the past 40 years. Any thoughts on what Mr. Cronkite might have thought about the space program on this 40th anniversary?

Marlene Adler: He was such an enthusiastic supporter of space exploration that he would have been thrilled to be reminded of our past accomplishments -- and revel in what the future of space travel promises to be.

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Lansing, Mich.: The world seems different, somehow, this morning knowing that Walter Cronkite is no longer a part of it. It always felt like he was a part of the family, like we knew him. And, when bad news had to delivered, I wanted Walter Cronkite to be the one to give it to me.

In this modern world of fast-food news, there is no one, no one, who can compare to him.

Marlene Adler: I, too, believe that no one will replace him as the most trusted voice in news, however, he did believe that our traditional news remain as good and reliable sources, and his hope was that journalism students today learn their craft well and uphold the standards of journalistic ethics and integrity as they take their places in the profession.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: (1) Are any of Walter Cronkite's children or grandchildren in journalism today? (2) How did Mr. Cronkite feel about technology in general, and specifically as it relates to news and the demise of newspapers?

Marlene Adler: Mr. Cronkite's son is a documentary film producer and editor. One of his daughter's is an author. As yet, none of his grandsons have gone into the business, but they are young and have time.

He loved the new technology, (the Internet) but also saw the problems with reliability of news delivery. He was concerned that news sources on the Internet were not attributable and worried that it would further diminish trust in the news media.

About newspapers disappearing, he was sad indeed. He was a newspaper man first and loved that part of his life and that business. He was incredulous that entire cities could be without a newspaper.

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Washington, D.C.: A friend was supposing that she thought Cronkite would have more easily adapted to online journalism because of his work for UPI. What were his thoughts about balancing speed and accuracy, and did he really think it was much different from what countless wire reporters have done for years?

Marlene Adler: As a newspaper man and a TV reporter, speed and accuracy were what it was all about. Getting the facts, getting them right and getting the story out first, whenever possible. He didn't like to be scooped by another network or print reporter. However, he would not release a story, even if it meant being second, if he could not authenticate his sources. I, too, think he would easily have adapted to online journalism.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Given that Walter Cronkite was such an enthusiastic supporter of space exploration, did it ever interfere with his reporting on flaws in NASA's programs, on whistleblowers trying to draw attention to their problems, or on opposing views? What, if any, were some negative things he reported on the U.S.'s space program?

Marlene Adler: His love and enthusiasm for the space program never interfered with his reporting of it. He never lost sight of the fact that this was a new field and it was being made up as they went along. Naturally, there were problems and he felt it was his obligation to report them to the American people. I can't think of one specific incident right now, but Walter was always truthful in his reporting. He told us the facts, warts and all.

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College Park, Md.: Did Cronkite fight against being "forced" to retire? I heard CBS was very eager to get Rather and didn't want to lose him because ABC News was after him. That true?

Marlene Adler: It is not true that Walter was forced to retire. I would like to set the record straight on this, but these false rumors seem to persist. He had been telling CBS for a couple of years beforehand that he planned to retire soon after his 65th birthday. No one believed him. However, Dan Rather was the heir apparent and was being courted by ABC, so CBS did ask Walter if he was serious, would he be willing to step down earlier than November. He was happy to do it, and was happy that Dan Rather was stepping in.

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Washington, D.C.: What did Walter Cronkite do in his private time?

Marlene Adler: Whenever possible, he would sail his beloved sailboat. And depending on the time of year, he would do so around the waters of Martha's Vineyard in summer and in the winter, in Tortola in the BVI. It was his passion and when on his boat, the cares of the world left him and he was truly at peace.

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Washington, D.C.: I heard that Cronkite really controlled his nightly broadcast and that he was concerned about everything in it, including each script by each of the news correspondents. Is this true? And I heard that if he didn't like the night's show then everyone was unhappy with it.

Marlene Adler: Walter was the Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News. Nothing went on the news that he didn't approve of. He felt his responsibility to the public keenly that he'd never allow anything to pass him that wasn't up to the gold standard he had set. If he was not happy, you can be sure, those responsible for gathering the facts he required were not going to be happy either!

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Alexandria, Va.: In the 1970s, I went to a concert by a folk singer (whose name I forget). He did an audience-participation song, on the theme of love and tolerance, and he said "We'll start with an easy one." So we all sang the first verse, "I love Walter Cronkite..."

Marlene Adler: Thanks for sharing that. I don't know the song, but I loved Walter Cronkite too!

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Washington, D.C.: Television news has changed drastically since Mr. Cronkite left the anchor chair. Has he been a constant observer and watcher since retirement? And would he watch just CBS or the other nets? And what did he think of cable news? The Internet?

Marlene Adler: Walter never lost his passion for the news and was as much a devoted viewer as he was a newsman. He watched CBS, of course, but also took in many of the other news programs, just as he did when he was on the air. He liked cable news, though early on he wasn't sure that a 24/hr cable news program could survive! He was happily proved wrong. As I mentioned earlier, the problem he saw with Internet news was the matter of attributing a story to a reliable source. He was very concerned about the ease with which anyone could print anything and possibly be believed.

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Trenton, N.J.: Walter Cronkite was a fixture of my youth, so much so that when I was quite a small child, I had a little turtle (the kind you used to be able to buy in Woolworth's pet department) and I named him Walter Cronkite. One summer, he died. My father's elderly aunt, calling us for her weekly update, was very upset to be informed that Walter Cronkite had died. It took us some minutes to sort out that it was the turtle, not the newscaster, who had passed away. I now feel the same sense of shock and dismay as my aunt must have felt hearing the news, before we cleared up all the confusion.

Marlene Adler: Sad for your turtle, and sad for all of us having lost our dear friend, and trusted icon. I thought he'd be with us forever.

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Bethesda, Md.: I wonder if any other people feel that they just lost a father. My very wonderful father was Cronkite's age and died five years ago. But I always conflated the two a bit in my mind.

We always watched Cronkite every night at the dinner table; we would never have dreamed of switching channels while he was still on the air.

I have never felt so sad about the death of a public figure in my 46 years.

Marlene Adler: You have my deepest condolences. I feel your pain.

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Shirlington, Va.: What are the funeral arrangements? Will it be private? Will there be a memorial ceremony for him and will that be open to the public?

Marlene Adler: There will be a private funeral service for him on Thursday at which family and close friends are invited. CBS will be hosting a memorial service in a few weeks, the details of which have not been finalized, but I believe that, too, will be for his close friends and colleagues.

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Washington, D.C.: I think it was the case CBS said he could do things for them after he left the anchor chair that didn't materialize. Isn't that correct?

Marlene Adler: That is somewhat true. After he stepped down from the anchor chair, he hosted a program called: Walter Cronkite's Universe. It was a series of science programs and he very much enjoyed doing them. However, he'd hoped to be more involved in news events, and that didn't happen.

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Boston, Mass.: Why did he(they) choose for his wife and him to be buried in Missouri versus Martha's Vineyard?

Marlene Adler: Kansas City was their home. It is where they grew up and met. Their families are buried there and that's where they wanted to be. Martha's Vineyard was their summer home for 40 years, but not home.

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Bowie, Md.: What was Mr. Cronkite's principal source of income after retiring? Did he just live on accumulated wealth? I've read that advertisers would have paid him ANYTHING to endorse their products.

Marlene Adler: He had a very successful international lecture business and hosted many documentary programs for PBS and other educational networks. He also had a documentary production company which produced more than 100 hours of award-winning television programs with the Discovery Channel.

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Doylestown, Pa.: We were a "CBS Family" when Mr. Cronkite was on the air. I remember we ate dinner at 5 so my folks could watch the 6 o'clock news uninterrupted. His integrity and honesty affected me then, and still does so today. It must have been a challenging pleasure to work with him.

Marlene Adler: I, too, grew up as a "CBS Family." Working with Walter these past 20 years has been one of the greatest joys and blessings of my life. It has been an education I could not have bought or paid for! He was a treasure.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Ms. Adler. I am in my 50s, and I thought that Mr. Cronkite and CBS News provided a lot of excellent news coverage a few decades ago. I was unable to see the CBS special about Mr. Cronkite Sunday, but I was surprised that the cable news networks said very little about Mr. Cronkite's broadcasts about Watergate in the fall of 1972. I think that CBS was the only broadcast network to do some lengthy coverage of Watergate before the November 1972 presidential election. That was pretty notable. Moreover, I fondly remember the programs "20th Century" and "21st Century" which Mr. Cronkite hosted on Sundays.

Marlene Adler: We shared some wonderful programs with him, didn't we? I'm sorry you did not get to see all the coverage that was done over the weekend because I think all of the networks and cable channels did first rate, and fitting tributes to this great man.

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Seattle, Wash.: My favorite Walter C memory is from after his trip to Viet Nam, when Lyndon Johnson said "Oh no, if we've lost Cronkite, we've lost the whole country".

Who do you see, among current or up-and-coming journalists, as the "conscience of America"?

Marlene Adler: Not sure I see anyone in that role. Walter always said that when he anchored the news, there were only three networks and each of them garnered a third of the country. Now, with hundreds of news sources out there, it is difficult, if not impossible for any one newsperson to have the ear of a majority of the viewing audience.

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San Diego, Calif.: Do you think more of Mr. Cronkite's famous broadcasts like his interview with Eisenhower at Omaha beach and others will be available on DVD to show our kids?

Marlene Adler: I hope they will be. CBS would be the folks to distribute them if they are to be available. Write to them at 524 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: For years we watched Walter Cronkite on the annual New Year's Day Vienna Philharmonic concert on PBS. If I'm not mistaken, 2009 was the first year he missed (not that Julie Andrews didn't do a fine job, but no one would ever call her "avuncular"!).

Was January 1, 2008, on PBS Walter Cronkite's final TV appearance?

Marlene Adler: Yes, it was. But I, too, thought Julie Andrews did a very fine job. I believe she will host again this year.

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Ladysmith, Va.: How did Mr. Cronkite feel about the incident that led to Mr. Rather's resignation? Did he agree that Mr. Rather had violated journalistic responsibility and should resign?

Marlene Adler: He did not weigh in on whether Mr. Rather should resign, but he thought it was an error in judgment to go with a story that was not sufficiently authenticated.

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Brielle, N.J.: Marlene, my condolences to you and to Mr Cronkite's family. I had heard that a year or so after Betsy's death, he planned to remarry to Carly Simon's sister. Was that merely an Internet rumor?

Marlene Adler: Mr. Cronkite and Joanna Simon had a lovely and close relationship but they were not ever scheduled to marry.

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Etlan, Va.: Back in the 1970s I remember seeing Walter Cronkite's phone listed in the Martha's Vineyard phonebook. I never did try calling him but I sure never remember seeing anyone so famous having a listed phone number. Was that a mistake or was he that approachable....at least on the Vineyard.

Marlene Adler: He did not feel it was a mistake. He never really understood his fame in the sense of feeling he had to protect himself from his fellow man. He enjoyed talking to everyone and always felt he was just like everyone else.

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Towson, Md.: I was surprised to learn that Cronkite turned down the Moscow bureau assignment offered by Edward R. Murrow and decided to stay with United Press. Is that true? I understand that he was offered another job at CBS later and that he did that that.

Marlene Adler: He did not turn down the Moscow Bureau -- that was not the job Murrow offered. Murrow offered him a job on CBS radio when the war broke out in London. Walter first said yes, and then UP matched CBS's offer. Walter loved the print business and decided to stay with them. In 1946, at the end of the war, UP sent him to Moscow to open their press bureau -- and he and Betsy lived there for the next 2 years. He joined CBS in 1950.

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Chantilly, Va.: When was the last time you talked to him?

Marlene Adler: I said good-bye to him on Friday, just before he passed away.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Considering that Mr. Cronkite attended the University of Texas, how is that the journalism school at Arizona State was named in after him?

Marlene Adler: They asked first!

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Washington, D.C.: What was his reaction when he heard that President Johnson said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."?

Marlene Adler: He was surprised and didn't learn of it until several days or weeks later. He didn't really know the power he wielded.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think he retired too early? Did he ever complain about not being on the evening news anymore?

Marlene Adler: He did retire too early and wished every day he was back on the news, almost until the day he died. But he did not regret any of the the things he did throughout his life -- except one. He always wanted to go to the moon and regretted not getting there!

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Dumb question: What happens to a chief of staff (or, for that matter, a a famous person's agent or manager) when that famous person dies? Do you remain with the deceased's estate, or do you soon become unemployed?

Marlene Adler: You become unemployed. Any suggestions?

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Bethesda, Md.: Why didn't one of the other networks pick up Walter after he was forced out by CBS to make way for Rather in 1981? Seems like he would have been receptive to another network offer, particularly since he felt that he left before he really wanted to.

Marlene Adler: Again, he was not forced out by CBS. As for going to another network, he remained under contract to CBS all of these years, by his own choice. He loved working with them and they him and he could not think of himself as anything but a CBS News person.

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Marlene Adler: So sorry, but I have to say good-bye to you all. I very much enjoyed your questions and thank you all for your kind and thoughtful condolences. We all shall miss Walter, and I will leave you with my assurance that he is deserving of your respect, admiration and loyalty. He was unique in every way, and always a gentleman.

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