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When Cronkite Knew Best

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

There was something about Uncle Walt. He was so . . . avuncular.

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Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in television precisely because he seemed so grown up. The CBS anchor was a pillar of maturity, reliability and unemotional accountability -- just the sort of fellow who could sell you a tin of coffee by simply taking a sip.

During a bumpy time in our nation's history, he filled a psychic need for order amid chaos. By showing up every night at the same time, same place -- speaking simply and without drama -- he conveyed a sense that someone was in charge.

Our nostalgia for his passing isn't only for the death of a familiar and mostly admired individual, but also for a certain kind of man -- an iconic reminder of a time when fathers knew best and the media were on the home team.

He had the looks and voice of the sort of man one could trust for good directions. Nonthreatening and, it seemed, untempted by vanity, his prevailing affect was of seriousness and humility.

It is doubtless difficult in these post-metrosexual, celebrity-driven times to grasp the preference that Americans once held for people who weren't "all that." Male figures, also known nearly ubiquitously as "fathers," were especially admired in those days for substance over style.

And, in a page for Ripley's Believe It or Not, the same was true of media.

If Walter Cronkite, or other nightly news figures such as CBS's Eric Sevareid or NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, ever checked their makeup before airtime, one wouldn't have imagined them lingering over the mirror. For Cronkite's generation, preening was unmanly. As for fashion, shoes came in two colors and four suits was a full closet.

What mattered more than fame or celebrity was content. Cronkite enjoyed fame, but his was the result of his labors in the vineyard. More workhorse than show horse, he was more Rushmore than Rushbo.

Every now and then, his game face -- the envy of poker players everywhere -- betrayed his humanity, though breaking character required the gravest or most miraculous of circumstances.

He shed a tear when he announced that President John F. Kennedy, indeed, had died, though Cronkite resisted the temptation to speculate until the word was official. When man first walked on the moon, Cronkite removed his fogging glasses, saying, "Whew, boy. . . . There he is."

In a seminal and steadfastly controversial media moment on Feb. 27, 1968, Cronkite ended a special report on Vietnam with an analysis, saying that there was no clear victor from the Tet Offensive and that the United States and North Vietnam were "mired in stalemate":

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