A remarkable man. An unassailable public figure. A splendid record of service. A very moving performance last night at the Democratic National Convention.
No, not Jimmy Carter. Not even Teddy Kennedy. Walter Cronkite, Walter Cronkite.
A crowd of 600 delegates and guests was on the floor at Madison Square Garden chanting, "Wall-ter! Wall-ter! Wall-ter!" according to correspondent Dan Rather, who will have two mighty big oxfords to fill next March when he takes over for Father Time on the CBS Evening News.
But last night Walter Cronkite anchored his final hours of convention coverage, a function he has filled professionally and illustriously and sometimes pompously for the past 28 years.
The emotion brought forth by this farewell simply dwarfed reaction to President Carter's acceptance speech, which didn't appear to be going over all that well anyway. Cronkite not only received tributes on the air from his colleagues at CBS News, but got the rare gesture of a hail and farewell from the competition next door at ABC News. Anchorman Frank Reynold said Walter was "quite a guy" and had been "an ornament to our profession for a long time."
An ABC camera actually zeroed in on a shot of Walter as he sat in the CBS News booth talking to his audience. He introduced Rather, who praised him from the floor. A CBS camera caught a young woman standing and waving a placard that said, "We'll miss you, Walter."
Commentator Eric Sevareid, returning to CBS News briefly as Walter's guest in the booth, also joined in the salute. "If a Norwegian like me can borrow from the Irish, grace go with ye and good luck attend ye," Sevareid said.
"I like the salute from the floor and a few votes would be even more appreciated," said Cronkite, chuckling and blushing. Then he introduced correspondent Charles Kuralt, who Cronkite thought was going to deliver one last feature on the convention. But as part of a surprise CBS News personnel had been sitting on all week, Kuralt instead narrated a tribute.
"It's the Walter Cronkite Story," Kuralt said, and with the CBS flashed back to Chicago of 1952 where a man looking like Walter Cronkite's son, but being in fact a young Walter Cronkite, said "Hello everyone, here we are again in Studio A for Westinghouse."
It was Walter's First Convention.
After this black-and-white reminiscence, Kuralt presented Cronkite with the very microphone he had used 28 years ago, but now it was mounted on wood, sealed under Lucite and rigged up with a recording of Walter in the early prime of his time. On the wooden base there was a plaque. It said in part, "To Walter Cronkite for three decades you enriched the political process. . . . The people at CBS News are the luckiest of your fans; we got to work with you and be your friends."
Kuralt said it had always been a pleasure and a privilege to say "And now back to you, Walter." Then he said, "And now back to you, Walter."
By this time Walter was blushing up a storm. "I didn't expect that," he said. "I really might have preferred that it hadn't happened on the air like this." He said he wouldn't get nostalgic about leaving the convention anchor booth until "four years from now" when someone else would be sitting in his chair. He praised his colleagues at CBS News, calling them "the greatest team . . . you ever saw."
He singled out for accolades researcher Ruth Streeter and producer Mark Harrington, who stands in a pit below Cronkite's desk and hands him notes during conventions. Harrington could be seen to say, "Thank you from all of us," and it was obvious Cronkite was straining to keep from puddling over with tears.
This was truly touching. It was not only a climax to the last night of the convention, it somehow became the most significant event as well. It certainly outshone the haphazard and chronically upmoving Carter speech in which the president praised the memory of a former vice-president he mistakenly called "Hubert Horatio Hornblower Humphrey." Even when Sen. Kennedy finally joined him on the podium, an event heralded by gossip all night long, there seemed little honset ebullience in the air.
But those who made it up until 12:30 a.m., after ABC and NBC had gone to bed, heard a white-haired man in a distinguished black suit end his convention-anchoring career by saying: "This is Walter Cronkite, speaking for all of CBS News, saying from Madison Square Garden, good night."