Understatement of the week: "So far this has been relatively quiet convention" -- Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.
There were, nevertheless, treasurable occurrences during this week's Democratic National Convention from New York, though only two certifiable emotional sidewinders: Teddy Kennedy's speech on Tuesday night, and Walter Cronkite's farewell to convention anchordom on Thursday, with colleagues at CBS News almost causing the grand old ham to totally lose his composure on the air for the first time since the Apollo missions.
If Jimmy Carter had really been shrewd, he would have paid tribute to Cronkite from the podium during his acceptance speech. That would have brought the old house down as he was otherwise unable to do.
Cronkite's performance during the week was spectacularly steadfast and sturdy.If he indeed tends to hog the mike, if he sometimes treated the floor reporters like underlings -- "Walter's Angels," always answerable to the voice on the headset -- and if he was prone to occasional aimless rambling, he still proved a touchstone and a model of endurance. On the last night of the convention, he also did the best reporting on demonstrations taking place outside the hall, which no cameras at any network adequately covered.
Criticisms of Cronkite paled into insignifance as the last minutes of his convention anchoring career ticked away and one imagined going through things like this wihout him.
Is there, perchance, room for one more face on Mt. Rushmore?
NBC's coverage was overall the best, however, especially in visual terms. After ceaselessly ballyhooing the upcoming arrival on the podium of Sen. Kennedy, CBS News then committed the colossal blunder of cutting to crowd shots when he finally did appear, missing the poignance and discomfort visible on the podium and on NBC and ABC.
It was the single biggest mistake of the week, because this was one instance where television was ideally suited to convey the story, which broke down into an observation of Teddy's body language; whom would he hug (not the president), how warmly would he smile, how long would he remain on the podium? Similarly, only Tv could fully convey the pathos and symbolic behavior of what Ted Koppel of ABC News called the "recalcitrant balloons" that refused to fall from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden, as if withholding the illusion of gaiety from the proceedings.
Also extremely ill-advised was the decision by CBS News and ABC News, late in the week, to suddenly begin running sign interpreters for the hearing-impaired in the lower corner of the screen (ABC used this only for Carter's acceptance speech). The device is an unwarranted intrusion on the television picture, and resorting to it is so late in the game suggested the networks think there are deaf Democrats out there but no deaf Republicans.
And while ABC News coverage was not overwhelmingly distinguished, there was an impressive display of aggressive reporting. James Wooten was first to note that "large chunks" of Kennedy's speech were from the acceptance speech he might have given; Sam Donaldson was first with Carter's letter on the platform, and ABC ended its coverage with a brilliantly edited montage of the convention week up to and including its final gasps. Really lucky people saw that and no other coverage.
In a seemingly endless week that has finally ended, there were other milestones of varying significance as the networks struggled with the great big story that wasn't there. Yes, in future years, we'll all be telling our grandchildren where we were when:
Tip O'Neil began answering a question of James Wooten's on ABC with, "I can recall, and I said on one of the other networks . . ."
Dan Rather of CBS News leaped like a puppy at the news that the Alaska delegation was walking out on speaker Mo Udall and gleefully followed them from the floor looking grateful as all getout for the chance to do his breathless reporter routine.
NBC's David Brinkley said of a backstage procedural huddle following Kennedy's speech, "It would be nice to guess what they're deciding, but I prefer not to, because I don't know."
John Anderson said to Barbara Walters on ABC, "You're pressing me very hard, Barbara!"
Dan Rather had just finished interviewing the most over-interviewed man of the decade so far, Robert Strauss, when Cronkite chimed in with more superfluous questions from the booth, Walter: "Dan! Dan!" Dan: Yes, Walter!" Walter: "Ask him [so-and-so]." Dan: "I'll ask him, Walter." w
Morton Dean of CBS News rushed over to Shirley Chisholm for her reactions to the Carter letter and when she said she hadn't read it yet, he stood there and read it with her until she could say she was outraged. Dean also helped Gloria Steinem up onto a chair and then apologized in case this was a sexist gesture.
The Let's-Face-It Dept.: Rosalynn Carter told ABC's Barbara Walters that Sen. Kennedy had made a "great speech" and predicted her husband, Jimmy, would make a "very good" one.
Jimmy Carter's hotel-room reaction to seeing himself renominated was tape-delayed, explained Walter Cronkite, so that Carter would not be seen on TV looking at a picture of himself sitting in his hotel room.
John Chancellor of NBC News reported that "the American hostages have not been mentioned so far at this convention by any major speaker." An hour later, Carter mentioned them in his acceptance speech.
Walter Cronkite reported that "probably one of the most exciting events of the convention" was the moment when a gospel singer failed to show up for the national anthem and Sen. John Glenn filled in for her. CBS never showed it on the air.
At 8:32 Thursday night, Cronkite reported that Sen. Kennedy might actually speak to the delegates after Carter's speech. Then he was handed a note, took out his glasses to read it, and said Kennedy would not speak after all. "I thought it was strange," Cronkite said.
John Chancellor, near the end of coverage: "Can I just get a word in here?" Tom Brokaw: "I'm not sure, John." Chancellor: "It seems to me that [pause] we'll never see you again."
Cronkite to Eric Sevareid after Tip O'Neil had adjourned the convention: "By golly, we've done it again, Eric."
And by golly, they had.