"And that's the way it is, Friday, March 6, 1981. I'll be away on assignment and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night."
As a new entry in the annals of momentous farewells, it lacked the grandeur of MacArthur's to Congress, the pathos of Nixon's to his staff, the emotionalism of Babe Ruth's to New York. But who's to say that someday grandchildren won't be sitting on laps asking grandparents where they were when Walter Cronkite signed off as anchorman of the "CBS Evening News."
As happens with some events in the age of megamedia, this one, when it finally came, seemed anticlimactic compared with the roaring, almost panicky ballyhoo that preceded it. Cronkite himself made reference to the ado in his brief closing remarks. "Those who have made anything of this depparture I'm afraid have made too much," he said.
Cronkite began the statement with studied nonchalance: "This is my last broadcast as the anchorman for the CBS Evening News.' For me, it's a moment for which I long have planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we've been meeting like this in the evenings, and I'll miss that."
We inched closer to our TV screens as Cronkite continued. Were his eyes glistening? Were they getting a little dewy? Yes, it looked as though they were.
"This is but a transition, a passing of the baton," he said, trying to maintain calm in the nation. "A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, proceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow." That's our Walter, gracious to the end. "And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists -- writers, reporters, editors, producers -- and none of that will change."
That's our Walter, a company man to the end.
Cronkite assured viewers he would return with occasional news specials (he'll anchor one hour of CBS News' forthcoming five-hour defense special) and the science series "Universe." Then he said, the pink flesh on his face gathering into a twinkly and chipper smile, "Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away, they just keep coming back for more."
That's our Walter -- a Walter to the end.
In the New York studios with Cronkite when he made his farewell were his wife, children and agent. Rather watched from the office of executive producer Sanford Socolow. A CBS News spokesman said that during the final commercial, just before the last act and Cronkite's finale, he said to the crew, "Don't get nervous, everybody; we'll try to do it just like we rehearsed it."
Later he joked to those in the studio, "Tell Dan I've changed my mind," and when it was all over, reportedly threw his script into the air and said, "School's out!" A great weight had just been lifted from his shoulders. In his 19 years as anchorman, Cronkite became someone who not only reported to us on occurrences, developments, ordeals, triumphs, calmaties and disasters, but who also seemed to be there to see us through them.
Even the other network, newcasts had to take note of this national rite of passage. On NBC, John Chancellor saluted Cronkite as "a formidable competitor" and, after wishing Rather good luck, added, "but not too much good luck, Dan."
On ABC's "World News Tonight," Frank Reynolds noted Cronkite's "remarkable tenure" and theorized that his presence from the dawn of TV news may have helped it from becoming sensationalized -- clear indication that Reynolds hasn't taken a gander at his own network's "20/20" lately.
With some tactlessness, Reynolds added, "I hope that some of the millions of people so devoted to Walter will now give us a look." But he said it was time for a brief truce in the "Tong Wars" of network competition. Of course, he meant really brief. The true tributes to Cronkite from the other networks have been the promos for their own newscasts with which they have flooded the airwaves this week in attempt to lure more viewers to their sides during the difficult transition period that lies ahead.
(On ABC's "Good Morning America" show yesterday, ageless sage Eric Sevareid complained that more media attention has been lavished on Cronkite's departure than on Jimmy Carter's.)
Throughout his last newscast, Cronkite was his usual veritable ship-of-state self. On the line "The stock market was mixed today," his voice cracked slightly (perhaps at the thought this was the last time held be saying that). He appeared alternately concerned, bemused, alarmed and disturbed at the news, in those subtle Cronkite ways. After a nearly interminable Robert Pierpoint report on the possibility of a nuclear test by South Africa, Cronkite seemed, like all of us, justifiably bored.
But not to tears. There were no actual tears in sight.
Come Monday, Dan Rather takes over, and we may learn that plus ca change, plus c'est not necessarily la meme chose. Some people might justifiably view the preoccupation with Cronkite's exit as silly, but for almost two decades, after all, we'd been meeting like this in the evenings, and we'll miss that.
At the very end of the show, after his statement, Cronkite placed his script on the desk, put his glasses in his pocket, moved a pencil, checked a stopwatch, and popped a gumdrop in his mouth. The only credit on the screen read, "Managing editor, Walter Cronkite." Then a whole mess of elections zizzled and zazzled and "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" was history.