They sat him on a ridiculous gilded throne with glowing halo attached and made jokes at his expense, but it was quite clear -- Walter Cronkite is not a man born to roasting.
"Those people who can't find anything bad to say about you don't know you as well as I do," Andy Rooney told the guest of honor at last night's roast to benefit the newly established Walter Cronkite Regents Chair in Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. But even Rooney was hard pressed, spending most of his allotted three minutes playing his curmudgeonly self and complaining about his time limit. After all, no one really dares make fun of Mr. Avuncular, Mr. Trustworthy, Mr. That's the Way It Is.
"I guess I always thought if God were to speak out loud to me," said House Majority Leader James Wright (D-Tex.), "he'd sound something like Walter Cronkite."
You get the idea.
"He's just part of the American scene," said Ann Landers before dinner at the Mayflower Hotel, speaking over the University of Texas Longhorn Band Ensemble's emphatic rendition of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."
Roaster Beverly Sills had written her own love song for the event.
"Walter and I are coming out of the closet tonight," she told the audience of 300 Texas and Cronkite enthusiasts, who included Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) and Eric Sevareid, from her perch on Cronkite's lap. "I have been the other woman for years and years. All we had is a passionately platonic relationship. I'm tired of it."
"W -- I'm weary of waiting . . . " the amorous ditty began, moving through "L is for the little time that's left, dear," and ending with "Put them all together, they spell Walter/ If that's the way it is, it ain't no more."
Marvin Hamlisch's cup also overflowed, as he rewrote his songs "The Way We Were" and "Nobody Does It Better" to laud the retired anchor.
Mark Russell was hardly more acidic about the evening's subject. Of Cronkite's becoming a semifinalist in NASA's Journalist in Space program, Russell said, "That's ridiculous. We already have the first journalist in space -- Robert Novak. He's been out there for years . . . but it should be Walter . . . The first journalist in space should be our kindly, comfortable uncle. The first man on the moon to wear bedroom slippers."
Landers became serious when asked about Cronkite's interest in riding the shuttle. Alluding to NASA's recent setbacks, she said, "I'd just as soon he'd lose."
Cronkite himself told the audience, "I am hoping age will not be a factor. Right now, I know I'm up to it, but it's obvious the journalist won't be flying for several years. It's sort of a race between NASA's getting the shuttle's plumbing fixed before mine wears out."
Cronkite, unconstrained by the need to be gentle with himself, got off a few lines at the expense of others.
There was the classic line adapted to the surroundings: "Take Jim Wright. Please."
And this about Andy Rooney: "We've all had the experience of listening to him talk until an idea comes along."
And even a little jab at himself: "I'm very proud of my humility. I know I'm more humble than anybody."
The $1,000-a-plate dinner was expected to raise $500,000 plus expenses, thanks to the loyalty of UT's alums, Cronkite's friends and master of ceremonies Bob Strauss' political connections.
"We got Bob Strauss -- that was the best decision we made," said Robert Jeffrey, dean of the College of Communication.
Vernon Jordan explained his presence by saying, "Bob Strauss is my law partner -- that explains it all." (Jordan actually also knows Cronkite.)
Unlike everyone else, Dick Cavett arrived in black tie, the fault, he said, of a misguided secretary. In his speech, he began, "I'm going to use all the jokes I used at other of these roasts," and proceeded to repeat many of the ones he told at the recent White House Correspondents Association dinner.
The surprise star of the evening was Ann Richards, the Texas state treasurer, whom Strauss introduced in the following manner: "Ann Richards is on the program because she's a friend of mine and no other reason. She doesn't know Walter and, from what I know, has little use for him."
"You people up here may trust Walter, but in Texas he is God, and to Democrats, he is the messiah!" she began, and launched into a rolling description of an imaginary return to the state by UT alumnus Cronkite, when "he will turn all the Republicans into frogs and send their firstborn male children to Utah . . . "
The crowd, which was Texas down to its wing tips, found this delightful, as it did all Texicana. Comments like "You're from Abilene, aren't you?" were common at the predinner reception, and at least one "Yippee!" of enthusiasm roared from the audience at the mention of the University of Texas. At the end of the evening, the Longhorn Band Ensemble ("The Dallas Symphony after Gramm-Rudman," as Mark Russell put it) played "The Eyes of Texas" and much of the crowd sang along, raising index and little fingers in what UT fans call "the Hook 'em Horns."
All of this for a man who, UT attendance notwithstanding, was born in St. Joseph, Mo. Texans are a generous breed.