Walter Cronkite, Old Ironpants himself, says he knows how to save the ailing "CBS Morning News." The 69-year-old former anchor, the most trusted man in America, the silver-haired, pink-cheeked elder statesman of the airwaves, says he'd be willing to take over the job of delivering the dawn's early highlights on one condition.

"If I could do it from my bed," he says, crossing his arms and laughing, a week before CBS management announced that The Morning News as We Know It would be gone in six months, to be replaced by programming from outside the news division. "Would you get up and watch me in bed? I think I could do a pretty good show. I don't know how it would do against 'Good Morning America' and 'Today.' "

Good Lord. A chance to see Uncle Walter in his PJs? That would beat Jane Pauley in a maternity dress any day. He laughs, his white mustache twitching merrily. "Actually, the show would be fun to do. Sure, it would be great fun."

It's hard to imagine Mr. Straight News interviewing Sly Stallone's body builder, but Cronkite insists he's not as conservative as some people might imagine -- though "at least when I'm kinky, I keep it quiet." And in his youth, he did a stint on the morning news himself (it was called "The Morning Show" then), chatting amiably with a puppet called Charlemagne the Lion.

Of course, no one from CBS has called. Cronkite says, "I haven't been sitting by the telephone. I'd hate to have to get up that hour of the morning again."

When he stepped down as "CBS Evening News" anchor in March 1981, Cronkite told reporters he wasn't retiring. He would continue to contribute to the news, but not on a daily basis. He says he's not on the tube as much as he'd like. "It turned out to be more retirement than I thought it would."

He certainly doesn't look too old to read a teleprompter, even though he wears a hearing aid now that buzzes intermittently during an interview. His face looks thinner and his eyes tend to water with fatigue at night, but he still plays tennis twice a day and sails his new $400,000 sailboat Wyntje and gets feisty when he talks about the state of journalism today.

But the voice is the same, halfway between a croak and a croon, its deep hoarseness and gravelly, authoritative tone instantly familiar to generations of Americans. Since 1962, when he replaced Douglas Edwards on the "Evening News," Cronkite's has been the voice of video reason.

Does he miss the way it was?

"Oh sure. But I don't miss it any more than I anticipated I would. I thought I might be a little more active in the news department than I have been. And that's sort of a disappointment. But it's about what I expected."

He is sitting on the screened porch of his shingled Edgartown home, waiting for guests (including novelist William Styron and his wife Rose, Washington socialite Jayne Ikard, pollster Pat Caddell and Cronkite's 96-year-old mother Helen) who are coming for drinks and a back-yard cookout. His sailboat sits at the end of his dock, and later he will show it off to friends. It is sleek and well designed, with all the latest gear. It even has a bathtub. And a microwave oven. Friends say it is a sight to see, Cronkite weaving into the harbor, sails flapping. The Old Man of the CBS.

Cronkite looks relaxed and tanned as he sips a cocktail. He is cordial and as candid as he can be, under the circumstances.

"I miss the political conventions," he says finally.

Although Cronkite was on hand for the last election, "it was tough to sit there in the anteroom watching the convention coverage unfold at the anchor desk. Sure. I'd like to do that."

But Dan would Rather.

Although the two have been friends, Cronkite was accused of disloyalty recently by some CBS staffers when he appeared on "Donahue" and spoke his mind. Asked by Donahue whether it troubled him that his successor seemed to get better ratings when he wore a sweater, the former anchor replied, "Cosmetics have always troubled those of us who are serious about the news."

Is Rather keeping Cronkite from contributing more to CBS?

"Oh, I don't know," he says, sighing deeply. "It's a combination of things. I don't blame them. It's the new broom wishing to sweep clean and do it its own way. We'd never make any progress if it weren't that way. I've never known a head of a company that merges and stays on as a consultant."

He is, however, worried about the ratings. Rather has slipped from sole possession of the No. 1 spot on several occasions recently, bumped by Tom Brokaw and "NBC Nightly News."

"I don't know that I know how to fix it," Cronkite says of CBS' apparent loss of evening dominance (the ratings race among the three network news shows is closer than it's been in years). "What I'd do, I'm afraid, would appear to be old-fashioned. Go back to what we were doing before, basically."

Some people believe Rather forced him out. Cronkite says it's not true. "I just wanted to live a little, that's all," he says. "There are some people who are really angry about it."

They stop him on the street. They say, "How could you?" But Cronkite thinks it's better to leave when people still want you around. "That's right. Don't think that wasn't part of my consideration. I could see things happening, not at CBS, but in the business in general that I felt I'd be uncomfortable with. I sensed in the business a tendency toward more action news, the local news thing. I could see that coming." He snaps his fingers, in rapid succession, as if to signal the pace of the stories. "I thought the next generation after CBS News President Bill Leonard all coming in would probably want to go in that direction and I didn't think I'd be comfortable with it.

"I thought perhaps myself that I wasn't as sharp as I'd been at one time, maybe. It was time to get out at the top. I regret very much that a version of my stepping down was spread in Barbara what's-her-name's book." He is referring to "Evening Stars: The Making of the Network News Anchor" by Barbara Matusow, which alleged "that Rather edged me out. Nothing could be further from the truth. I said I was going to retire at 65 and warned Bill Leonard a few months before. Then, of course, the Rather thing did happen."

Dan Rather was Cronkite's choice as his successor. "It was between him and Roger Mudd and I liked Mudd very much, but I felt that Roger did not have the foreign experience necessary. But my judgment wasn't persuasive."

Did he make the right choice?

"I don't know. That's moot."

He takes a sip of his drink. "I don't know how Roger would have done as anchorperson. When Roger was replacing me on 'The CBS Evening News,' there was a real rejection of foreign news. He had no appreciation for it. He didn't feel it. You've got to live around the world, you've got to feel things happening, to understand, to sense the scene and understand the Germans, the British, the French."

Cronkite certainly understood people. They didn't call him Uncle Walter for nothing. And now, he seems to be busy, with a new coffeetable book out, "North by Northeast." Cronkite's text accompanies maritime paintings by artist Ray Ellis. (Their first collaboration was "South by Southeast.") He's planning two documentaries this winter, with a new, magazine-type format. The broadcasts, titled "Walter Cronkite at Large," will feature four or five stories, he says, on "my universality of interests. Space, the environment, the economy, politics, education."

He was among the finalists to be the first journalist in space, but got a phone call earlier in the day informing him that the shuttle would be indefinitely postponed.

"I think I'm pretty fit. I'm ready to go into space. But time is running against me now. If the Challenger disaster hadn't come and we'd gotten off this fall as planned, I think I would have had a good chance."

His wife Betsey is in the next room. She is wearing a Ralph Lauren blouse she got on sale. She is small, with a sharp wit.

Is she nervous about Cronkite traveling in space?

"She's been so eager for me to go that I've hired a food taster," he jokes. "I think I'm overinsured."

But Betsey Cronkite has lived with danger before. "I ran into that the first time when I was racing automobiles. She seemed to take it with such equanimity, but then she told me later she threw up every morning."

Not only is Cronkite's trip to the moon canceled, but it doesn't look as though he's going to get down to look at the Titanic.

He may be busy enough with another sinking ship, however. As a member of the CBS board of directors, he has been widely criticized for not doing enough to protect the news division from the latest round of budget cuts. Cronkite heatedly denies the charge.

"The board doesn't discuss these things. This is management's job. The board picks the overall management and the management has to operate the company. If this news department thinks the board ought to be involved in its decisions, then it's got a much different view of the news than any news department anywhere that I know of. If the board began to dabble in the news department decisions, what a horrible thing that would be."

The charge hurts. "Of course it does. If anything, I've been loyal to CBS for 36 years . . . I'm not going to defend things that I disagree with if I think they're wrong. I'm not going out and asking for a platform. I'm not booking myself at Carnegie Hall and making a speech about it. When I'm asked, I'm honest about it."

Old Ironpants (the nickname was bestowed by CBS colleagues) was never known to be as warm and avuncular off the air as he was on. Many who worked with him regarded him as something of a prima donna, remote and egotistical. He regrets that now, he says.

"To tell you the truth, one of my regrets is that I never participated in gossip. I think it's one of the things for which I was faulted. I was not very buddy-buddy with the staff. It's not normally my way anyway. I didn't pay enough attention to their feelings. I recognized it even as it was happening, but I couldn't bring myself to be one of those back-patters, constantly congratulating people. I've have a couple of bosses like that. Everything you did, you got a 'Great story! Wonderful!' The value of that currency diminishes so rapidly. As a result of that, I withdrew pretty early on. As a result, I think, when I did congratulate somebody it was more widely appreciated. But there should have been more of it than there was.

"Besides that, there should have been more interest in personal lives. I couldn't bring myself to do that. I'm not very good at gossip. I'm really a hard-facts guy. I get very upset when people tell me something and they can't buttress it with facts. I get very upset. "

He mourns the passing of good, solid reporting. "Oh my God. The unnamed source has become the bane of the newspaper business today. There are times when you've got to do that, particularly in Washington, but boy, if I had a newspaper, the unnamed source could not be used except with the approval of the executive editor. If you had to lay off a day to wait for him to get off the golf course, my God, I'd insist!"

His favorite show? "One of the best news shows on the air today is 'Entertainment Tonight.' You're more likely to get the five Ws in an 'Entertainment Tonight' story than you are in some others. For goodness' sakes, they don't give me the five Ws! The who and what maybe, but I can't find out when and where! And the how? Forget it."

The best anchor?

"What does one mean by the best anchor? The most popular anchor? The best informed anchor? The one who works hardest at producing the broadcast? This is one of the fallacies. The public can't really judge who is the best anchor. They can judge who they like best, but no one knows the background that goes into it. This has always been the problem separating the news ability from performance. Clearly, the anchorperson has to perform well. I think the problem that all of us have is when performance is judged to be more important than the news ability. That's a problem."

He crosses his arms over his Gucci belt buckle. "I think it takes a certain amount of ham for anybody to get up there and be comfortable in front of that television set."

Is that Rather's problem? "I don't know that Rather has a problem. He seems to be very popular and I think he does a very good job." He hesitates. It's an awkward question. "Dan is clearly a very intense man when he gets his feet into the story. That's a stylistic thing."

And if Rather gets teary-eyed at sentimental stories, Walter doesn't mind. He smiles coyly.

"I'm so pleased they got away from the macho man that it's acceptable for men to cry," he says coyly. Then, quickly, "Tell me what you think about Jennings. I think very highly of Jennings."

He also thinks highly of ABC "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel, who he calls "incredible . . . a genius at interviewing."

"What I'd really like to do," Cronkite says, "is what I did at WTOP and CBS in Washington. I did two 15-minute newscasts a day without a script."

That's the way television ought to be done, he says. Informally. "The audience says, 'Come in and tell me the news today.' It's just like you were walking down the street. They know you just came from the newsroom." He learned to do that, he says, when his old boss at United Press would call him at midnight every night and ask for a report. "He wanted to know what was going on. Bam Bam Bam." Cronkite claps his hands. "Five minutes of news. It was the best training in the world. You had to be ready for that call every night. When I went on television and accidentally found myself on evening news, that's the way I did it."

But news wasn't his first career choice. "I always said I always wanted to be, and do to this day, a song-and-dance man. I'd love to entertain people. The old straw hat and cane. I think that would be a great way to make a living."

The guests have arrived and Cronkite jumps up, heading out the back door. He is a genial host, and at sundown he lowers the American flag from his flagpole. For a moment, in the twilight, he looks a little like Uncle Sam, folding the red, white and blue flag.

Does he miss being Uncle Walter?

"There's still enough of it out there. I think about those 10-year-olds. Those 15 years old who don't know . . .

"But still," he says, brightening, "there's an awful lot of tape." CAPTION: Pictures, Walter Cronkite: "I just wanted to live a little, that's all. . . It was time to get out the top." (c) JILL KREMENTZ; Picture 2, Cronkrite anchors his last "Evening News" show in 181. Dan Rather, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL