Potpourri: Cronkite and Me: From archives
Most of us will encounter a few of our culture’s stars in our lifetimes. My good fortune brought Bob Hope, Charlton Heston, Jackie Onassis, Gregory Peck, and especially Walter Cronkite.
I often think about interviewing him in his office at CBS News for a 30 minute special at North Carolina’s WFMY-TV in the mid-1970’s when Cronkite was the “nation’s” anchorman. Our news director, former Cronkite writer Rabun Matthews, arranged the extraordinary trip. He, two photographers and I went to New York.
For those under age 35, Cronkite is either unknown or mostly a famous name. For the rest of us he was America’s conduit to the best and worst events of our world. He was about 60 years old and I was 30 when we met.
He was more eloquent, vocabulary-rich, and tough-minded than his newscasts conveyed. Like most good writers he spoke with precision. And humor. When I asked whom he considered the great people of his time he gestured toward photographs with Soviet author Alexander Solzhenitsyn and tennis star Jimmy Connors and said it was hard to choose, adding, “For instance Solzhenitsyn is an outstanding tennis player and Connors a considerable Soviet dissident.” He added seriously, “All (extraordinary people) have their feet of clay.”
Not wanting to grovel, I asked several challenging questions raised by news critics of the day. He shoved them back firmly and politely in my face. When I asked why Eric Sevareid often got commentary time when there was a precious few 22 minutes for news, he said something to the effect, “Viewers are better off having Eric’s insights and it’s entirely appropriate.”
The Watergate scandal was still fresh back then and I asked Cronkite whether White House correspondent Dan Rather once expressed his personal opinion against Richard Nixon at a news conference. Rather had stood to boos and applause to ask a question. Nixon adlibbed, “Are you running for something?” Rather famously shot back at the President of the United States, “No, sir, are you?” Cronkite did not like my insinuation that Rather was less than objective. He repeated the exchange to me and said, “Dan was asking a question, not expressing an opinion. It was a QUESTION, not an opinion!” Case closed.
By far the most revealing occurrence came when he anchored that night’s newscast.
As usual, he did a live version that would be repeated on tape to suit the varied schedules of local CBS stations. Cronkite and his producer next watched the competition. Cronkite saw something on NBC or ABC that CBS did NOT have. Cronkite demanded it be added. People scrambled, verified the item, and wrote it. When the now-rolling taped newscast reached a certain point, CBS switched to Cronkite live who read the new story. He continued anchoring until he was in synch with the timing of the still-rolling taped show. The network cut seamlessly back to the tape. Viewers never knew of the live insert, like they would never know how hard the anchorman pushed to get the news right that night: every night.
To me that’s a telling anecdote of why Walter Cronkite was “the” anchorman, the most trusted man in America, long missed since leaving the air in 1981, and now dead in July 2009.