Cronkite, Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper, 2012.
Summary: The biography of Walter Cronkite, from his early reporting days, his United Press work during World War 2, and his years at CBS, including his nineteen years on the CBS Evening News, and his “retirement years,” where he came out as a liberal.
I grew up with “Uncle Walter.” I was a fourth grader when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and watched as Walter Cronkite walked us through the days that followed, from his initial announcement of the death of Kennedy, removing his glasses and sitting in silence, connecting with the stunned response of all of us. I watched the unfolding of the Vietnam war, which Cronkite declared, after visiting the front lines in 1967, a “stalemate.” He covered the horrors of 1968 from the deaths of Kennedy and King through the turbulent 1968 Democratic convention. With the world, I watched the orbiting of the moon on Christmas eve in 1968, and the landing on the moon in the summer of 1969, accompanied by his characteristic “Oh, boy!” Watergate, the fall of Saigon, the Iran hostages, and that final sign off in March of 1981. “That’s the way it is.”
Douglas Brinkley chronicles all of this in this outstanding biography, and so much more. He covers the shaping and the rise that made him “the most trusted man in America.” We follow him from his sports reporting forays, his unfinished college career at UT Austin, his radio news experience at KCMO, and the pivotal opportunity of becoming night editor at the United Press office in Kansas City, that honed his instincts as a news hound both careful with the facts and eager to be the first to break the story that would go with him for the rest of his life. Then the war came, and through persistence he won the opportunity to cover the war in Europe for the United Press on the front lines, flying in a bombing run, and with troops in northern Africa, on D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge, first meeting Andy Rooney as part of the “Writing 69th.” His bombing dispatch caught the attention of Edward R. Murrow, who thought he’d succeeded in recruiting Cronkite to CBS only to have him renege, still believing print was the thing.
Murrow tried again and Cronkite joined CBS in the fifties to cover the Korean War. Returning stateside, he failed as the host of CBS’s version of the Today show, hosted “You Are There,” a weekly show in which Cronkite would interview historical figures or cover events like the Boston Tea Party. It was in 1956 that he found his true calling as anchor of CBS television’s political convention coverage, first earning the nickname, “Old Ironpants” for his stamina.
We learn about the complicated relationship with Edward R. Murrow, the dean of broadcasters, both mentor and rival. Cronkite continued to accumulate achievements, polishing his TV credentials with the coverage of the Mercury 7 astronauts and his relationship with John Glenn. Murrow left CBS at Kennedy’s request to lead the US Information Agency. When it became apparent that Douglas Edwards was coming to the end of his tenure, the rivalry became fierce. In the end Cronkite won over Eric Sevareid, who did offer commentary at the end of newscasts for a time, Charles Collingwood, Charles Kuralt, and Howard K. Smith. Cronkite was Paley’s choice, and for nineteen years anchored the CBS Evening News.
Brinkley covers the team of people who worked with Cronkite, perhaps most important of all, Richard Salant as news director, and a young, ambitious reporter by the name of Dan Rather. He describes the slow, upward climb to supplant NBC’s top position in the news ratings. He recounts the decisive role Cronkite played in changing the narrative about Vietnam, after passing along the administration version in 1965 and 1966, how he served to “platform” the story Woodward and Bernstein were putting together about Watergate, and his role in bringing Sadat and Begin together.
Brinkley offers an unvarnished account of how difficult Cronkite’s retirement was and his bitterness toward Dan Rather, his successor, who cut him out of opportunities to continue to contribute, despite Rather’s flagging ratings. They would never reconcile. Freed of the reporter’s commitment to neutrality, his own liberal views came to the fore, brought on, in part, by the movie, Network. In later years, he would rail on the war on drugs, and argue for the legalization of marijuana.
Betsy Cronkite, Walter’s wife of 65 years comes through as a force in her own right, often traveling with Cronkite, and helping him keep perspective. I was also surprised to learn that two of his close friends were Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, who encouraged Cronkite’s drumming, and Jimmy Buffett. I never knew Cronkite was either a “Deadhead” or a “Parrothead.” Buffett was actually at Cronkite’s death bed, playing songs, which he also did at his funeral.
Brinkley gives us a portrait with warts and all. Cronkite was absolutely tenacious about both getting the facts straight and getting the story out, and he succeeded so well at this because of his relentless pursuit of the reporter’s disciplines. He had a kind of “common touch” that came from middle-American roots but his credibility was earned and not just because of an “on air” personality. Yet he was contemptuous of some of his rivals, both Murrow and Rather. He liked to carouse, and while he gave opportunities to women like Connie Chung and Katie Couric, he was a bit of a chauvinist, still enjoying the company of his “old boys.”
Reading this account makes one wonder whether such news coverage is possible today, and perhaps wistful for a different time. Cronkite did not have to deal with a 24/7 news cycle on cable TV and the internet and the increasingly partisan character of many news outlets. I suspect he would have done what he did, pursue the facts and work at getting the story out both quickly and right. What this biography reminds me of is why we did not have the epistemic crisis in the Cronkite years that we face when it comes to the news today. Back then, you trusted Cronkite, and he warranted that trust. We didn’t ask, “who can you trust?” Today that sounds incredibly naïve. Sadly, today it is.