Cronkite, Walter Leland, Jr.

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CRONKITE, Walter Leland, Jr.

(b. 4 November 1916 in Saint Joseph, Missouri), television anchorman who steered both the CBS Evening News and many Americans through rough waters in the 1960s, gaining a reputation as the "most trusted man in America."

Cronkite was the only child of Walter Leland Cronkite, Sr., a dentist, and Helen Lena Fritsche, a homemaker. He traced his early love of journalism to the inspiration of a high school teacher. While attending the University of Texas from 1933 to 1935, Cronkite worked on the college newspaper the Daily Texan and as a stringer (freelance journalist) for the Houston Post, in addition to holding a part-time job at a radio station. "I just fell in love with the darn business," he said later. He was so busy pursuing stories that he dropped out of college to take up journalism full-time. He returned to Missouri in 1936 to work at a Kansas City radio station, where he met a fellow journalist, Mary Elizabeth Simmons Maxwell, known as Betsy, whom he married on 30 March 1940.

In 1937 Cronkite joined United Press International (UPI); he worked for the press bureau throughout World War II, covering European action, including the D day invasion. He earned a reputation as a fast, ambitious, accurate journalist who could convey to the public both the intricacies and the ambiance of battle. He reported the Nuremberg war crimes trials and served as Moscow bureau chief for UPI from 1946 to 1948. When his wife became pregnant with the first of their three children, the pair returned to the United States, and Cronkite served as Washington, D.C., correspondent for several Midwest radio stations.

Cronkite joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network news division in 1950, expecting to be sent to cover the Korean War. CBS had just purchased a Washington, D.C., television station, however, and instead put him on the air as an anchor there. They also assigned him to special network coverage, such as political conventions, and to other CBS news programs, including the mock-documentary program You Are There, which he hosted from 1953 to 1957. Cronkite later said of this work, "Those early days of television had to be about as exciting an assignment as anybody could ever have—any news person. We literally figured out how to do it as we went along."

In April 1962 CBS decided to replace Douglas Edwards, the anchor of its fifteen-minute evening newscast, with Cronkite. Cronkite took to the job, which he held for nineteen years. He immediately sought the title "managing editor" to indicate that he was not just reading the CBS Evening News but also writing and shaping it. In September 1963 CBS expanded the newscast to half an hour; it was the first network to do so, although the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) quickly followed suit. In November 1963 Cronkite, who was already well known (having won a George Foster Peabody Award for his work in broadcasting the previous year), became a central figure in American life when he reported the shooting of President John F. Kennedy. Cronkite stayed on the air for much of the next four days, guiding Americans through the president's death, the swift transfer of power, and the funeral of the slain leader.

"The fact is that any news person, at a time like that, is not really aware of anything except getting the story out," Cronkite later said of the assassination. Nevertheless, his calm demeanor helped Americans get through those days. The NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw recalled almost four decades after the event, "When the world needed someone to turn to when John F. Kennedy was killed, [Walter Cronkite] became the father figure of this country." Cronkite went on to cover every major news story of that news-filled decade, including the murders of two more leaders, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1964 Cronkite suffered his only major setback at CBS when the NBC news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley beat him severely in the ratings at the Republican National Convention and he was replaced by the newsmen Robert Trout and Roger Mudd in the CBS anchor booth at the Democratic convention. Cronkite weathered the storm, however, and when Trout and Mudd fared no better, he was assured that he would be in charge of covering future conventions. On a day-to-day basis, Cronkite ran neck and neck in the ratings with the regular evening newscast hosted by Huntley and Brinkley. As the decade progressed, he eventually emerged as the clear ratings leader.

One of Cronkite's great loves was the space program, which he covered extensively, beginning with Alan Shepard's first U.S. manned space flight in 1961. Cronkite later stated, "I think that our conquest of space will probably be the most important story of the whole 20th century." He studied the science behind space flight in order to explain its intricacies. He also shared his enthusiasm with his audience; his first words at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969 were "Oh, boy! Whew! Oh, boy!"

In general, however, Cronkite appeared unflappable and objective onscreen—a trait that made his rare strayings into editorializing particularly potent. By early 1968 Cronkite, like many Americans, was beginning to doubt the validity of the nation's involvement in Vietnam. In February he journeyed to the battlefield to view the U.S. war effort. At the end of his CBS report on what he found there, he concluded that the United States was "mired in stalemate." He went on to suggest, "The only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could."

Historians are divided in evaluating the influence of this broadcast on American public opinion and politics. Some argue that Cronkite only followed the will of the American people in advocating a negotiated end to the conflict. Others suggest that Cronkite's remarks and their effect on viewers helped persuade Lyndon B. Johnson not to run for another term as president. Tom Johnson, an LBJ aide, later recalled hearing Johnson say, "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost the war." Whether Cronkite's comments on Vietnam led or merely summed up the nation's opinion, his broadcast certainly constituted a key moment in public debate.

Another moment in which Cronkite let viewers know his opinion came during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. After watching Mayor Richard Daley's minions throw the reporter Dan Rather onto the floor, Cronkite declared, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan." Beginning in 1969 Cronkite defended journalists in speeches off camera when the Nixon administration, particularly Vice President Spiro Agnew, began to attack the press as a conspiratorial band of eastern left-leaning elitists. As Ron Powers pointed out in Quill in 1973, Cronkite also confounded charges of eastern elitism every night on the air just by being himself. Powers wrote that Cronkite "looked less like an Eastern intellectual than a Tulsa general practitioner, and … had the extremely annoying habit of popping up in opinion polls everywhere as the most trusted man in America."

Cronkite went on to do Emmy Award–winning work on the Watergate scandal in 1972 and 1973 and to pioneer in international relations in 1977 by arranging a meeting between Egyptian president Anwar Sadat of Egypt and prime minister Menachem Begin of Israel. Despite rumored overtures from the Democratic Party, the popular avowed Independent never chose to attempt a career in politics. Cronkite was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 by President Jimmy Carter. After his retirement from the anchor chair that same year, Cronkite worked on television specials and spent time aboard his beloved sailboat. In his seventies and eighties, the elder statesman served as an eloquent advocate for the unrestricted access of journalists to U.S. wars in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, he often looked back on the 1960s as a challenging decade for journalists and for Americans overall. In a 1996 television special, he noted, "The '60s undoubtedly were the most turbulent decade of this century. There were the assassinations. The race riots. The Vietnam War. It was an incredible decade." He observed that the 1960s brought the "full flowering" of television news. Much of this flowering can be attributed directly to Cronkite, whom Tom Wicker in the New York Times called "a modest man who succeeded extravagantly by remaining mostly himself." When Cronkite uttered his trademark phrase, "And that's the way it is," Americans believed him.

Cronkite's autobiography, A Reporter's Life (1996), is the most complete recounting of his life, followed by the related CBS television special Cronkite Remembers (1996). A doting, but informative biography is Doug James, Walter Cronkite: His Life and Times (1991). Ron Powers interviewed Cronkite at length for Playboy (June 1973). See also Powers's article in Quill (June 1973), "The Essential Cronkite." A mid-1960s article that reveals Cronkite's feelings about the ratings war with NBC is Richard Schickel, "Walter Cronkite: He Must Be Doing Something Right," TV Guide (2 July 1966).

Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat