Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite

I represent the first generation whom, when we were born, the television was now a permanent fixture in our homes. When I was born people had breakfast with Barbara Walters, dinner with Walter Cronkite, and slept with Johnny Carson.

Tony Figueroa

He broke the news of the Kennedy assassination, reported extensively on Vietnam and Civil Rights and Watergate, and seemed to be the very embodiment of TV journalism.

At one time, his audience was so large, and his image so credible, that a 1972 poll determined he was "the most trusted man in America" - surpassing even the president, vice president, members of Congress and all other journalists. In a time of turmoil and mistrust, after Vietnam and Watergate, the title was a rare feat - and the label stuck.

Walter Leland Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri on November 4, 1916. One day, he read an article in "Boys Life" magazine about the adventures of reporters working around the world - and young Cronkite was hooked. He began working on his high school newspaper and yearbook and, in 1933, he entered the University of Texas at Austin to study political science, economic and journalism. He never graduated. He took a part time job at the Houston Post, left college to do what he loved: report. After working as a general assignment reporter for the Post and a sportscaster in Oklahoma City, Cronkite got a job in 1939 working for United Press. He went to Europe to cover World War II as part of the "Writing 69th," a group of reporters who found themselves covering some of the most important developments in the war, including the D-Day invasion, bombing missions over Germany, and later, the Nuremburg war trials.

While working for the UP, Cronkite was offered a job at CBS by Edward R. Murrow - and he turned it down. He finally accepted a second offer in 1950, and stepped into the new medium of television. Walter Cronkite was host of "You Are There" in which key moments of history were recreated by actors. Cronkite was depicted on camera interviewing "Joan of Arc" or "Sigmund Freud." But somehow, he managed to make it believable. Cronkite was also named host of "The Morning Show" on CBS, where he was paired with a partner: a puppet named Charlemagne. In 1961, CBS named him the anchor of the "CBS Evening News" - a 15 minute news summary anchored for several years by Douglas Edwards. And it came at a significant time. In September of 1963, Cronkite launched the expanded program with an extended interview with President John F. Kennedy. Two months later, it was Cronkite who broke into the soap opera "As The World Turns" to announce that the president had been shot - and later to declare that he had been killed. It was a defining moment for Cronkite, and for the country. His presence - in shirtsleeves, slowly removing his glasses to check the time and blink back tears - captured both the sense of shock, and the struggle for composure, that would consume America and the world over the next four days.

In 1968, Cronkite returned from visiting Vietnam and declared on television:"It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate." President Lyndon Johnson, on hearing that, reportedly said, "If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America." Not long after, Johnson declared his intention not to run for re-election. That same year saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy - two more shocking moments that bound the country together through the medium of television. Once again, as he had five years earlier, Cronkite was the steadying force during a time of national sorrow. "It's a kind of chemistry," former Johnson aide and CBS News commentator Bill Moyers once said. "The camera either sees you as part of the environment or it rejects you as an alien body, and Walter had 'it,' whatever 'it' was."

One of Cronkite’s enthusiasms was the space race. And in 1969, when America sent a man to the moon, he couldn't’t contain himself. "Go baby, go!," he said, as Apollo XI took off. He ended up performing what critics described as"Walter to Walter" coverage of the mission - staying on the air for 27 of the 30 hours that Apollo XI took to complete its mission. Cronkite even managed to have a surprising influence on world affairs. In 1977, he interviewed Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat, who told Cronkite that, if invited, he’d go to Jerusalem to meet with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The move was unprecedented. The next day, Begin invited Sadat to Jerusalem for talks that eventually led to the Camp David accords and the Israeli-Egyptian treaty. In 1981, Cronkite announced he would retire at the age of 65, to make way for a new anchor in the chair, Dan Rather. A commentator in the New Republic said it was like "George Washington leaving the dollar bill." There were so many requests for interviews, eventually all of them were turned down. In retirement, Cronkite kept busy with other projects - a short-lived magazine program on CBS called "Walter Cronkite's Universe," a few documentaries, plus a seat on the CBS board of directors. He spent a considerable amount of time at his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, sailing the boat he named for his wife, "The Betsy." And he wrote his autobiography, "A Reporter’s Life," published in 1996. In 2005, Cronkite’s wife Betsy died after a battle with cancer.

To Quote Mr. Cronkite on March 6, 1981, concluding his final broadcast as anchorman, "Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away, they just keep coming back for more. And that's the way it is."

Good night Mr. Cronkite

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

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