October 22, 2018

FTV: Uncle Walter


    “And that’s the way it is.”  For some reason this phrase used to irk my brother Ron.  Any time he heard this phrase, he would snarl, “No, that’s the way you SAY it is.”  I am still not sure why this riled Ron up, but coming from Walter Cronkite at the end of his daily newscast, to me at least, it was a reminder that no matter how crazy things were in the world, somehow all was not lost.  In the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the War in Vietnam, and a laundry list of political and social happenings, things did get more than a little bizarre and crazy in the 1960s. Walter Cronkite’s reporting helped the nation understand the implications of these events and I know it helped me cope with the dizzying events of that era.  Listen to some of the trite sign offs used to close of news broadcasts these days; they just don’t pack the same punch. Dan Rather tried a few different catch phrases like ‘Courage’ when he was occupying Uncle Walt’s news chair, but they sounded silly. Even Lester Holt’s nightly “Thank you for sharing part of your day with us” doesn’t have the sonic impact as Cronkite’s sonorous “And that’s the way it is.”  No wonder many thought of him as the most trusted man in America. Some may have preferred Huntley and Brinkley, but I was a Cronkite disciple.

    A native of St. Joseph, MO, Walter Cronkite was born in 1916, making him three years older than my father.   He must have had ink for blood as he sold magazines door to door at age seven and peddled newspapers at age nine.  After his family relocated to Texas, he worked as a copy boy and cub reporter for the Houston Post.  A reporting job ended his journey through higher education at the University of Texas in Austin in 1935.  His national rise to fame coincided with his work covering World War II for the United Press. He was there with the Allied troops in North Africa, at the Normandy Invasion, and the Battle of the Bulge.  Picked as one of the few journalists to ride along on bombing missions over Germany, he wasn’t there just as an observer. If he took up space on the bomber, he was expected to help protect it: “I fired at every German Fighter that came into the neighborhood.”  He continued the tale in his 1996 memoir A Reporter’s Life:  “I don’t think I hit any, but I’d like to think I scared a couple of those German pilots.  I was up to my hips in spent .50-caliber shells (when we returned from the mission) and could barely get out of the plane.”  Reports from the Nuremberg War Crime Trials and from Moscow followed his battlefield duties for the United Press.

    It hardly seems possible that his final broadcast as the CBS anchorman took place on March 6, 1981.  After WWII and his post war European reporting assignments concluded, he joined CBS in 1950 where he made a solid name for himself covering the 1952 and 1956 presidential conventions.  He began his work anchoring the CBS Evening News when it was still a 15 minute broadcast (it was lengthened to 30 minutes in 1963).  Cronkite’s Monday through Friday presence in our home was a given as my father would not miss his evening news.  In the days before Michigan adopted Daylight Saving Time, the local and national news slots would flip twice a year.  Half the year, the local news came before the national news and it was vice versa for the other half. My mother would dutifully change gears so our dinner would be on the table before the CBS Evening News when it was in the later slot and then after the news when it was broadcast before the local WLUC-TV6 news.  When stories of national significance interrupted the regular TV programming, it was Uncle Walter’s calming tones that pulled us through.

    When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it was Cronkite who interrupted the daytime soap As The World Turns to report the terrible news.  We were sent home from school early and even though my mother had the TV on, she was too upset to sit and listen to Cronkite.  At times like this my mother would distract herself by cleaning or cooking, leaving me to try and absorb it all with Uncle Walt’s guidance.  According to the obituary printed on the CBS News website, “It was a defining moment for Cronkite, and for the country. His presence – in shirtsleeves, slowly removing his classes 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.”  When Jack Ruby gunned down JFK’s suspected assassin on live TV, it was Walter Cronkite who described the gruesome scene as it unfolded for the national audience.

    Some credit Cronkite for hastening the end of the Vietnam War.  He covered the Tet Offensive live from Vietnam in 1968 and his editorial comments about the war stated that “the war was a stalemate”.   Those in Washington concluded that, “If we lost Walter Cronkite, we have lost America’s support” which many believe spurred the United States to begin the process to extricate itself from this controversial war.  It was a Cronkite’s 1977 interview with Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat that induced Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to invite El-Sadat to meet with him face-to-face. The subsequent talks lead to the Camp David Accords and an Israeli-Egyptian treaty.  Even in retirement, Cronkite spoke out about issues like the failure of the War on Drugs (“I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted before (we) admit what is plain to see: the war on drugs is a failure.”) and the overt political overtones emanating from The Fox News Channel (“It was intended to be a conservative organization – beyond that;  a far-right-wing organization.”). He expressed similar views about the American involvement in Iraq as he had about the U.S. role in Vietnam.

    Perhaps my fondest memories of Uncle Walt were his marathon sessions covering the United States manned space program.  From the beginning of NASA’s first Project Mercury launches, my elementary school classes would be ushered into the gym/auditorium to watch a black and white TV set up on the stage at one end.  The younger students got to sit the closest to the stage so I had a front row seat to hear Cronkite and his NASA astronaut companions describe each launch in vivid detail. The older we got, the farther from the TV we were located so the commentary became more and more important as the images we were watching got smaller and smaller.  From the beginning of the manned space program to the manned lunar missions, there was absolutely no doubt that Walter Cronkite was an unabashed space geek. He knew when to talk and he knew when to cede the action to the pictures unfolding or to the commentary of his expert co-hosts. During the live coverage of July 20, 1969 Moon landing of Apollo 11, Walter watched with the rest of the world and exclaimed,  “Man on the Moon! Oh, boy! Whew-boy!”

    The near tragic explosion aboard Apollo 13 on its outbound trip to what was supposed to be the third manned landing on the Moon was another extraordinary story covered by Cronkite.  The Tom Hanks’ movie version of Apollo 13 uses actual news clips that were aired during the failed mission to help move the story along.  Not all of the clips used are from CBS, but the ones that feature Uncle Walter take me right back to watching the drama unfold on TV.

    A lot of what I learned about World War II also came from Walter Cronkite.  His long running documentary series called The 20th Century gave him the opportunity to share his war time reporting experiences with a whole new generation. The same can be said about the live reports he would make on his frequent trips to Southeast Asia.  After his retirement, he produced more documentaries and special projects for CBS and he won a number of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dr. Don Carleton, the executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at UT – Austin asked him to help build the collection that would become The Walter Cronkite Papers.  Cronkite asked Carleton to work with him on his autobiography and as Carleton recalled to The History Channel Magazine in 2011, “My job was to pull his life story out of him through a series of interviews.  (He was) Easy to be around. Very Polite. Very Gracious. I was with him so many times when he never failed to graciously sign an autograph or shake a hand.”  Carleton pointed out that Cronkite was, “deep, deep in his heart a print journalist who happened to wind up on television. He was a real reporter. Not just a reader.”

    Cronkite expressed his concerns about the future of print and broadcast journalism in his sessions with Carleton.  Carleton remembered, “I don’t think he was optimistic about the state of journalism in this country. He was bothered by the lack of corroboration in news reports, journalists refusing to provide their sources, and the loss of objectivity in broadcast news.  He thought the Internet had great promise, but he also thought it could be abused.” I can only speculate what Uncle Walter would think about the current era of ‘fake news’ and ‘governing by Tweet’. The man who went on the air to question the wisdom of continuing the Vietnam War would no doubt have had some strong opinions on the current state of politics.  Carleton had such a large volume of material left that never made it into A Reporter’s Life that he published a companion volume called Conversations With Cronkite (by Cronkite & Carleton) in 2010.

    Apparently the “and that’s the way it is” sign off irked more than just my brother.  Cronkite himself recalled a New Yorker editorial cartoon showing an irate man coming out of his easy chair and shouting at his television, “That’s NOT the way it is!”  Cronkite realized that critics didn’t like his sign off because, “…it was presumptive that everything we said is correct. Which is wrong,  I shouldn’t have said that.” So how did his signature sign off get past the CBS executives? According to Uncle Walter, he didn’t have it cleared by anyone, he just started using it.

    Cronkite, an avid sailor,  spent many hours on the waters of Long Island Sound on his custom-built 48-foot Sunward “WYNT JE” and held the honorary rank of commodore in the US Coast Guard Auxiliary.  Many are not aware that Cronkite was also an avid sports car racer who took part in the 12 Hours of Sebring race in 1959.

    Cronkite received the Norman Cousins Governance Award at the United Nations in 1999 for his work advocating for at least some form of limited world government based on the American federalist model.  During his acceptance speech, Cronkite said, “It seems to many of us that if we are to avoid the eventual catastrophic world conflict we must strengthen the United Nations as a first step toward a world government patterned after our own government with a legislature, executive, judiciary, and police to enforce international laws and to keep the peace.  To do that, of course, we Americans will have to yield up some of our sovereignty. That would be a bitter pill. It would take a lot of courage, a lot of faith in the new order. But the American colonies did it once and brought forth one of the nearly perfect unions the world has ever seen.”

    Walter Cronkite may be gone, but he is still teaching me about this crazy world.  It is my hope that we remember his comments about working with the rest of the world for the betterment of the planet rather than isolating ourselves.  History has shown over and over again that isolationist policies lead to gains for the few by depriving access to the nation’s abundance for the majority of the population.  In too many cases, the end result of national isolation has heralded the destruction of whole societies. This is a history lesson we do not want to forget.

Top Piece Video – Uncle Walter, unabashed space geek!  Hmmm, some of the music sounds a lot like the sound track from Apollo 13 . . . but I am nitpicking here.