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Walter, We Hardly Knew You

A candid conversation with America’s most comforting stranger

Walter Cronkite

American journalist and TV news broadcaster Walter Cronkite anchors the news desk for the 'CBS Evening News,' 1981.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Buzzy is dead.

Word has just come from the doctor, and as the sad news is passed among the family members and friends mingling on the lawn (including the guest of honor, columnist Ann Landers), the party turns somber. The host, an avid sailor, dons his captain’s cap and calls for a moment of silence as he lowers the stars and stripes. Then he approaches the small saluting cannon that complements the forty-two-foot yawl moored nearby and fires a lonesome, booming volley into the sea.

And that’s the way it is, at a chic summer cocktail party on Martha’s Vineyard in 1979, on the day that Buzzy, Walter Cronkite’s seventeen-year-old springer spaniel, has passed away.

A brilliant, sentimental, often eccentric man whose prowess at television journalism is as well known as his idiosyncrasies are private, Walter Leland Cronkite Jr., 64, gained some of his seminal broadcasting experience as an announcer in a bookie joint. During his first day on the job, the college-age Cronkite gave a phony live-action account of a race before delivering the results. His irate boss bounded over and roared, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? We don’t want entertainment; we just want the facts.”

Cronkite has been striving to provide just that since he debuted as anchorman-reporter for The CBS Evening News in April 1962, when the nightly newscast was a mere fifteen minutes. In September of the following year, The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite became television’s first half-hour daily news broadcast. His terse but benevolent basso delivery has underscored, and thus made more digestible, such events as Nikita Kruschev’s first visit to the United States, the funeral of Winston Churchill, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the riots at Attica State Prison.

As a closet romantic with a burning ambition to rocket to the moon, Cronkite has covered every manned space shot since Alan B. Shepard’s craft lifted off in 1961, and he has earned Emmys for his reportage on the Apollo 11 moon landing and the flights of Apollo 13 and 14.

When the grandfatherly Cronkite angrily denounced the Chicago police as “a bunch of thugs” after they roughed up CBS correspondent Dan Rather on the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, or when he wept while announcing that President Kennedy had been felled by an assassin’s bullet, it was a jarring display of emotion from a man who seldom loses his reserve—and it instantly summed up the mood of a nation that relies on and reveres him for his stalwart place in our shifting culture.

Courted by the powerful (the shah reportedly once sent him three boxes of cigars and a jar of spoiled caviar) and accredited by the powerless, Cronkite remains an elusive presence — even, it seems, to members of his own family (he has a son and two daughters). When I ask twenty-three-year-old Walter “Chip” III how he would describe his celebrated dad to someone who had never met him, he responds, “I don’t think I know him well enough to answer that, but he’s a nice guy, very respectful, very humble about his thing.”

Walter Cronkite was born St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 4th, 1916, the son of a dentist. His earliest journalistic endeavor was sportswriting, which coincided with his forced retirement from Houston’s San Jacinto High School track team after he developed painful shin splints. Unable to compete, he wrote about the team and eventually covered general news for the school paper, the Campus Cub. While a journalism major at the University of Texas in Austin, he wrote for the college paper, the Daily Texan, and labored as a stringer for the Houston Press.

“In class he was rather quiet,” recalls his journalism teacher, De Witt Reddick. “I suspect he did his assignments in a hurry, and perhaps turned in first-draft stories in his reporting courses, but they were good enough to get by without caustic criticism.”

Cronkite left college in his junior year to work full time as a reporter for the Houston Press, did a year’s worth of radio work in Kansas City and then signed on with the Dallas bureau of United Press in 1939. He stayed with the wire service for eleven years and became a distinguished foreign correspondent during World War II, covering such pivotal engagements as the Battle of the North Atlantic, the war in North Africa and the Normandy beachheads in 1944. After the war, he served as UP’s Moscow bureau chief for two years. Then, in 1948, he moved to Washington D.C. as a broadcaster for a group of Midwestern radio stations before joining CBS News.

Speaking of the man he is about to succeed as anchorman and managing editor of The CBS Evening News, fellow Texan Dan Rather says, “Walter Cronkite is ankle height above everybody else—not just shoulders above, waist above, but ankles above. Walter expanded the role of anchorman by going out himself and getting very important, exclusive interviews. No one should underestimate what Walter has done in demanding that our evening coverage include a lot of foreign news. That’s not always easy. During the Vietnam War, he was a correspondent and insisted that that kind of reporting, that standard of excellence, be in The CBS Evening News, even when it wasn’t leading in the ratings. His influence on people, including me, has been enormous.”

Walter Cronkite (his coworkers refer to him as “the Gorilla” because he usually gets what he wants) agreed to this interview one balmy afternoon last summer while munching popcorn in the living room of his home on Martha’s Vineyard. The sessions took place in his office cubicle in the New York studio where he does his newscast. Seated at a desk littered with books and magazines, he occasionally paused to survey the three silent television sets — tuned to CBS, ABC and NBC — suspended above his door. Always in shirt-sleeves, his cuff links bearing the familiar CBS “eye” logo, he spoke slowly and purposefully, frequently smoothing his thinning hair in a nervous gesture and popping hard candies into his mouth.

When will you be leaving The CBS Evening News?
There’s no firm date, but probably in mid-March. That’s the earliest they think they can let me go. I wanted to get this next president inaugurated. I almost wish I were not going for another year, because it’s going to be a fascinating news year. How revolutionary the changes are really gonna be is a big question, and I’d love to cover that story.

You’ve spoken with Ronald Reagan several times; what do you think of him?
I’ve always been impressed with the man personally—for his friendliness, warmth and interest in whatever subject you want to take up with him. He does not have a great depth of knowledge about many things, which he acknowledges. But he promises to get the answers, and he has for me when I’ve sought them. I think that on the basis of his Sacramento record, we can expect a reasonably efficient executive-office routine. We’ll have to wait and see how pragmatic the campaign promises were. With the mandate and the number of senators he carried with him, he’s got an opportunity that few administrations have had in recent history—not since Franklin Roosevelt, really.

Do you agree that his show-business background played a significant role in his success?
Yes, very definitely. His appearance, personality and ability to speak helped. I think Carter may be far more of an ideologue than Reagan, but the basic Reagan speech is not very strong on practicality; it’s philosophical and appealing, and it’s populist.

I closely monitored your coverage of the 1980 Democratic and Republican conventions. You scored several coups, such as your interview with Gerald Ford at the Republican convention, and then with Reagan immediately after his election. Whether you like it or not, you have a lot of power; you’re one of the best-known men in this nation and are regarded more highly than some presidents. Do you think your celebrity status influences the events you cover?
I suppose popularity is measured by ratings. If a broadcaster is known as the leader because of ratings, then that’s where people most want to be seen and heard, so there’s no question that there’s an advantage. Going beyond that, the advantages of fame, both national and international, are great in helping to reach people by telephone and getting appointments with them.

Now in the disadvantage column, I cannot do anonymous reporting. I can’t go into a mob scene and sense the mood and the attitude of the crowd. I can’t conduct man-on-the-street interviews or even get reactions that I can be sure are honest, because they know who I am.

Well, anyone could be dishonest with you. It’s been said that Lyndon Johnson decided to forgo a second term after hearing you disavow the Vietnam War. Don’t you think your celebrity influences or perverts events?
Not as in individual, I don’t think so. I do think that the presence of television cameras and known reporters means that things might change a bit—TV cameras perhaps a little more than print because of the greater impact of television. If reporters are present, people are gonna react so as to get their side of the story told or to get the best possible image. This question is an important one, and it is also indicative of something that should be made clear. A lot of the questions raised about television’s power and influence on events have applied throughout history to every mass-communications medium—most particularly print, because that’s the medium we’ve had the longest. What makes TV particularly interesting to people today is its more pervasive influence.

Television is a very intimate and swift medium in terms of relaying information and symbols. How do you feel about the early TV announcements that Carter lost the election, and do you think that they kept people in the Southwest and West away from the polls?
I think there’s that possibility. Although my feelings are shared by a great number of people in television, they’re counter to surveys done by the broadcast industry, which indicate that early returns and projected returns now being done through computers do not affect voters. CBS ran two such studies in 1956, and there was an industry study in 1964 of Western voters that indicated that they were not affected.

Now, I don’t believe that, you see. Frank Stanton, president of the Columbia Broad casting System in ’56, ordered the first study because he was disturbed that we were going into this prediction business—er, not predictions but analysis. When he got the results back, he didn’t believe them, although he had spent a lot of money getting them. So he said, “Let’s run it again.” And they did.

I still believe that it’s got to have some effect. But that’s not our responsibility. It’s a power, I admit, but it’s not a responsibility. If you want to put a sociological light on it, we are sharing with the public, exactly as the news business should, information that up until now has been the province of just a few political operators. With their little black book and their rule of thumb, they’ve been able to get enough figures together to say, “Hey, we’re coming out of Cuyahoga County 100,000 light. We’ve gotta put pressure on downstate. We’ve gotta put pressure on Nevada. We’ve gotta get California.” And they could work like this without the public being aware of why the pressure was on. Now the public is aware, and I think that’s an advantage.

So, what should be done about the possibility that these early projections influence elections? Well, they should change the law and have a common closing time for all the polls across the country, and then no election results would be reported until all polls were closed.

But there’s another point here. Public-opinion polls and your own projections on election night aren’t hard news. They are speculative.
Pollsters would argue that polls aren’t speculative. They call it factual reporting [pause], and it is, I guess. The pollsters say, “Here are the probabilities and I’ll give you a sample. This sample of 1400 names would produce a three-percent probability within a six-percent range.” So that’s mathematical, and I don’t see why the media should be taken to task for using every tool possible to report political trends, political feelings, public attitudes. You see, this is the old business of bearing the messenger for the message. Society and the political establishment have got to use that information to do their job better. If it’s felt that it’s an impingement on the free political process, then the politicians ignore it. That’s all.

I’d like to clear up a controversial question concerning an incident during CBS’ early Watergate coverage. After supposed pressure from the White House, CBS chairman William Paley reportedly told you to restrict or condense the amount of air time devoted to an ongoing Watergate report.
We indeed planned two early Watergate pieces. There was no planning on the amount of time we would spend on them. I’m very proud of these pieces, as they came out. Katharine Graham and the Washington Post are given a great deal of credit for making the Watergate investigation possible, and Woodward and Bernstein did a far better job and were getting a lot more information than our investigative team. But everybody was dropping these bombshells without any kind of coordinated story on how an event last week fit in with today’s story. People weren’t getting the big picture, because local news-papers weren’t carrying the story day by day. I found it impossible to follow right at that desk out there [points to center of adjacent newsroom] and it. So I said. “Let’s do two good-sized pieces and trace the whole thing back — start with the burglary and go through everything we know up until today.”

Like hitting a mule over the head with a board. you’ve got to first get people’s attention, and we got it. The first piece was a blockbuster, and it took half of the broadcast or more, which was an extraordinary devotion of time to a single story. The next day, Richard Salant, who was the president of CBS News at the time, told me that it was a good piece, but he was greatly disturbed with the length of time given to it, because the evening news was not meant to be a documentary broadcast of a single news item.

So we had to shorten the second one. It disturbed the producer of the piece, Stanhope Gould, a great deal. And I was particularly disturbed over the thought that this might have been dictated from somewhere else. I asked about that and was assured that this was not so, that it was purely in-house news-division criticism.

Did you ask this of Salant?
[Murmuring] Uh, there’s some confusion about that in my mind.

Why some confusion?
Because, as we reconstructed this later, I insisted it was Salant [nervous laughter], and others say it was not. I don’t know, I thought it was him who buzzed me up, but I’m not sure, so I don’t want to lay the accusation at the feet of a great man—probably one of the greatest gifts to free and unencumbered-by-pressure journalism.

For years I went along saying there was no pressure from anywhere else. Since then, I have read various “revelations” about Charles Colson’s pressure on Paley, and that Paley had indeed asked Salant, “Is the attention given to this story really worth it? I’m getting questions from the White House, pressure from the White House.”

I don’t know that this is so, but Salant would handle a thing of that kind just as I think he did handle it. He never told the news department that we were doing anything wrong, that the text should be changed in any way, but he said it was possible to placate top management by cutting the time, and that’s the way we did it. I don’t think that is so heinous, because we got everything said that we wanted to say.

What was your first scoop as a news paperman?
If you mean in the sense of getting the story first and exclusively for at least one edition, I guess it was while I was on the Daily Texan. I got an interview with a young man who had shot his parents to death. They were prominent people; his father was a state judge. It was there when he was caught, and I managed to have some words with him. It was just luck, like most scoops. But part of luck is being prepared to take advantage of it. My lines were pretty well laid with some cops, and they tipped me that they might have him out on the grounds, oddly enough, of some institute for the deaf and dumb in Austin. So I dashed out there and it turned out to be the case.

What did you ask the suspect?
[Laughing slyly] Well, I hope I avoided the television question of “How do you feel?” I don’t think I asked that. In those days, there were no restraints in talking with arrested individuals. The Supreme Court decisions hadn’t come down yet. They didn’t read a card outlining a person’s rights. So I asked, “Did you do it? Why did you do it?” He allowed that he’d done it and didn’t know why he’d done it. He regretted that he had, but the boy was out of his skull. I don’t mean on dope or anything. He was a mental case. It was not a substantial or meaningful interview in any sense.

How did all of this make you feel?
Well, I felt a sense of elation. I had gotten to him, and I didn’t think anyone else would. We managed to get a few quotes in that morning’s edition. I haven’t thought about it in forty years, not until you asked me the question.

In your career as a newspaper reporter, what are you most proud of?
Anybody who’s spent thirteen or fourteen years in print journalism has a lot of stories he thinks were inwardly satisfying as far as preparation, understanding and diligence. I’m proud of a couple of pieces I did very early on in my press-service career, like one about a New London, Texas, school that blew up and several hundred children and teachers were killed. It was a major disaster. I think. I was the first press-service correspondent on the scene, but not of my own initiative. I was sent out of the Dallas UP bureau.

Although they poured the real heavy-weights of United Press from all over the nation into the story, I got two good feature stories. I wasn’t writing the leads, by any means. I was about twenty-one. In Dallas, I was a legman for other lead writers, but on my own I did sidebars, and I was very proud of two of them. One asked the question why in the different ways that question could be asked: why the school blew up, why they tapped that particular gas line to get fuel. The religious question was written on a Sunday: why this should happen to this community, why it should happen to innocents—children.

Are you religious?
Not in the formal sense of regular attendance at services, no. I have great questions about an almighty being.

Do you ever pray?
[Grimly] In desperation. At really critical and very personal family things usually, like the health and welfare of my children.

Your fame must place a unique sort of stress on those close to you. For instance, your daughter Kathy once went so far as to change her last name for a while.
Part of that was on the advice of a Hollywood agent who thought she’d do better with another name. It also inspired her to write a book, which will be out in March, about the pressures on children of famous people. It’s interviews with these children.

Did she ever describe the pressures of being a Cronkite to you?
[Somberly] Yeah. She gets tired of being introduced as Walter Cronkite’s daughter. I think my other children feel the same way. The business of hitchhiking on somebody else’s identity is disturbing to them, which I can certainly understand. Although they’re all too kind to say this to me, and I don’t think we’ve discussed it perhaps as deeply as we should, they’re probably living up to an image of what I am that they know is not quite a true one. I’d like to think that they respect me. I hope they do. But they’ve got to see a lot of clay mushing through my toes……and my ankles.

What do you feel was the greatest crisis you’ve faced in your life, either on a personal or career level?
The greatest crisis, on a career level, was in 1964, when CBS removed me from the convention coverage.

They replaced you with Robert Trout and Roger Mudd. Why?
Well, the first reason was that the ratings were poor, and the second was that I was a scapegoat for the new management; they had completely upset the old way of doing things and attempted to stamp the convention coverage with their own image — and it failed. So they put the failure on me.

What was the nature of this failure? It was lousy coverage, terrible. And I was as bad as I’ve ever been. It wasn’t quite the approach that was the problem so much as the technical facilities. I had done six conventions—’52, ’56 and ’60—and had practically engineered what was needed on the anchor desk and how we did it. Although we had gone through the desk fittings and how we were gonna communicate — all that was arranged in New York — I got out to San Francisco and was taken directly to the Cow Palace, where people said, “Oh, boy, we’ve got a great new plan!”

[Sternly] Well, it didn’t work. The new communications plan didn’t relate. They took away my desk assistant, who sits in the “hole” below my desk, regulates the flow of information and communicates where we’re going next— [irritated] not what I am going to read on the air, as some idiot in New York wrote a month or two ago. People love to think that that guy in the little hole writes my material for me. I need that person for communication, and that’s all there is to it.

Well, they hired a new assistant for me in San Francisco and put her across the room from me! I had no communication with her at all! I was sitting there just as innocent as the people sitting in the third balcony of the Cow Palace! I had no information flowing to me. [Angrily] And they were so inexperienced at that kind of broadcasting that they stood in the control room flying into fits every two seconds ’cause I didn’t have some information they thought I ought to have. They’d come dashing into my studio between air time — while I was trying to listen to what was happening on the floor—with all kinds of complaints. [Bitterly] It was terrible, awful.

While anchoring the 1968 Democratic convention, your anger at the violent behavior of the Chicago police was very apparent. Likewise, your disaffection with the Vietnam War slowly became quite obvious. When did you decide the war was wrong, and do you think it affected your coverage?
I hope and believe my coverage in both cases was not affected by my personal feelings. This should be the mark of every professional journalist—to keep personal prejudices out of the news report. I decided, fairly early on, that people were not getting the full facts or being permitted to participate in decisions regarding the Vietnam War—and this was brought home by the fact that, in Vietnam, the military was preparing to use far more troops than the Johnson administration was saying we were going to commit.

What do you think is the gravest problem in the world today?
I think there are four major dangers to civilization, and the greatest is population. Stemming from that are pollution, depletion of natural resources, including food, and atomic proliferation. It’s almost essential, if civilization is to survive, that we get a handle on nuclear armaments, and it should be serious disarmament, not just ceilings on nuclear arms, such as SALT II promised.

The only reason that SALT II had any promise—and it had great value in this regard—was that it was a step toward disarmament at some later stage. Presumably we had to go through SALT II to get to SALT III and IV and V. Now we see an administration in power that does not even believe in SALT II. Whether we ever get that disarmament is highly problematic.

As a UP correspondent, you covered such harrowing stories as General George Patton’s rescue of encircled troops at the Battle of the Bulge in 1941, as well as the Nuremberg trials of Göring, Hess and other Nazi war criminals. On the scene, a good reporter is as percipient as he is dispassionate. I would like to hear your reflections on these two difficult assignments.
Well, Patton’s feat in turning around the Third Army, which was then facing the Germans far south of the Ardennes, and throwing it within a comparatively few hours against von Rundstedt’s forces in Belgium, was one of the greatest of the war. He proved then what a remarkable tactician he was, and the value of a disciplined army.

As for Nuremberg, there has been much criticism over the years that the trials were the imposition of ex post facto justice on a beaten enemy, but I’ve always felt that they represented an effort to establish a juridical precedent for a system of world order before the outbreak of another war—after which, clearly, it would be too late.

You’ve known so many presidents, from Truman to Reagan. For which president did you have the highest personal regard, and why?
I have found things to admire, and things to dislike, in each of them. It’s hard to choose, but possibly it would be Truman, for his guts in making tough decisions and sticking with them.

On the other side of the fence, what contributions do you feel Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and John Chancellor have made to TV news?
I would say they have been—or are — serious, dedicated journalists interested primarily in the obtaining and presentation of the truth. But Murrow helped more than any other individual to raise the standards of broadcast journalism to a level equal to and sometimes above that of daily print journalism. The others have helped keep it there.

Why did you ask that your fan club he discontinued in 1974 after about five years of existence?
Oh, I never approved of the fan club in the first place. I don’t think news people ought to have fan clubs. It smacks of show business and all the things that are wrong with television news. It’s just not right.

Do you think you’ve been guilty of showbiz?
No, quite honestly, I don’t. That’s what I mean by holding the line. Some critics suggest that I am an old fogy about the use of graphics, and that ABC is doing graphics more brilliantly than we are, and that I’ve dug in my heels against this sort of thing. That’s not true. I don’t think for one minute that the use of graphics is show business. It’s audio-visual education. I’m all for it, if it’s used to enhance an understanding of a story you’re gonna cover anyway. I do not mean to suggest that I am opposed to photojournalism and do not acknowledge that we are a visual medium. We should not ever turn our backs on a good picture because of some exalted idea that it is not the most important news story of the day. But underlying all the things we do with pictures and graphics and two-way communication and mincams is the attempt to communicate in a half-hour the maximum amount of news that is of importance to that viewing population. If we have to drop important news for a picture story, then we have to weigh carefully what we’re up to.

I am most proud of doing everything I could to hold the line of journalistic professionalism in television news—giving it a professionalism, I hope, that it either didn’t have in the early days or that it is now constantly threatened with not having by show-business pressures. Television news is always in danger of slipping into show business. Too many local stations have already done that.

I assume it’s no accident that The CBS Evening News is broadcast directly from a working newsroom as opposed to a set.
No accident at all. And it’s a great handicap to us. A good still photographer wouldn’t take a portrait in that room. That’s a low ceiling; you can’t get a high enough light in it, and our lighting people cry and cringe. So I look flat; not nearly as handsome or pretty as I’d look if we’d go to the studio upstairs. On election night, when we’re up there with the big lights and sets, it’s ten times better visually.

But CBS can’t afford to give us a newsroom in a studio setting — and I insist on being where the news is. I’m not going to be divorced from this newsroom for an hour and a half each evening in order to go to a set somewhere. If we had a set, I’d have to leave here at 6:15, and normally I do a lot of editing and some writing between six and 6:30. I put on my jacket at 6:29:45. Last night everything changed in midbroadcast.

Is it true, as Abbie Hoffman states in his new book, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, that your decision to trade your eyeglasses for contact lenses on-camera was a result of a written suggestion from him?
No. The switch to contacts was dictated by the fact that on-air lighting caused a reflection in my reading glasses.

What do you see as the differences in style and approach between yourself and your successor, Dan Rather?
I think the changes in the broadcast will be more gradual than revolutionary, I gather from what little I’ve talked with Dan about it that he has no plans for overturning the present system. In time, there may be some changes. We’ve done the best we can to balance the assignments and the problems, but he may have a different view on that.

As for style, we each have our own. At the moment, I would describe Dan as having more vigor, a little more attack on the news, which is good. But there’s no difference between us in dedication to the kind of job that has to be done, and in devotion to integrity, keeping the thing as unbiased as possible. I think Dan is that way, or he wouldn’t have been selected for the job.

Everyone seems to have an “inner age,” that is, an age one perceives oneself as being. How old do you feel you are?
[Laughing] Well, I’d say I’m about thirty-five.

Why does sailing appeal to you?
What all sailors have said since time immemorial: it’s the challenge of nature, the oneness with nature, the ability to work with nature and hopefully conquer it. Also, it’s provided a marvelous escape valve for getting away from the telephone and the pressures of city life. I can cast off in a boat and really put the world behind me.

You were once an avid auto-racing buff and occasionally got behind the wheel of your own Lotus. How did this hobby emerge?
Like any red-blooded American boy, I had always been interested in cars, and I used to race jalopies around an abandoned race track in Houston. But I could not afford, in either money or time, to do more until later years. When a little more of both became available, in the post-World War II boom, I bought my first sports car.

Everyone from Laurence Olivier to Joe DiMaggio has done TV commercials. Would, as the New York Times recently speculated, “the most trusted man in America” ever consider endorsing a product?
I cannot at present imagine doing that.

You are generally regarded to be part of a noble tradition of American journalism that encompasses everyone from Edward R. Murrow and H.L. Mencken to Walter Winchell and Ernie Pyle. How did you feel as you stifled tears when your staff presented you with the microphone trophy at the close of the Democratic Convention coverage?
Proud—and embarrassed.

Do you have any regrets?
[Firmly] About the only thing I regret is not being smart enough to say to all these people in the company who have projects and write and do everything else that the biggest job in the world is to put out The CBS Evening News, so don’t bother me 

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