Commentary Magazine

A Face Only a Nation Could Love

But, gee, to depend on somebody to tell you the absolute truth every night and give you The Word every night, that’s a bad thing, a serious problem in a democracy.     

– Walter Cronkite

Here’s a little secret: Walter Cronkite, during his life billed as the most trusted man in the nation, the conscience of his country, the sagacious old uncle to us all, wasn’t very smart, and not especially wise either. He was instead a man making a living out of television journalism—a very good one—by pretending to be serious and objective, when it is far from clear that he was either.

I had my first clue of this when, in 1971, I attended a talk Cronkite gave at the University of Chicago under the auspices of an institution there known as the Urban Journalism Center. Such panjandrums from journalism and academic life as Chicago was able to turn out were there to hear him. He proceeded to speak about the importance of professors imbuing their students with the spirit of dissent. With an air of perfect confidence, without a hem or haw, the slightest sputter or stutter, he emitted an assemblage of platitudes, utterly unaware that this same spirit of dissent he was urging had in recent years just about ended in setting fire to universities, as he might have said, “across this great land of ours.” A professor at my table looked at me, his eyebrows just about transcending his forehead, and asked: “Where has this guy been?”

My second clue came when I read a preface Cronkite wrote to a paperback edition of George Orwell’s 1984, and discovered he thought that the target of the novel was not the brutal devastation of life, private and public, under totalitarianism, but chiefly the danger posed by the technology of modernity. “1984 is an anguished lament and a warning that vibrates powerfully when we may not be strong enough nor wise enough nor moral enough to cope with the kind of power we have learned to amass,” Cronkite wrote. Throughout this preface, the Soviet Union and China, whose governments treated their respective populations as conquered nations, go unmentioned. The preface was written in 1983, and by then Cronkite had entered that phase of liberalism that finds no country more dangerous than one’s own.

I never met Walter Cronkite, but one day in 2003, I was sitting in the dining room of the Hotel Sacher in Vienna when he sauntered in. He was in Vienna to introduce the program of warhorses played by the Vienna Philharmonic for its annual New Year’s concert, a telecast of which ran on PBS. It was a regular gig for him, who, so far as one could determine, knew nothing about serious music. The flutter in the room as people recognized his presence was that accorded a movie star. Cronkite was indeed a star, not of the stage or screen but of that more pervasive medium of television. In his day he was the most powerful and famous figure in mass media.

Now that there are scores of cable channels, and that the Internet has become the major news source for younger generations, such power and fame as Cronkite enjoyed in his lifetime are no longer possible. The three major networks still offer their versions of the evening news, but as one can conclude from their sponsors—Viagra, Cialis, Nexium, Boniva, and the rest—their audience is an older one, aging fast. With the advent and success of Fox News and MSNBC, which play directly to their audiences’ already formed politics, the older news offerings seem even less in demand.

If one wants a perfectly ideal picture of how the world—that great ninny, as Henry James called it—took Walter Cronkite, one cannot do better than this note he received from Lady Bird Johnson not long after his retirement:

We love you so much. A stalwart with whom we’ve shared moments that touched depths of despair and the farthest reaches of space. We’ve mourned with you some of America’s saddest days and soared as we celebrated some of mankind’s highest aspirations and achievements. You’ve been an advocate for what is best in the United States, and we are better for it.

Douglas Brinkley, a historian and Walter Cronkite’s new biographer, claims that Cronkite’s role was that “of a steadying presence in frightening times. He was a national leader of a new sort: the healer in chief.” What was more, according to Brinkley, “even when he was announcing tragic news, he was himself a reminder that America would persevere.”

When Cronkite retired as anchorman of the CBS Evening News in 1981, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, in an article in the Nation called “A Reluctant Big Shot,” worried that democracy was henceforth at risk. “So now a kindly teacher has left our village,” Vonnegut wrote. “I’m not a religious man,” Jack Paar noted. “But I do believe in Walter Cronkite.”

How did it happen that this hardworking, highly competitive, but otherwise far from brilliant or even especially thoughtful man attained such prominence and fame? This question will be uppermost in the mind of anyone who plunges into the more than 800 pages (text and scholarly apparatus included) of Brinkley’s Cronkite1. There he will find several answers, none of them satisfactory.

An infelicitous writer, Brinkley has produced a cliché-laden work: oil in his pages is “black gold,” museums are “world class,” memories are like “steel traps,” rivalrous journalists come “loaded for bear,” and “push,” surprising to report, generally “comes to shove.” Imprecise and awkward phrases stud his pages, where people are never given jobs but are “tasked with” them and “enormity” and “masterful” and “fulsome” along with other words are blithely misused. Brinkley seems to think that Billy Wilder and not Alfred Hitchcock directed the movie Foreign Correspondent, that Virgil Thomson is “America’s premier composer,” that Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a story about endurance on the job. At one point he remarks that The Lucy Show, Perry Mason, and See It Now “were genuine highpoints to applaud for the ages,” which suggests both the range of his mind and the fundamental unsoundness of his judgment. Matters are not much helped by Professor Brinkley’s comfortable assumption that political liberalism and moral goodness are one and the same.

Brinkley finds Cronkite guilty of various character flaws: cheapness, excessive competitiveness, an unforgiving nature (he resented Edward R. Murrow, Barbara Walters, and Dan Rather all his days). He accepted free travel junkets, served up softball questions as an interviewer of presidents and others, and often played it safe in corporate wars, protecting his own job and status before all else. But through the length of Cronkite, which reprises assassinations, space launchings, presidential conventions and elections, intramural power struggles at CBS, and which provides biographical bits about nearly everyone who has ever done or been associated with national television news, Brinkley never attempts to take the measure of Walter Cronkite’s mind.

Cronkite’s occupation was that of anchorman. The very word came into being when, in the first telecast of a national political convention, in 1952, it was assigned to him upon becoming CBS’s central figure, reported to by television newsmen bringing in tidbits of news from the convention floor. So exclusively was the term anchorman associated with his name that for a time in Sweden, he tells us in A Reporter’s Life (1996), his autobiography, anchormen were called “cronkiters.”

An anchorman is a man who reads news that other men and women have probably written for him. In France the anchorman is known by the more accurate name of speakerine, suggesting an instrument through which others speak. The chief requirements for the job seem to be two: a good voice and a good hairdo. Once, when Cronkite appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ted Baxter, that sitcom’s wonderful send-up of inept anchormen, said to him: “Let’s talk shop. What words do you have trouble pronouncing?”

Cronkite did the CBS Evening News for 19 years, from 1962 to early 1981, along with doing various television news specials and being the main voice for CBS’s coverage of anything of national newsworthy significance. Along with anchorman at CBS Evening News, he had the title of managing editor, which meant that, with his various executive producers, he decided which news stories were to run each evening and in what order of priority.

Cronkite’s skill as an anchorman was his ability to ad-lib at great length on camera without a script (something Edward R. Murrow wasn’t able to do) and to boil complex questions, issues, and problems into capsule summary in a way that the average person could understand (something Murrow had no wish to do). He also brought a sense of gravity to the proceedings; he himself took the news very seriously, and he would later mock the advent of Barbara Walters and others who tended to meld news and entertainment into a stew he called “infotainment” that brought high ratings.

And then there was his face: Framed by his parted and combed-back graying hair, he had earnest blue eyes under bushy eyebrows that late in life required waxing and a carefully groomed military mustache that diminished a rather large and fleshy nose, all of which made him look like Walt Disney, but for adults. His wife claimed that people liked him because he looked like their dentist, but who likes their dentist? His 40th high school class reunion came closer when it voted him the man from whom you were most likely to buy a used car (the very antithesis of Richard Nixon). Cronkite’s was a face best seen on glass, through a screen; it was a face only a nation could love, and in his case did, emphatically. Between 1967 and his retirement in 1981, with him as its anchor, CBS Evening News easily led the other two major networks in the ratings.

Cronkite’s presentation of the news, and of news events, was not to everyone’s taste. I, for one, preferred the team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, whom he displaced as number one in viewer ratings. Cronkite took the news too straight; he admired American politicians too much, whereas Huntley and Brinkley, and Brinkley especially, tended to view them and politics generally in a more Menckenesque light—that is, as carnival, a carnival in good part to be sure of bunkum, which seemed not only more charming but more realistic. Cronkite, solid and humorless, never made that mistake.

“It all started in a little 500-watt radio station in Fresno, California,” Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was fond of saying. Cronkite’s beginning was in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he was born in 1916, the son of a dentist, whose alcoholism caused his divorce from his wife when Cronkite was 16. By that point, the Cronkites (the name is Dutch) had moved, first to Kansas City and thence to Houston. Walter, a perfectly ordinary kid, worked on the school paper. He became greatly enamored of newspaper work owing to a teacher who inculcated the principles, such as they are, of journalism in all his students: a respect for facts, a need to check sources, the importance of making oneself understood through plain style.

The young Cronkite got a job on the Houston Post. His would be the purely spectatorial life, not making news but reporting it, though some would say that, once he attained his great eminence, he made a certain amount of news on his own by pushing events in a way he wanted them to go. “I used to think that life wouldn’t be worth living if I wasn’t in on the action,” he remarked late in life, though, as we shall see, he never really stopped thinking it.

Cronkite lasted two years as a student at the University of Texas, for he hadn’t much interest in bookish things. While there he wrote freelance articles about the university, which he placed in the Houston Post and elsewhere, and got a job on an Austin radio station. He cultivated his radio voice: sonorous yet unpretentious, dramatic yet familiar, portentous when need be. After giving him a tryout for a job on a radio station in Kansas City, the man who hired him took him into the station manager’s office to announce, “Here is a man with the best radio voice I’ve heard in my years in radio.” That voice was rich beyond its years, without accent, and a perfect vessel for conveying seriousness.

At 26 Cronkite married a woman who also worked on newspapers in Kansas City and then for Hallmark Cards. Brinkley remarks that Cronkite’s wife was a better writer than he. No surprise here, for Cronkite was a pure journalist, and journalists for the most part aren’t truly writers but instead collectors of information. The essayist Midge Decter, when working at Harper’s magazine with David Halberstam, Larry King, and others who had acquired their training on newspapers, once explained the difference to me. “When you and I decide to write about a subject, we read what has already been written about it, we read things connected with it, we think about it, we brood over it, and only then do we begin to write about it,” she said. “When a journalist gets an assignment, he does none of these things; instead he picks up the phone.” The problems only begin when journalists start thinking, and in recent decades, alas, they have been thinking more and more.

Cronkite’s big break as a journalist came in 1935, when he got a job at the Kansas City bureau of United Press, one of the leading wire-news services of the day. UP had a tradition of tough journalism, done on a shoestring, with high standards and a relentless focus on scoops. The company used Cronkite at its different bureaus, and eventually he went off to cover World War II for it. He had, as they say, a good war. He became known as “the Dean of Air-War Writers,” having gone along on a few bombing missions over Germany. (He was himself rejected for military service owing to color-blindness.) He would later be the UP’s man at the Nuremberg Trials and its chief Moscow correspondent. The United Press may be said to have put the blacking on Cronkite’s journalistic training; CBS would apply the polish.

At one point during the war, Murrow attempted to lure Cronkite away from the UP to join him and his circle of reporters known as Murrow’s Boys (a circle that included Robert Trout, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, and Richard C. Hottelet) working at CBS radio. Murrow was every journalist’s ideal of the great foreign correspondent. Cronkite was among Murrow’s early admirers, and he was tempted, but a large raise from UP caused him to refuse Murrow’s offer. Murrow and Cronkite would always remain wary of the other, each jealous of his own prerogatives.

Murrow had flash and flair, Cronkite stability and steadiness. If Murrow was television news broadcasting’s Babe Ruth, Cronkite was its Lou Gehrig. Gehrig was known in his day as Iron Horse for his durability in never missing a game; among his colleagues, Cronkite was called Iron Pants for his ability to work a microphone for hours on end, as he did during the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination and funeral and during the sometimes extensive delays before space launchings.

People remember Cronkite taking off his thick-frame black glasses, fighting back tears, before announcing, definitively, that John F. Kennedy was dead in Dallas. They remember his crying out “Go, Baby, Go!” when spaceships made successful launches from Cape Canaveral. They remember his declaring, after a two-week visit to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, that our war there was a “stalemate,” and thus unwinnable, to which many attributed great significance. They remember his role in bringing together Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin for a combined television interview.

But no one, I think, will recall a memorable, or penetrating, or original statement made by Walter Cronkite during his 50-odd years on television, and this is because he never made one. Nor was he any better in prose. His memoir A Reporter’s Life, though a bestseller in its day, is a dullish, matter-of-fact book. One of Walter Cronkite’s real advantages was that he had the common touch; and the most certain way of acquiring that touch is to have a commonplace mind.

Cronkite began his career as a man without strong politics. During World War II he had no qualms about supporting American troops. He thought the NASA space program one of the great American endeavors and hero-worshipped the early generation of astronauts, and through his career was even thought a shill for NASA. He much admired Dwight David Eisenhower, so much so that many Democrats, John F. Kennedy among them, thought him a Republican. Unlike Murrow, or Howard K. Smith, or Eric Sevareid (also known as Eric the Red and Eric Clarified), early in his career he showed no taste for editorializing, for inserting his own opinions into stories, and he preferred to think himself purely a purveyor of the news.

This began to change, as did so many things, with the 1960s. Cronkite first faced criticism of the media from the contingent that backed Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention at San Francisco. Even former President Eisenhower, in a speech to the convention, inserted a paragraph about the press’s antipathy to the Republican Party. Cronkite himself was wary of Goldwater, and CBS, as even Douglas Brinkley allows, treated the Goldwater campaign unfairly, making out its candidate to be “a kind of neo-Nazi” and “the horn-rimmed face of the John Birch Society, a sagebrush reactionary even more unfit for White House command than Joe McCarthy.”

The 1968 Democratic convention, at which the Chicago police and the hippie protesters confronted each other directly, drove Cronkite further to the left. At one point during the proceedings, he called Mayor Richard J. Daley’s security men, who had manhandled an aggressive Dan Rather on the floor of the convention, “thugs.” Later he would, as his colleagues felt, give the mayor a pass in a too-gentle interview. “We used to call Walter ‘Mr. Softball,’” the CBS correspondent Robert Pierpoint said. “If you were a president or a general, Walter turned submissive.”

Vietnam, however, was the great turning point in Cronkite’s career. At first he was hawkish on the question of that war, feeling it was necessary and certainly winnable. A trip to the country during the 1968 Tet Offensive staged by the North Vietnamese caused him to believe it was neither. CBS organized a special on the subject, “Report from Vietnam,” whose conclusion, read though not written by Cronkite, ran:

To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months, we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that 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.

The reverberations from this have been disputed. Some claim that President Lyndon Johnson said, in slightly different variations, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country”; and that Cronkite coming out against the war was the determining factor in Johnson’s not running for reelection in 1968. In his book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam wrote that “it was the first time in history that a war had been declared over by a commentator.”

Cronkite’s view was largely formed by R.W. Apple, David Halberstam, and other New York Times journalists. His conclusion about the viability of the war in Vietnam after Tet wasn’t exactly a minority position in 1968. Little if any courage had been required in the rendering of his verdict. If anything, it brought him enormous personal dividends. “He entered the main-game annals of American history,” to quote Brinkley’s bloated language. “With white streaks in his closely cropped hair and mustache, Cronkite had come to epitomize old-fashioned values in an era of rote lies. America asked for the truth about Vietnam, and Cronkite dutifully delivered.” What Cronkite dutifully delivered was the standard media line of the moment.

CBS Evening News didn’t do much in the way of original reporting with the Watergate scandal. But it did regularly recapitulate the findings of Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post, and this was enough. Doing so lent imprimatur, or as Brinkley says, “high-octane credence,” to the newspaper’s efforts. Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor, told Brinkley, “When Cronkite aired the Watergate bits, the sun came out for me. It was just like being blessed; if Cronkite was taking the Watergate story seriously, everyone in journalism would.”

After his enshrinement as a hero in history, helping end the Vietnam War and helping bring down Richard Nixon, Cronkite increasingly became a pontificator. He spoke out about the shortcomings of television news, which he considered, rightly, little more than the announcement of headlines. He began lecturing on the subject of that old Jeffersonian saw of a well-functioning democracy requiring a well-informed electorate. (A true enough statement, but it is far from clear if the United States, or any other country, has ever had such an electorate.)

After his Vietnam stalemate declaration and his aid in bringing down Nixon, the honors and awards flooded in: Emmys, Peabodys, honorary degrees—Cronkite, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith used to joke about who had more of the latter—and a Medal of Freedom bestowed by Jimmy Carter. New York City made him one of its “living legends.” A journalism school at Arizona State University was named after him. When Cronkite sold his four-story townhouse at 519 East 84th Street, his wife said that her main regret was losing the backyard, “for I had a plot of land where I could bury all of Walter’s plaques.”

Why? Why was Walter Cronkite somehow selected as the great man of the media? It wasn’t his intelligence, it wasn’t his learning, it wasn’t his charm or wit, it wasn’t his penetration or high style or courage, for over a long career he demonstrated, insofar as one can make out, none of these things. When Cronkite retired from CBS Evening News in March 1981, an article in the New Republic cited him for being “heroically honest,” the nation’s “one incorruptible guardian, who has won the kind of trusted admiration our leaders ought to have deserved,” but obviously didn’t. For years, the article went on, he “managed to keep alien realities at a safe distance, putting the world in order every weeknight. In short, his charisma partly results from a long record of apparent objectivity.” Not a word of this tribute is backed up, of course, and what is that word apparent doing in its final sentence?

Others claimed that it was Cronkite’s rootedness in America that gave him his magical attractiveness. He was Midwestern, small-town, never forgot his Kansas City origins. People responded to that, or so the claim goes. Brinkley writes: “This was a key to all the great TV newsmen’s success: Never forget your hometown folks. Cronkite’s hometown just happened to be the whole damn United States.” Yet as early as the middle 1950s, Walter Cronkite had elided from working journalist to major celebrity. He would soon become a naturalized New Yorker, where people stopped him on the street for autographs. On Martha’s Vineyard, at Edgartown, he kept a large house and private harbor for his yacht, and his social circle there included Jacqueline Onassis, John Lehman, William F. Buckley Jr., and Joseph Heller, not exactly your local Rotary Club.

In an interview with a boating magazine given in 1976—sailing was his passion—Cronkite averred: “I don’t understand my appeal. It gets down to an unknown quality, maybe communication of integrity. I have a sense of mission. That sounds pompous, but I like the news. Facts are sacred. I feel people should know about the world, should know the truth as much as possible. I care about the world, about people, about the future. Maybe that comes across.”

Whether it did or not is difficult to say, but one thing that isn’t is that any person who vaunts his own integrity probably doesn’t have much, nor is anyone who publicly claims to care about people really likely to care much at all. No, the reason for Cronkite’s appeal needs to be found elsewhere.

When Walter Cronkite retired, at the age of 64, from the CBS Evening News, he continued on as an employee at the network at a handsome salary. The vague plan was that he was to do documentaries on serious subjects, he would be on hand for continuing crises, he would be an ever-burbling fount of experience and wisdom. Along with unleashing him from the daily grind of a news show, it would also free him from his centrist pose with its need to hold back his true opinions. He would no longer be, as he told the New York Times, “an ideological eunuch.”

What Cronkite turned out to be was a very standard left-winger, Nation magazine division. The older he got (he died at 92), the more liberal-left he became. At 88, he began a King Features newspaper column that was syndicated in 153 papers, which he used to berate anyone to the right of him. His judgments were less than solid. He claimed that in retrospect the Soviet threat was overrated. Of Jimmy Carter, he told an interviewer in Rolling Stone, “I think he’s got one of the best brains of anyone I’ve known.” He said that Bill Clinton has “Carter’s intelligence, Johnson’s experience, and Kennedy’s gonads,” a mixed compliment if ever there was one. He became a world-government man, deciding that “unlimited national sovereignty” could only end in “international anarchy,” a sentiment that won him the Norman Cousins Global Governance Award. He was of course a great George W. Bush hater, suggesting at one point that Bush ought to be impeached for incompetence. His last great cause was the decriminalization of marijuana. “Nobody,” as Brinkley writes, “held his overt liberalism against him.” But in a media and intellectual culture dominated by liberalism, who might imagine anyone would?

What if, after his retirement from CBS Evening News, Cronkite, free from ideological constraints, had turned out to be a rock-ribbed Republican, a free-marketer, anti-big-government, anti-abortion, strongly pro-Israel? The honorary degrees would have had to be rescinded, the Freedom Medal returned, the journalism school in Arizona renamed The Brokaw School, all the encomia choked back. Katie Couric would have missed out on that “cathartic” feeling just knowing Walter Cronkite was around, but then George Clooney would not have to “hate the world” without him, as he said at Cronkite’s death in 2009. The man who Douglas Brinkley claims “walked the plank for our nation,” he who “in the last analysis became the TV conscience of Cold War America and beyond,” would have been quickly and quietly swept into the dustbin of history. Nor would we ever have had Professor’s Brinkley’s otiose biography. And, as Walter Cronkite himself might have said, that’s the way it is.


1 Harper, 832 pages.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a frequent contributor to Commentary. His newest book, to be published next month, is Essays in Biography (Axios Press).

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