Television viewers didn’t call him Cronkite. Or even Mr. Cronkite. To America, he was just Walter. Everyone knew who you were talking about when you uttered that name. When I was growing up, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he was part of an American ritual: come home, have dinner, watch Walter. He told us “that’s the way it is,” and we know he was right. Occasionally, people would also sit down to Chet and David (over at NBC) or Harry and Barbara (at ABC). But Walter was it. Nobody could touch him. He was gravitas, and veritas – gravity and truth – and he was the face in front of the most respected broadcast news outlet in the world.
His voice, my words
In 1982, fresh out of college, I landed a job in CBS’s Washington bureau, as a Production Secretary. I typed and answered the phone and learned how to work a newfangled thing called a fax. They paid me 11-thousand dollars a year. I considered myself rich.
It was a great time to be there. Just one year earlier, Cronkite had retired from the CBS Evening News, replaced by Dan Rather. When I arrived on the scene, the place was still very much in transition. The ground had shifted. The Evening News was changing its style and focus. Walter, meantime, was mentioned, but never seen. It was understood that Dan wanted it that way. Cronkite popped up from time to time on television – hosting the Kennedy Center Honors, or narrating something for PBS – but rarely on his old network.
But in 1986, I got the opportunity to play a small part in one of those appearances.
Cronkite was going to narrate a piece for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty and the producer, Susan Zirinsky, knowing how much I was itching to write, asked me if I’d help her with the script. I was thrilled, and leaped at the chance. It was a feature piece about one of the “tall ships” sailing into New York harbor for the festivities, the Coast Guard cutter the Eagle. (Walter was an avid sailor, so it was a perfect fit.) I labored intently over my script, trying to imagine his voice in my head, refining and polishing it for hours on end, and finally turned it in. Susan was pleased. She made a few light edits, and faxed it to Cronkite in New York for him to narrate. Far as I know, he didn’t make any other changes. And a few days later, the piece aired, with that incredible, memorable (often mimicked, never duplicated) voice reading my words. My words!
Young writers live for moments like that.
What’s our lede?
Later that year, I left Washington, and moved to New York, to begin my writing career in earnest, with CBS News Radio. I never wrote for Cronkite again, but I did see him from time to time. He’d pop into the Broadcast Center for a meeting or an interview. He was usually surrounded by a horde of people. I was too shy to introduce myself.
The last time I saw him, maybe a year ago, he was a shadow of his former self. He was in midtown Manhattan for an event, and they brought him into the newsroom to say hello. He was feeble, and pale, almost deaf and, it was rumored, going blind. But there was still that familiar glint in his eye, and the trim white mustache, and that ordinary, grandfatherly look that had made him such a fixture in tens of millions of living rooms.
He was greeted by a warm round of applause and he looked around, smiling politely, at all the young faces he didn’t know, and had never worked with, in an environment (and an industry) that was radically different from the one he’d known, and helped to create, just a few decades before.
They sat him in a chair by the national desk and he greeted a few of the people he did remember, and who had known him way-back-when. Katie Couric came over and beamed; she literally knelt at his feet so they could be eye-to-eye. He made small-talk with everyone and then jauntily called out, “What’s our lede?”
I’m sorry, I can’t
Rick Kaplan, the Executive Producer of the Evening News, who had worked with Walter early in his own career, found an old picture of Cronkite and brought it out, with a Sharpie, and asked him to autograph it. Walter tried. But his fingers couldn’t hold the pen. And he finally admitted, quietly, “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
It was a poignant scene: an aging, legendary reporter who could no longer even hold a pen.
But I prefer to remember him like so many Americans do: an image on a flickering screen, a voice heard from tinny speakers in a living room or a kitchen, a waiting room or a diner. How many TV dinners were consumed in front of him? How many hearts stopped when he interrupted the soap operas for a special report in the 1960’s? He was a part of the landscape, a part of America, and Americana, like the Lincoln penny or the Golden Arches. For a time, he was the country’s voice, the voice of information and illumination, part town crier, part herald, part sage.
The world has splintered into Googles and Facebooks and Politicos; there are a thousand little voices crying out to be heard, wanting to be Walter.
It’ll never happen. There was only one. And there will never be another.
That’s just the way it is.
Originally published July 22, 2009.