Harper: 820 pp., $34.99
Brinkley's lengthy narrative spends as much time on Cronkite's stints as a paperboy as on his father's alcoholism and his parents' divorce. The author seems more interested in the ins and outs of Cronkite's strained professional relationship with Dan Rather than in his 65-year marriage — though smart, sardonic Betsy Cronkite gets her due as the woman who could cut Walter down to size.
Some years after he retired from "The
It was difficult for Cronkite to give up that role. He had worked hard and waited a long time to be named anchor of the nightly news broadcast at age 45 in 1962. He had proved himself a corporate team player by acting as straight man to a puppet on "The Morning Show" and covering the 1960 Winter Olympics along with weightier responsibilities reporting on political conventions and space flights. Cronkite wasn't one of "the Murrow Boys," the newsmen who worked with Edward R. Murrow for CBS Radio during
When Cronkite moved into television in 1950, as host of the
When Cronkite did take a stand, as he did in his famous 1968 "Report From Vietnam," he delivered a careful, qualified assessment that concluded, "it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out … 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."
This modest, "middling position," as Brinkley accurately describes it, was characteristic of Cronkite and the source of his enduring appeal. He was no crusader; it was no accident that he chose as the tag line for his nightly broadcast, "That's the way it is." Cronkite believed in facts and in journalists' obligation to report them objectively. During the turbulent 1960s and early '70s, facts led Cronkite and CBS News into hard-hitting coverage — of civil rights, Vietnam,
Cronkite's consummate professionalism in synthesizing fragmented reports from Dallas reassured a frightened public during the frantic hours afterPresident John F. Kennedywas shot; his welling eyes and shocked pause after he read the news of Kennedy's death expressed the nation's collective grief. His enthusiastic coverage of the space program, from the first Mercury flights through the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, provided respite from an increasingly polarized political climate. Ordinary Americans believed that Uncle Walter shared their values, and his popularity outlasted the Cold War liberal consensus he incarnated.
His retirement from "The CBS Evening News" on March 6, 1981, was well timed. Cable television was fragmenting a once-monolithic market, and a plethora of openly partisan "news" programs would follow over the next 15 years. "There would no longer be must-watch Cronkite personalities," writes Brinkley. "Before long the TV news standards he had spent decades establishing would recede into the land of folly."
That second sentence is regrettably emblematic of the author's tendency to interject peculiar editorial generalizations into an otherwise bland text. It's as though Brinkley is uncomfortable that his portrait hews closely to received notions about Cronkite and his times — no sin, if those received notions are correct — and feels obliged to pep things up with occasional, jarringly colloquial outbursts.
Cronkite's unduly placatory interview with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daleyafter the violent
The verve Brinkley strains for with these tossed-off comments is better supplied by anecdotes about Cronkite's ferocious competitiveness, the stamina during nonstop breaking-news reports that earned him the nickname "Iron Pants," and the tendency to usurp other reporters' airtime that led one enraged colleague to snarl, "If that old son of a … does that to me one more time, I'm going right up to the anchor booth and put the earphones on him and tell him to interview himself!"
General readers will probably not be bothered by Brinkley's uneven tone, and there's no question that the biography comprehensively and capably narrates Walter Cronkite's life and career through the "Legacy of War" documentary that aired on