From his early days as a wire service reporter, Walter Cronkite liked to represent himself as a disinterested purveyor of facts to an audience that he called “the Kansas City milkman.” But the moments people most remember were the ones where his emotions took over.
His “Oh, boy,” at seeing the landing on the moon exploded any pretense of objectivity; the catch in his voice as he had to announce the death of President Kennedy -- both went far beyond a “just-the-facts, Ma’am” recital.
And the objectivity on which he prided himself took a complete holiday when Cronkite flew to Vietnam and came back to assert that the war was unwinnable and should be ended.
The tremendous amount of ink and airtime expended on the Cronkite legend since he died Friday might seem odd given that he was a figure of a generation ago in a career that now generates deep skepticism. But during much of the period he anchored the CBS Evening News, Cronkite represented something deep in the psyche of America, embodied in the word trust.
After Cronkite’s assertion that it was time to pull out of Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson told his aide, Bill Moyers, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Cronkite was not the first journalist to come out against the war. David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, to name a couple, had drawn the same conclusion about the war’s winnability. But none had that singular ability of Uncle Walter to turn national sentiment against the president and his policies.
Why? How did he come to hold such sway with a public that had begun to distrust both the establishment government and the establishment media?
The simple answer, but maybe too simple, is that Cronkite inspired trust. In a couple of polls he was designated the most trusted man in America. His baritone voice with its Midwest cadence, the impression he gave of being unawed by all the big shots he had to deal with, his never losing touch with his audience -- all these factors placed him in a unique role. And he felt its weight. Asked to run for public office, Cronkite reportedly said he could not step down from his anchor post.
For some of us at CBS News, veterans of many round-table discussions, it became customary to test the microphone by intoning, “Well, Walter .... Well, Walter.” Such was the imprint that he put on CBS’ journalistic enterprise, which dominated network news, at least until 1981, when the company retired him in quest of higher ratings with Dan Rather.
Of all the big shots Cronkite took on, the biggest was President Nixon. I had been assigned the job of covering the Watergate break-in for CBS, and in October 1972, shortly before the presidential election, Walter contacted me to discuss the growing indications of White House involvement in the scandal. The possible role of the president and his aides was starting to make headlines in the Washington Post and other papers. But the stories were still not having much impact on the public.
“It’s been so far a newspaper story,” Cronkite said. “We have to make it a television story.”
The plan was to devote roughly half of two Evening News programs to extensive recapitulations of all that was known about Watergate. The first 14-minute segment aired on a Friday. At the end, Cronkite announced that the second segment would air on Monday.
But after the hard-hitting first segment, White House counsel Charles Colson made a furious telephone call to CBS Chairman William S. Paley, threatening retaliation against CBS through the regulatory powers of the Federal Communications Commission. Paley promised to kill the second segment.
Richard Salant, head of the news division, reminded Paley that the second segment had already been announced as airing on Monday and that our viewers would be expecting it. In the end, under protest, we were instructed to re-cut the already completed second segment, reducing it by more than half.
Cronkite was the first to acknowledge, privately, that this was not CBS’ finest hour. But he chose not to make a public issue of it. That was not the style of the most trusted man in America. And the following August, the CBS anchorman anchored Nixon’s resignation.
Later, Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham acknowledged that, for all of her paper’s great work, it was Cronkite’s CBS that had made Watergate a national story.