Review: ‘Cronkite’ by Douglas Brinkley is occasionally critical
Harper: 820 pp., $34.99
Walter Cronkite was not inclined to introspection, and historian Douglas Brinkley emulates his subject in this thorough biography of the news broadcaster who in 1972 was declared “The Most Trusted Man in America.”
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 CBS Evening News,” as her spouse was holding forth “with anchorman-like authority,” Brinkley notes, Betsy remarked tartly, “Walter, you don’t have to be the most trusted man in America anymore!”
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 World War II and went on to espouse his brand of unafraid-to-editorialize journalism at CBS Television. Indeed, Cronkite turned down a job offer from Murrow in 1943, preferring to remain a United Press correspondent and a member of the “Murrow-Ain’t-God Club.”
When Cronkite moved into television in 1950, as host of the Washington, D.C., CBS station’s Sunday newscast, he modeled himself not on the intense Murrow but on the breezy, folksy style of radio legend Lowell Thomas. That style suited Cronkite, a Midwestern boy raised in Kansas City, Mo., and Houston, who still knew where the best KC barbecue joints were in 1976. He despised bigotry but would never have produced a program like “Who Speaks for Birmingham?,” the unabashedly anti-segregation documentary that led to Howard K. Smith’s forced resignation from CBS News in 1961 (a departure that removed Cronkite’s principal rival for the network anchor job).
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, the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal — that infuriated conservatives and earned the network a prominent place in Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s 1969 attack on the perceived liberal media. But the Nixon administration didn’t dare put Cronkite on its notorious 1971 enemies list; he was too enmeshed in the fabric of American life to be stigmatized.
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 1968 Democratic convention is characterized as “beyond lame.” His famous sign-off is dismissed as “that line of schmaltz.” Press secretary Bill Moyers’ claim that if Cronkite had criticized the Vietnam War sooner PresidentLyndon B. Johnson might have deescalated the conflict is profanely derided.
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 PBS six weeks before his death in 2009. What’s missing from “Cronkite” is a coherent, sharply articulated point of view of the sort that makes Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ so stimulating, albeit sometimes maddening. Instead, it settles for a cover-all-bases approach that gets the job done but reveals little about Walter Cronkite that we didn’t already know.
Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.
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