Remembering Walter Cronkite.

Bringing out the dead.
July 18 2009 9:30 AM

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009 

Watching the anchorman in a news family.

We were putting the kids to bed when word came that Walter Cronkite died. Immediately I went from being a father—shushing and threatening—to being a kid again. We watched Cronkite before dinner, in the library. I sat cross-legged on the rug. Mom sat on the sofa, and across the room sat Dad in the chair in which he'd fall asleep later that night. I had patches on my jeans and grass stains. I was wearing a Washington Redskins jersey. Everyone was in place, and no one was divorced.

I thought it was just our family. We were a news family. Mom had worked with Cronkite at CBS. I'd met him as a kid. But millions had this same experience as a kid growing up when there were just a few networks. Dads across the country shushed you if you talked during the broadcast. Conversation was for the brief commercial breaks. Now the news is the crawl going on underneath our day. In the deli, the airport, and the bar, the news is always on.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Cronkite wasn't just a part of our evening. He was a part of our favorite family story. Mom used him at the opening of every speech she gave. After she'd been introduced, she would thank the host for his kind words and then tell the story of her most awkward introduction. She was covering Lyndon Johnson at the 1960 Democratic Convention for CBS. It was the night that Kennedy had won the nomination, and Johnson was furious. He'd lost the primaries but thought he had a chance to convince delegates that the young kid was too inexperienced. He had failed.

Everyone was waiting for the Senate majority leader to respond to his loss. Mom had been camped out in the hallway of the Biltmore Hotel with the other reporters covering Johnson, waiting for a statement. She and a reporter from Life magazine were the only women there. Her colleagues watched her suspiciously because she'd known Johnson since she was a clerk in the Senate. He was very "sweet on her," as he put it, and everyone assumed that meant something more. (It didn't.) They thought through personal affection, flirtation, or feminine wiles she was going to scoop them.

In the anchor booth, Cronkite was trying to fill the airtime waiting for Nancy Hanschman to do just that—beat the competition by getting Johnson on camera. He held what looked like a white bar of soap to his ear to hear reports on the progress of events. He narrated what was going on for the viewing audience. "We had expected Senator Johnson to come out and make a statement. We had been told he would join us. … We understand now that there has been a change of plans. … We understand that the senator has issued a statement instead—that he has … uh … put on his pajamas, gone to bed, and we switch now to Nancy Hanschman, who is covering him."

The men in the control room broke up as they imagined the young, single Miss Hanschman on top of the vanquished candidate in bed. Instead she was in the hallway breathlessly reading a short statement.

Later in life, when I was researching my book on my mother's life, I watched a lot of Cronkite at the Museum of Radio and Television. I watched him through endless hours of political conventions and various milestones in the space race. What struck me was how natural he was. He could sit in the library with you before dinner. He had authority and made you listen but not because he was hopping around on-screen.

Energy is a big word in television. Everyone must have it these days, because if an anchor or correspondent doesn't have lots of energy, people might turn away from the screen. I've heard producers shout "Energy!" so loudly into the earpiece of an anchor that it's audible in the room. We've all seen what the shouts of energy can do when applied grossly. You're watching the news, and suddenly you feel like the person relating events is going to bounce right out of the camera frame.

Cronkite had none of that nervous, rootless energy, and that's not because things were so much easier back then. Cronkite, like the best of the news correspondents and anchors now, had to work at making a broadcast look so natural. His biography is full of false starts and attempts to make the news "interesting." He, too, was fighting against the entertainment aspect of the news. The early network anchors came from entertainment. That's why wire and radio reporters didn't think much of television at first. Cronkite was the bridge who brought his skill for reading bulletins from the night desk at UPI and married it with a practiced style.

Part of that style allowed for the human reaction to news events. Cronkite wasn't a robot. His most memorable moments reading the news were personal—his verge-of-tears reading of the bulletin announcing Kennedy's death and his childlike wonder covering the Apollo 11 launch.

By the time I made it upstairs, the kids wanted to know why I'd disappeared. I had been watching the Cronkite tributes when I should have been upstairs for bedtime prayers. I told them why he was important and that he'd worked with their grandmother. They wanted to know how old he was and how he died. They just wanted the facts. It was a little hard to convey to a 5- and 6-year-old what had happened, but there is one way in which Cronkite is a part of their nightly ritual. It's his voice I try to imitate when I'm reading to them.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 29 2014 10:00 PM “Everything Must Change in Italy” An interview with Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 29 2014 1:52 PM Do Not Fear California’s New Affirmative Consent Law
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 2:56 PM How Faithful Is David Fincher’s Gone Girl?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.