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.
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.