People of my generation never got to experience the greatness of Walter Cronkite live.
We never got to hear, first-hand, his reporting of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, in that sorrowful baritone of his.
We never got to hear “Uncle Walter” report on the seminal civil rights moments of the 1960s. From Selma to Memphis, from Birmingham to Greensboro, Walter Cronkite watched a nation change.
Unlike so many others, he didn’t try to stand in the way.
And we never got to hear him announce, 40 years ago this week, the incredible news that a man had walked on the moon.
Listen to that clip and you can just hear the enthusiasm in his voice, and the awe that he’s feeling at that moment.
It was the same awe that men and women, boys and girls were feeling all over America. But it was Cronkite who delivered it with just the right touch of class.
No, my generation was born to late to appreciate maybe the finest television journalist who ever lived. It was our loss.
Cronkite died Friday at 92, and I’m lucky enough to say that he and I were in the same business. He was a fantastic reporter long before he became the anchor of CBS Evening News from 1962-1981, where he was often called “The Most Trusted Man in America.” He covered World War II for CBS and the legendary Edward R. Murrow, and eventually rose to become anchor.
As much as anyone, he was THE voice of the 1960s. Whatever craziness happened in the world (murders, protests, the Vietnam War spiraling out of control) people turned to the well-dressed man with the thick black glasses for half an hour every night, to hear what really happened.
Can you even fathom that in 2009, a majority of Americans all turning to the same TV station for the evening news? I can’t. But to paraphrase Cronkite’s famous sign-off, that’s the way it was.
As you’ll read in so many of the obituaries of Cronkite, his most influential moment as an anchor came on Feb. 23, 1968, when he said that the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate.” To which President Lyndon Johnson replied, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Again, unfathomable today, that a President would be so down about a critique from an anchor.
From everything I’ve ever read and seen about Cronkite, he was as classy as they come. It was always his enthusiasm that I remembered; watching documentaries about great news events of the past, Cronkite would come on and in that grandfatherly way of his, explain why this was so important, and he’d do it with a beautiful twinkle in his eye.
Now you can argue that news coverage is better today, with so many more channels and the Internet giving us so many different points of view. People were limited to only a few news outlets back then, and a good argument could be made that that wasn’t healthy.
But maybe I’m a news romantic; I think it was wonderful that Cronkite was the face of broadcast journalism for 19 years. His style and grace are unmatched by anyone who has come along since.
He lived a good, long life, and got to see and do things most of us will never dream of.
“Our job is only to hold up the mirror,” Cronkite once said about his craft, “and to tell and show the public what has happened.”
Few did it as well as Walter.
It’s funny, as I write this I keep thinking of the great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon’s line about Joe Louis when the famous black boxer died: “He was a credit to his race. The human race.”
So was Walter Cronkite.
R.I.P, Walter. You were an absolute legend, and you will be greatly missed.