|Newsman Walter Cronkite told us the way it was|
He was the embodiment of fairness and sound judgment that is missing in today's media.
On Nov. 22, 1963, I was returning to my dorm at the U.S. Naval Academy. We had received word in class that President Kennedy had been shot. I got back to the dorm in time to see Walter Cronkite give the news that the president was dead. That is the first thought that came to mind when I heard this weekend that Cronkite himself was dead at 92.
I associate Walter Cronkite with my coming of age as an adult. Back then there were only a few American news shows, and Cronkite's was the definite voice in all things national and international.
He spurred my interest in the space program. His reporting "live" from Cape Canaveral was exciting and unusual for its time. He was reassuring yet managed to create excitement and wonder that America could actually be sending men into space.
Cronkite introduced me to a larger world, outside of Maine and outside of the country. He lived and breathed trust and integrity. He had a wonderful presence – of a kind that one will not likely see again in network news.
Today anchors work hard to promote themselves. Cronkite let his approach and the news speak for itself.
Cronkite came from a special generation of news people who cut their teeth in World War II and were uniquely positioned as America moved from radio to television to get its news in the late '50s and early '60s. Cronkite and several other well-known wartime correspondents such as Howard K. Smith and Eric Sevareid were recruited to CBS News by the legendary Edward R. Murrow. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly built CBS news in the post-war period to be the pre-eminent news organization in the country.
Murrow was the groundbreaker, determined to build the best talent and fearless in tackling controversial issues. It was Murrow and CBS who took on Sen. Joe McCarthy at the height of his "red-baiting" demagoguery and started the chain of events that led to McCarthy's censure. In the Senate itself, our own Margaret Chase Smith was a leader in standing against McCarthy and moving censure forward.
If Murrow was the groundbreaker, Cronkite took CBS News to even greater prominence. Tributes to him refer to him being known as "Uncle Walter." Perhaps this was true of his later years, but he was certainly not Uncle Walter to me. To me he was much more an authority figure, the embodiment of fairness and sound judgment, a rock-steady presence that I could depend on to "tell it like it is."
In 1968 I was a junior naval officer reporting to my first destroyer when Cronkite aired a special in which he suggested that the nation was involved in a quagmire in Vietnam from which there was likely no way out.
Subsequently my destroyer was sent to the Tonkin Gulf. By the end of six months there, I and many of my Navy colleagues were struck by the fact that Cronkite might indeed be right. In the end the Vietnam War proved not to be winnable.
Cronkite was no stranger to Maine. An avid sailor, he spent many summers cruising the coast of Maine. Those who encountered him Down East tell of a warmth and genuineness that endeared him to all.
A good example of these qualities was recounted in a Press Herald story some years back of Cronkite turning up at a marina on the coast on the eve of the arrival of a hurricane. He requested that the marina haul his boat out immediately for the duration of the threat.
When he learned that to do so the marina manager would have to move him ahead of a series of other boats previously scheduled to be hauled for the same reason, Cronkite, not wanting his prominence to pre-empt others, simply moved his boat to a mooring and rode out the hurricane there.
I will miss Walter Cronkite. The public tributes to him have given us all glimpses of him at his best. They remind us of simpler times, of news that was more informative than flashy, of our better selves.
"That's the way it is," he said in ending his broadcasts, and that is how he would want to be remembered.