There was something about Uncle Walt. He was so … avuncular.
Cronkite became the most trusted man in television precisely because he seemed so grown up. The CBS anchor was a pillar of maturity, reliability and unemotional accountability – just the sort of fellow who could sell you a tin of coffee by simply taking a sip.
During a bumpy time in our nation’s history, he filled a psychic need for order amid chaos. By showing up every night at the same time, same place – speaking simply and without drama – he conveyed a sense that someone was in charge.
Our nostalgia for his passing isn’t only for the death of a familiar and mostly admired individual, but also for a certain kind of man – an iconic reminder of a time when fathers knew best and the media were on the home team.
He had the looks and voice of the sort of man one could trust for good directions. Nonthreatening and, it seemed, untempted by vanity, his prevailing affect was of seriousness and humility.
It is doubtless difficult in these post-metrosexual, celebrity-driven times to grasp the preference Americans once held for people who weren’t “all that.” Male figures, also known nearly ubiquitously as “fathers,” were especially admired in those days for substance over style.
And, in a page for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the same was true of media.
If Walter Cronkite, or other nightly news figures such as CBS colleague Eric Sevareid or NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, ever checked their makeup before airtime, one wouldn’t have imagined their lingering long over the mirror. To men of Cronkite’s generation, preening was unmanly. As for fashion, shoes came in two colors, and four suits was a full closet.
What mattered more than fame or celebrity was content. Cronkite enjoyed fame, but his was the result of his labors in the vineyard. More workhorse than show horse, he was more Rushmore than Rushbo.
Every now and then, his game face – the envy of poker faces everywhere – betrayed his humanity, though breaking character required the gravest or most miraculous of circumstances.
He shed a tear when he announced that President John F. Kennedy, indeed, had died, though Cronkite resisted the temptation to speculate until the word was firm and official. When the first man walked on the moon, Cronkite removed his fogging glasses, saying, “Whew, boy. … There he is.”
In a seminal and steadfastly controversial media moment on Feb. 27, 1968, Cronkite ended a special report on Vietnam with an analysis, saying that there was no clear victor from the Tet Offensive and that the U.S. and North Vietnam were “mired in stalemate”:
“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. … But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then 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.”
Instead of closing as he usually did – “And that’s the way it is” – he signed off with, “This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”
This was huge. Newscasters didn’t say that sort of thing in Cronkite’s day. Editorializing has become pro forma in the Cable Age, but it was so rare then that Cronkite is credited with validating America’s disillusionment with the war and with President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election.
It was especially huge around my house. On that particular day, my brother was a 19-year-old Marine on a ridge just southeast of Khe Sanh. He says he knew nothing of the broadcast: “I don’t think it ever filtered down to us on the field. We just wanted out of the place. … I imagine our response would have been, ‘No (expletive),Walter! Who didn’t know that?’ ”
The newscaster’s words did filter everywhere in America, however, and history may have shifted in a different direction as a result. His critics and others now say that the Tet Offensive was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and blame Cronkite for the birth of media bias that has undermined American faith in journalism ever since.
Whether one judges Cronkite right or wrong in that respect, he brought dignity to news delivery and helped guide a period without cynicism or smugness. That’s the way it was and, with rare exceptions, is no more.