Monday, July 20, 2009

Rant #47: Goodbye Walter ... And That's the Way It Was

Over the weekend, we all heard the sad news that Walter Cronkite, the face of CBS News for many, many decades, had passed on at the age of 92. Once more, a "hero" from my childhood, although an unlikely one, has died.

His death sparked this notion in me: with his passing, it's as if everyone had a death in the family.

Cronkite was the anchorman of the CBS Evening News from the early 1960s, when it was a 15-minute program and later became a 30-minute show, to the early 1980s, when by this time it had become required viewing for just about everybody. The show had its competitors--Huntley and Brinkley on NBC and Howard K. Smith and a host of others on ABC--but let's face it, if you wanted the national news, you wanted it from the person who was referred to as "the most trusted man in America."

Cronkite started out as a war correspondent, and got his first big TV break when CBS's legendary newsman, Edward R. Murrow, asked Cronkite to join his team in the late 1940s. Cronkite initially turned down the invite, but in the early 1950s, with his young family now his responsibility, he took the job.

For all intents and purposes, Cronkite eclipsed Murrow as the face of television journalism during his career. He covered everything from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the 1969 moon landing, and everything in between, with an aplomb that has never been equalled. If Cronkite said something, you had to believe it. When he broke from his usual demeanor and said that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said, " If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the nation."

As a hero to me and my generation, Cronkite will be best remembered for two things: his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, and his fervent reporting on the space program, culminating with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

On the assassination, he came on the air, looking a little ragged, but gave the nation the message that the President had been mortally wounded. His eyes welled up with tears, but he was able to keep his composure, taking off his glasses to pause, then reporting the story as any good newsman would.

His coverage of the space program was fervent, and he was criticized by some, who looked at him as a booster rather than a reporter. But, at least for me, he crystalized the program, made it approachable for everybody in our country, and made the ride both educational and enjoyable. Was there a happier man in the world than Cronkite when we landed on the moon? I don't think so.

In later years, Cronkite was very active, and poked fun at himself in numerous on-screen endeavors. Although he admits that he never understood Woodstock, he became a big Grateful Dead fan. He had a memorable cameo role in a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode, and he still could be seen on TV at a fairly regular pace. I don't think he ever criticized the current way news is covered on TV, but I bet that in private circles he had plenty to say, but publically, he kept it close to his chest.

A few months ago, word got out that he was ill, and he never recovered.

How ironic that he died when we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of our first moon landing?

Here's to Walter Cronkite, certainly the voice of television for my generation ... and that's the way it was.

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