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Commentary: The man who wasn't Cronkite

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: Douglas Edwards was network television's first anchorman
  • He says Edwards was replaced by Walter Cronkite to boost ratings
  • He says Edwards stayed at CBS News in a much reduced role
  • Greene: It must have hurt, but Edwards took it with grace and dedication
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

Bob Greene says television's first anchorman took his replacement by Walter Cronkite with grace.

Bob Greene says television's first anchorman took his replacement by Walter Cronkite with grace.

(CNN) -- If you are a person whose life has been a series of constant triumphs, accompanied by the sound of unending cheers -- a life like that of, say, Walter Cronkite -- then this story is not for you.

But if your life has had its share of disappointments and setbacks, you may be interested in the tale of a man by the name of Douglas Edwards.

For some of you, the name may be vaguely familiar. For most of you, it probably means nothing.

Douglas Edwards was the anchorman of CBS' evening news broadcasts for 14 years. He was, in fact, network television's first anchorman; his broadcast -- "Douglas Edwards with the News," it was called -- first aired at the dinner hour on CBS in 1948, and continued until 1962, when Edwards was told he was being replaced by Cronkite.

For those 14 years, during the so-called Golden Age of Television, Edwards' face was the face of CBS News. And CBS was the most prestigious of the three national networks.

So what happened to him?

Chet Huntley and David Brinkley happened to him. NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report" became wildly popular with the public; it was clobbering Edwards in the ratings. CBS decided that it had to make a move.

Such decisions are common in television, and in the wider world of business. What is uncommon -- what is a valuable lesson in grace and dignity -- is how Doug Edwards dealt with his demotion.

I sought him out in the early 1980s. More than 18 years had passed since he had been pushed aside.

He was still an employee of CBS. His job was to deliver a one-minute television "newsbreak" each mid-morning. He also was assigned to three brief radio reports a day.

He was as polite a man as I have ever met; we ended up keeping in touch over the years (he died at age 73 in 1990). Whatever bitterness he may have felt about losing the job he cherished, whatever anger he may have harbored toward the people who took it away from him, he chose to keep to himself.

He had the same middle-of-the-country upbringing that Cronkite did; Edwards was born in Ada, Oklahoma, and moved as a teenager with his family to Alabama. His journalistic credentials were impeccable; he worked with Edward R. Murrow on CBS Radio's storied London staff toward the end of World War II, and his interview subjects included Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. His on-scene reporting of the sinking of the Italian liner Andrea Doria in 1956 received widespread praise, and he was the recipient of a George Foster Peabody Award for his television work.

He told me that after his demotion, he and Cronkite continued to run into each other in the hallways of CBS. Cronkite had become an American institution. Edwards told me there was no awkwardness, that the two of them liked and respected each other.

Cronkite, in his autobiography, confirmed this. He wrote that on a Friday in 1962, a CBS executive told him that he would be taking over the anchor chair on Monday. Edwards' fall was just that abrupt. Cronkite wrote:

"I was advised that Doug had just been told. I went straight to his office to try to assure him that I had not lobbied for his job and that the change had surprised me as much as I assumed it had surprised him. He must have been in shock, but he greeted me without the slightest touch of rancor. We had a short chat and parted with a sincere handshake. In this as in all things, Doug showed class. He was a true gentleman."

Cronkite's rise became the stuff of legend. And there was Doug Edwards, doing those daytime newsbreaks in the same building.

He told me once that he had not given up on getting a bigger job again at the network: "My attitude is, 'Let's play for time here.' I've seen things change."

But they didn't. When Ted Turner launched CNN, Edwards considered asking for work there. When ABC began its "Nightline" program, Edwards held out hope that CBS would try to match it late at night.

"I can do more nighttime television any time they'd like me to," he told me. "I think I do a pretty fair job on the anchor desk. There just aren't that many jobs."

He paused, then said: "Well, maybe I'm living in a fool's paradise. The tendency is to give something like that to younger men. But I'm ready. If the chance came, my wife and I could move back from Connecticut and take an apartment in the city."

It had to have hurt, watching Cronkite, and then Dan Rather, sit, year after year, in the chair that had been his; it had to have made him ache over what might have been. But on his retirement day in 1988, delivering his last daytime newsbreak, Edwards read a few headlines, then paused for the airing of a Doan's Pills commercial. When the live camera came back to him, he could have said anything.

This is what Douglas Edwards said:

"A deep bow of gratitude, love and respect to the men and women of CBS News and to the company for which they stand. To you out there, thank you for honoring me with your presence in our audience, and most of all for your voices -- your most sweet voices."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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