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Commentary: Cronkite a gentleman at all times

  • Story Highlights
  • Memorial for Walter Cronkite held at New York's Lincoln Center
  • "Most Trusted Man in America" was known for being a gentleman on and off camera
  • Speaker recalled Cronkite took up drumming, befriended Grateful Dead drummer
  • Cronkite also hated Scrabble because he was a bad speller
By Jay Kernis
CNN
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Jay Kernis is managing editor of CNN/US. He worked at CBS News for 14 years.

Jay Kernis with Walter Cronkite in February 2002.

Jay Kernis with Walter Cronkite in February 2002.

(CNN) -- Television anchors leave their studios usually for the most important stories, including the passing of a U.S. president. It is no doubt a rare occurrence when a current and a former president leaves his office to honor an anchorman.

For 2½ hours Wednesday, broadcasters, family, friends and former co-workers of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite gathered at New York's Lincoln Center at a memorial celebration filled with some unexpected moments.

For instance, late in his life, Cronkite befriended former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart and took an interest in drumming. At one session, he turned to Hart and asked, "When will I feel the groove?"

"It will come," Hart told him.

It took a few years of constant practice, but finally Cronkite looked up while playing and said simply, "I've got it."

From the others who spoke, we also learned that Cronkite was a bad speller who avoided games of Scrabble; that even though he had covered international events, he couldn't resist reporting on a good fire; and when he finally landed a long sought-after interview with Nelson Rockefeller, his first question was, "Do you believe in Santa Claus?"

Many of those who spoke repeatedly described Cronkite as a gentleman who was just the same off the air as he was on the air. No pretension. And unhappy when his own celebrity got in the way of being in the field and getting a story.

But there were at least two instances where he used his reputation as the most trusted man in America to help others.

Former President Clinton spoke of Cronkite's inquiring mind and caring heart and remembered "the tumultuous summer of 1998" (he did not actually mention the Monica Lewinsky episode). Cronkite invited him, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea for some sailing at Martha's Vineyard. The president asked him what might happen if someone took a picture of them together, and Cronkite said, "So what?"

"I could have used a picture with Walter Cronkite," Clinton said Wednesday. Video Watch Clinton's remarks at the Cronkite memorial »

Andy Rooney, via videotape, told a similar story. He had been suspended from CBS for "an inappropriate remark." Upon hearing the news, Cronkite called immediately and said he would use any of his residual goodwill with the American people and be seen with him at dinner that night.

For many years, I chatted briefly with Cronkite one weekend each year in Washington -- usually in an elevator or hallway -- as he was preparing to serve as host for the Kennedy Center Honors. You could see just how much he loved the master of ceremonies job and being with all the film and Broadway stars, the dancers and musicians. And how much he enjoyed being onstage himself.

They showed the famous clips Wednesday -- the JFK assassination announcement, the moon landing, coverage of many wars -- and there were stirring performances by Hart, Jimmy Buffett, Michael Feinstein, Wynton Marsalis, "The President's Own" United States Marine Band and others.

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And one speaker recounted how Cronkite turned to someone at Ed Bradley's memorial and said, "They'll never do that for me."

But they did.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jay Kernis.

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