Skip to main content

The most trusted man in America

By Richard Galant, CNN
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue June 5, 2012
CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite has an emotional on-air moment after announcing the death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite has an emotional on-air moment after announcing the death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
HIDE CAPTION
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
Cronkite at the center of events
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Brinkley's new book is a full biography of Walter Cronkite
  • In era dominated by Big Three networks, Cronkite was the leading anchorman
  • Americans experienced tumultuous developments of 1960s, '70s through Cronkite
  • Brinkley: Cronkite had a gift for being comfortable on air and at the center of events

New York (CNN) -- Walter Cronkite was not the best educated or the best dressed or even the best looking of the generation of World War II correspondents who dominated the early days of television news.

His wife once told Parade magazine that he looked, in a way, like your family dentist, which was not all that surprising since his father and his grandfather were dentists.

Yet Cronkite was picked in 1962 to anchor the "CBS Evening News," and for two of the most tumultuous decades in American history, he was the authoritative voice of news in America, the man who told viewers that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, that men had walked on the moon and that the Vietnam War couldn't be won.

Douglas Brinkley, the historian whose new book "Cronkite" tells the newsman's life story, said in an interview with CNN last week that the Missouri-born reporter got picked for the CBS anchor job "because of his work ethic [and] steady-Eddie appearance -- there was nothing dapper or elite about him. He spoke with a heartland cadence, and his timing was impeccable because he got most famous by doing John Glenn's three suborbits of the Earth -- that was early 1962 and by April of '62, he was a household name."

Cronkite got off to a somewhat rocky start on the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite" when he closed the first broadcast, then only 15 minutes long, saying: "That's the news. Be sure to check your local newspapers tomorrow to get all of the details on the headlines we're delivering to you."

Brinkley writes that CBS executives were angry that their anchorman was sending viewers to competitors for in-depth news.

Douglas Brinkley, author of \
Douglas Brinkley, author of "Cronkite"

The next year, CBS was the first network to expand its nightly news to half an hour, a change that Brinkley says enabled Cronkite to get beyond the top headlines and start to set an agenda for news coverage of complex issues.

In an era when television news was the province of the Big Three broadcast networks and cable news hadn't been invented yet, the anchor chair at CBS was an especially influential platform. 1968 provided a remarkable sign of that.

"1968 is one of the most talked about years in U.S. history because of all the upheaval, and Cronkite plays a central role in that year, right out of the gate," Brinkley said. "He goes to Vietnam in January, early February of '68. By February 27, he calls the war a stalemate. He then goes and urges Robert Kennedy to run for president, then [President Lyndon] Johnson says he won't seek re-election. Then you have the assassinations of Martin Luther King [Jr.] and Bobby Kennedy, which Cronkite covers. And then you've got the conventions, and famously in Chicago, where Cronkite's calling Mayor Daley's police 'thugs' and then [Richard] Nixon winning in that strange three-way election with Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace.

"And then at the end of the year," Brinkley added, the world saw "the first real great color photographs of planet Earth from space, and astronauts [were] named men of the year by Time magazine when Cronkite was the leading voice of space. Walter Cronkite was all over everything in that seminal year, 1968. From that point on, his persona just kept growing and growing."

Legendary anchor's historic moments

Brinkley dedicates his book in part to the late David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who he says suggested the idea of writing Cronkite's biography. His research was aided by the opening of the Cronkite papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin and interviews with members of the Cronkite generation of journalists, including the late Andy Rooney and Ed Bradley.

Cronkite's cozy White House relations

"Since the passing of Walter Cronkite in 2009, he's become a part of history, he's no longer an anchorman or a celebrity but somebody that we can reflect on and understand for his journalistic accomplishment," Brinkley said.

In Brinkley's account, Cronkite didn't equal the investigative zeal of the pioneering radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow, with whom his relationship was at times strained. Yet if Cronkite didn't reach the emotional peaks of some of Murrow's reports, he still connected with the television viewer in a direct way.

"Everybody liked Walter Cronkite," Brinkley said. "He had a voice that everybody recognized. It's like hearing Bob Dylan sing a song. ... In five seconds everybody in America knows who's talking. That's important for a broadcaster."

"And then Cronkite slowed down his cadence, didn't rush his points. He also knew when to make the pregnant pause, when to be silent in special events. There was great anticipation: What will Walter Cronkite say when Neil Armstrong steps on the moon? And Cronkite simply says, 'By golly, I'm speechless,' and that was better than having a contrived line."

In 1968, after the Tet Offensive, Cronkite set the agenda for coverage of the Vietnam War.

"Cronkite got up from his anchor desk, and flew to Vietnam, and put on a helmet and flak jacket, and interviewed anybody and everybody he could," Brinkley said.

"I was able to read his notebooks, his reporter's notebooks, asking himself questions and talking to people, collecting facts. He came home with the very strong conclusion that war was unwinnable and that at best it would be a stalemate. And there were people on the left saying that and even great New York Times reporters saying it, but to be Walter Cronkite and be telling people that the war was at best a stalemate, it had a transformative effect on the country. People asked that old question, 'What, am I sending my son to die in a stalemate?' "

He played a similar role in helping power the environmental movement.

Brinkley said that Cronkite "was instrumental in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency because he created a segment [which aired] night after night called 'Can we save the planet?' which would show rivers on fire and industrial pollution and clear cutting, in color on TV.

"Cronkite sent television crews to cover the first Earth Day, and treated it as a giant event, television-worthy of an Apollo mission. So when Cronkite started really banging the drum on the environment it had an impact."

As described in "Cronkite," the anchorman comes across as a more complicated figure than many of his viewers could have seen.

It was only after his retirement from the CBS anchor chair in 1981 that he gave full rein to his strongly liberal views: Brinkley refers to a 1988 speech that "planted him firmly in liberal-left soil. The charade of being Mr. Center was over."

His journalistic ethics weren't always stellar -- in the early 1970s, Brinkley writes, "Cronkite cut a deal with Pan Am airlines to fly the entire family to a series of international vacation spots." His bosses objected, but as one network staffer noted, "Walter was the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the CBS room. You couldn't fire him."

The reason was his popularity with viewers. Brinkley noted that it's especially difficult to come across as relaxed and comfortable, as if you're in your living room, when you're really in a cavernous television studio, with equipment and wires everywhere.

"Cronkite was able to seem comfortable and real," Brinkley said. The author attributes Cronkite's success to spending much of the early days of television, in the 1950s, in a wide variety of roles on programs, including game shows.

"So when he caught his groove, it was as natural to him as breathing, being on the air. And he seldom said a wrong thing. He had very few retractions. And he never tried to break news first, he tried to break it right."

As an old wire service reporter, Cronkite wanted to get a story from United Press International or the Associated Press before he would report breaking news on the air.

"In that way, he was sort of playing like the tortoise for a long career. Because you could go up in flames. One really bad report, one presentation of bogus information, could destroy an on-air personality's career."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT