From the Archives: Walter Cronkite

UPDATED: November 2, 2009
PUBLISHED: November 2, 2009

The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared November 1980 issue of SUCCESS, just prior to the presidential election between Republican Ronald Reagan, Democrat Jimmy Carter Independent John B. Anderson. Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite passed away on July of this year.

For a man who’s watched in 12 million homes every night, who earns more than $1 million a year and chats with world leaders, Walter Cronkite has maintained, to a remarkable degree, the common touch.

Polls to determine public trust have regularly placed him at or near the top in America’s confi dence, and wherever he goes, he’s approached by fans who comfortably address him by his fi rst name. After all, this is the man who’s been telling them, “That’s the way it is,” for as long as they can remember, who’s guided them through political conventions, space shots, recessions, assassinations and foreign turmoil, who’s calmly and cogently explained to them what the world has been up to that day.

In his three decades on CBS television, Walter Cronkite’s bushy eyebrows, salt-and-pepper mustache and warm but slightly gravelly voice have come to be a source of great comfort to millions of American viewers. He has quite gracefully, and without really meaning to, assumed the role of America’s favorite uncle.

“It’s obviously an honor that people trust me,” says Cronkite in his familiar, studied tones, “because that’s basically what every newsman wants—to be believed. But my image does sometimes get heavy; there’s no question about it.”

On February 14 it was announced that Cronkite would be stepping down voluntarily from the CBS Evening News anchor chair he has occupied for the past 18 years, in order to enjoy a kind of semiretirement. “In any case, I’m going to stay with CBS,” he says. “I hope to appear on the Evening News quit a lot. I’d like to be available, either at my suggestion or theirs, when the big story breaks, to scoot out on it and do a kind of on-the-scene analysis…. I’m pretty good at doing firstperson impressions of stories.” That last statement is just another example of Cronkite modesty; you don’t get to be the most respected newscaster in the country by being “pretty good.” You get there by being the best and by working hard at it for many years.

For Walter Leland Cronkite, the son of a Dutch-German physician (whose ancestors were among the original settlers of New Amsterdam), the fi rst memorable taste of reporting came as a student at San Jacinto High School in Houston, Texas, where he worked on the school paper and the yearbook. After graduation in 1933, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in economics and political science. In his spare time, he participated in intramural sports, the Curtain Club’s dramatic production and the Chi Phi social fraternity. But his most notable extracurricular activity, and the one which interested him the most, was reporting for the Scripps-Howard bureau on the state-capitol staff in Austin.

After college, Cronkite landed a job with Houston Press, covering everything from band concerts to local elections. In 1937, he moved on to Kansas City, Mo., to radio station KCMO, where he worked as sports editor and broadcaster. The dramatic skills he’d picked up as a member of the Curtain Club were put to good use there; Cronkite had to take the Western Union play-by-play reports of college football games and convincingly transform them into exciting, and seemly “live,” accounts of the games.

Despite the great success of his sports reporting, Cronkite abruptly quit his job at station KCMO after a professional dispute with the program manager. But the run-in at the radio station was enough to convince the young Cronkite that reporting and investigating news stories was what he really wanted to do. For the next few years, he worked for the United Press (UP) in Houston, Dallas, Austin, El Paso and Kansas City. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Cronkite was one of the fi rst newsmen accredited to the U.S. military forces.

It was in July 1950 that he made his historic liaison with the Columbia Broadcasting System; he had hopes of covering the Korean confl ict, but CBS had other plans for him. It sent him down to Washington, to work on a local news show. “I was madder than hell,” he says. “Sold down the river to a lousy local TV station!”

Perhaps in part to placate their disgruntled new employee, the powers at CBS decided to take a gamble and appoint Cronkite anchorman for the 1952 political conventions. It was a gamble that would pay off handsomely, both for the network and for Cronkite.

His fl uent coverage of the conventions made Cronkite a national fi gure overnight. CBS promptly dispatched him to headquarters in New York, where he has remained ever since, covering everything from the Cuban-missile crisis to Watergate. The conventions remain his favorite, long-running story. “Nothing is more important to whether we survive and how we survive. The conventions are one of the great civics lessons in this country. It’s grass-roots democracy at work,” he says.

He has conducted important interviews with Soviet author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the late President Tito of Yugoslavia and Great Britain’s Prince Phillip. He was present when the atomic bomb was exploded at Yucca Flat, Nevada, in May 1955. He went to Vietnam in 1968 and China in 1972. He reported on the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps the most notable case in point occurred in November 1977, when Cronkite’s adept questioning, via satellite, of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin helped bring about the fi rst historic summit conference between those two nations.

The Sadat-Begin coup was yet another in a long and illustrious line of achievements for Cronkite. Over the years, he has won every major award in broadcast journalism, including the 1974 Gold Medal of the International Radio and Television Society; it was the fi rst time the prize has ever been awarded to a newsman. In 1978, Cronkite and the CBS Evening News jointly received the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award in Broadcast Journalism, and Cronkite has been presented with three Emmy awards for his work on CBS Reports.

Where do all these prizes go?

Some to the cluttered shelves of his small, windowless offi ce in the Manhattan Broadcast Center of CBS, the rest to the wall of his den in the East Side town house where he lives with his wife, Betsy.

Cronkite will have a lot more this time next year, after he’s fi nally relinquished the anchor chair. “I’d like stay through the presidential election and maybe the inauguration,” he says, “if there’s to be a new president.” And after that? “I don’t want to retire in the sense of getting a little place somewhere and putting my feet up…. I’d like to be able to speak out on a few important issues, without feeling that I was in any way impinging upon the independence and integrity of the Evening News.”

Among those issues that Cronkite feels deeply about is the future of our modern-day democracy. Cronkite doesn’t believe the fundamental changes that must be made in the American system can be properly achieved in the political arena. “I’m talking about something akin to a constitutional convention, lasting three or four years, in which we have committees bringing in reports and sitting down to study alternatives. I’d like to be a part of that,” he declares, and one can almost hear the wheels turning, almost hear him thinking, “What a story that would be!”