It didn’t matter much that as kids growing up in the country near Missoula we had just one TV channel, because our parents rarely let us watch anything other than 60 Minutes, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and MASH. Everything else on TV was crap that rotted your brain.
Maybe because of the limited programming we had – and maybe because there really were few newsmen like him and that he once paid me the greatest compliment – Walter Cronkite left an indelible mark on me.
I recall vividly those evening newscasts with Walter when I was only 7 or 8. I marveled that no matter where I was in the living room, Walter’s eyes followed me as if insisting that I needed to pay attention and could not hide from the news. I listened, but didn’t always understand.
I heard “Watergate” and pictured a draw bridge over a river and wondered what in the world that possibly had to do with the president. Walter would give the brief stock market report every day and make comments like “in heavy trading of shares today.”
I heard “chairs” and my young mind pictured men in a room bartering with each other. “I’ll give you two oak dining chairs for that rocker,” one might say. “Throw in that kid’s booster seat and you got yourself a deal,” the other would respond. Again, I would wonder, how is this news?
But I always watched Walter and listened, even when the news didn’t make sense. I would have watched him even if there had been other choices. I liked the way he talked. I liked how he tended to use his whole body to emphasize certain words in a sentence. “ … was shot AND KILLED ..,” he would say, and his shoulders would rise and fall, as if someone had just kicked the chair he sat on. He chose words carefully. His staccato delivery was intentional and authoritative.
Even as a child, I was impressed at his ability to stay so professional, so cool and seemingly disconnected. Years later, researching a journalism project, I came across the only two clips I’ve ever seen where hints of emotion broke through. In 1963, Walter’s live on-air Bulletin confirming President Kennedy’s assassination.:
“From Dallas, Texas. The Flash. Apparently Official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time. Some 38 minutes ago.” He removed his glasses and then replaced them as he spoke the words and his eyes went back and forth between the piece of paper in his hand and the clock on a distant wall. His delivery was deliberate, slow, with long pauses: “some … 38 … minutes … ago.” At the end, his lips and chin quivered slightly. There was a pause. He cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses. And he continued.
Six years later, as astronauts delivered on Kennedy’s desire to put a man on the moon, Cronkite was at the desk. The words were uttered “The Eagle has landed” and viewers of CBS clearly heard Walter in the background “Oh BOY!”
The camera returned to the beaming anchor, smiling, almost triumphant, as if he played a role in this moment. He let out an audible “Whew!” He removed his glasses, rubbed his palms together in front of him. “Boy!” He chuckled, glancing off camera. The look on his face was priceless. For a moment, it appeared all he wanted to do was grab the nearest person, throw his arms around him and shed a tear in pure relief and accomplishment.
Years later, he would recall that moment, the moon landing and his live coverage, and say it “presented an interesting emotional challenge to me.” How terribly Cronkite.
In 1999, while serving as a correspondent for The Associated Press, I attended a conference at Concordia College in Minnesota where Walter spoke. As he answered questions from the crowded room, I noticed that he kept looking at me or, more specifically, my name tag. When he wrapped up, his young assistant came over and told me Walter wanted to “introduce himself.”
“I saw your name tag,” he said as he shook my hand. “I always like to meet the wire service guys. I’m an old UPI man.”
I told him I was honored to meet him and that I had read of his UPI days in his book. He asked me about my AP career. Those eyes that had followed me around the living room as a kid appeared genuinely interested. I was completely in awe.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said “You know when young reporters ask me for advice, I always tell them `Get on with a wire service. It’s the best experience you’ll ever get and the toughest, most thankless job you’ll ever have.” The best editors and reporters he knew, Walter said, “worked for a wire service at one time or another.”
With that, he patted my shoulder, turned and was gone before I’d figured out how I was supposed to respond.
I was out camping on my boat near Helena the weekend Walter died – a boat whose name was jokingly inspired by the name Walter gave his sailboat. The story went that he named the sailboat “Assignment “so that when he was out sailing and someone asked “Where’s Walter?” the answer was easy: “He’s on Assignment.”
My boat’s nickname is “A Bender.”
I saw the newspaper headline when we came ashore for ice – and beer – and couldn’t help but let out a vocal “Oh no” in that voice we use when told of someone’s favorite grandpa dying.
The friend with me was younger and hadn’t grown up watching Walter and I attempted to explain how unique he was, what a great, true journalist he was.
“Something like Larry King?” my friend asked. No. I protested. Good God, no. Nothing like that. Nothing at all like that. Larry King? Are you kidding me?
There is no equivalent these days, as far as I’m concerned. As a journalist, Walter was a class act. In the world of television journalism, no one even comes close.
John MacDonald worked as a reporter, correspondent and editor for the Associated Press for 16 years. He is now a Helena-based principle with Gallatin Public Affairs.