Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

“And there was a watchman upon the tower; and his name was Walter the Cronkite….” — The Begatting of the President

Because of the timing of things over this next few days, there’s going to be a few articles about the Real World crowding in together, along with the usual Second Life folderol.  This first one is the sadder of them, unless something happens elsewhere off-Grid in the meantime.


Cronkite at the desk of the CBS Evening News, approx. mid 1970s

One of the institutions of my childhood passed on last night, and the world is lesser for his passing.  Walter Cronkite, correspondent for most forms of journalism in the 20th Century, and anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News for over 20 years, died yesterday after a long illness.  He was 92 years old, and still active to a degree in the telling of events and increasing our understanding of them through many of his “retirement” years.  Deeper details can be found at the links below my writing here; but I want to give a personal remembrance.

Cronkite’s reading of the news threaded its way through most of my childhood, sometimes in ways I didn’t appreciate at the time.  One of the first things I can dredge up of my childhood was the Kennedy assassination, 46 years ago in November; and for four days there was nothing but news on.  I was mad as hell because I was missing my Saturday cartoons, but more important things were happening that I could not understand.  One of the voices of that time was Walter Cronkite, telling the story for CBS News along with his fellow correspondents, many of them handpicked by the dean of broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow.

Cronkite’s voice and face were fixtures of most weekday nights in my house.  My father would alternate between the channels sometimes, occasionally preferring NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report over CBS; but most times it was the man many called “Uncle Walter.”  He gave us the outlines of the stories of the day, from wrangles in Congress to the fighting of the Vietnam War, from the maneuverings of Moscow to the launches of the American space program.  It was CBS, which meant Cronkite, we watched when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon; and it was Cronkite who, standing beside a large table model map of Indochina, explained the situation in South Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

But the CBS Evening News wasn’t his only arena.  In the tradition of Murrow, his CBS mentor, Cronkite did news/educational programs and documentaries, such as the original version of The 20th Century. He also hosted its successor, The 21st Century, which allowed futurists to give ideas on how we would be living in these years we inhabit now — wildly different ideas from today’s reality.  Early in his career, he hosted the television version of the popular radio series You Are There for its five-season run, and reprised the position for its 1971-1972 color revival.

Urged to by CBS, Cronkite retired from the CBS Evening News in 1981 in favor of Dan Rather.  But, though he was not given the active role of special correspondent he had believed would be offered him, he continued in harness, hosting Walter Cronkite’s Universe for CBS, doing a few other specials (such as a piece on the threats of Orwell’s concept of the future in 1984) for the network, and working for CNN, especially when John Glenn returned to space on board the shuttle Discovery.  The times that I saw him in those years, he still had the Cronkite magic of getting the point across in simple sentences that meant what they purported to mean.

He also played the voice of Benjamin Franklin for the children’s animated series Liberty’s Kids; having seen the show, I can testify that, as a voice actor, Cronkite made an excellent reporter.  His speeches weren’t the highlight of the show.  In his last years, he filled the role of “senior historian” for NPR’s All Things Considered formerly held by his once CBS colleague, Robert Trout.  The voice had grown deeper, thicker in quality, but the magic was still there.

I will miss that quality of reporting, for Walter Cronkite helped me appreciate the complexity of the events of the world, and the need for understanding them adequately if we wished to make informed decisions.  His departure from active reporting left a huge hole in the fabric of journalism, and his death means another of the old masters of that art form is gone.

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