David Halberstam on Walter Cronkite

"He liked, indeed loved, being Walter Cronkite, being around all those celebrities, but it was as if he could never quite believe that he was a celebrity himself."

In 1976, the Atlantic published a major two-part story by David Halberstam, "The Power and the Profits," on the development and influence of broadcast news, and the emergence of the nightly 30-minute newscast. In this section Halberstam considered the durability and appeal of Walter Cronkite.

The solidity and enduring professionalism which Cronkite had first shown in 1952 set him apart when the time came to choose an evening news anchorman. He was by television standards an easy man to work with. What was on the outside was on the inside; he liked, indeed loved, being Walter Cronkite, being around all those celebrities, but it was as if he could never quite believe that he was a celebrity himself. Why, who was it John Glenn’s mother most wanted to meet at the ceremonies marking her son’s return from the first orbital space flight? Walter Cronkite, of course. Cronkite felt an enthusiasm for life and for his work that smacked of the country boy let loose in the big city; it was all wonders and magic. His was a profession filled with immense egos, crowded with very mortal, often quite insecure men blown overnight to superstar status. Cronkite too had considerable ego, but unlike many of his colleagues he had considerable control over it, and his vanity rarely showed in public. He knew by instinct the balance between journalism and show biz; he knew you needed to be good at the latter, but that you must never take it too far. He was enough of an old wire-service man to be uneasy with his new success and fame. He was just sophisticated enough never to show his sophistication.

In addition, he had physical strength and durability. Iron pants, as they say in the trade. He could sit there all night under great stress and constant pressure and never wear down, never blow it. And he never seemed bored by it all, even when it got boring. When Blair Clark and Sig Mickelson recommended him for the anchorman job, that durability, what they called the farm boy in him, was a key factor. He was the workhorse. After all, an anchorman did not necessarily have to be brilliant; he had to synthesize others, and there were those who felt that Sevareid had simply priced himself out of the market intellectually. Eric was thought to be too interested in analysis and opinion, and thus not an entirely believable transmission belt for straight information.

But there was a part of Cronkite that had never left St. Joe, Missouri, and which he consciously advertised. Though he had been a foreign correspondent, in his television incarnation he had been definitively American: air power documentaries, political conventions, space shots. When there was an Eisenhower special to do, Walter did it, and that too was reassuring. (Among those not reassured was John F. Kennedy, who, right after his election, cornered CBS producer Don Hewitt and complained that CBS was against him. “Walter Cronkite’s a Republican, isn’t he?” the President-elect asked. Hewitt allowed as how he didn’t think so. “No, he’s a Republican, I know he’s a Republican,” Kennedy said. Hewitt said he thought Cronkite was probably an independent who had voted for Ike over Stevenson and for Kennedy over Nixon, but that was only a guess. “He’s always with Eisenhower,” Kennedy replied, “always having his picture taken with Eisenhower or going somewhere with him. . .”)

The men who ran broadcasting had become sensitive about going against the American norm, and being ahead of it. For their purposes now Walter was perfect, he was the norm. For him to be against the norm was like going against himself. In addition, he had a strong self-imposed sense of what the limits of his role were, and the dangers of violating the trust that had been given to him. So it worked; he became over the years one of the most trusted men in America. His more elitist colleagues in print journalism, even if they found him on occasion slow in picking up on certain stories, nonetheless respected his integrity. When political pollsters wanted to check on the credibility of possible presidential candidates, they always included Walter Cronkite on the poll as a benchmark against which the trust and acceptability of candidates could be measured, and Cronkite often scored very high.

He was compatible with the style of the news show that CBS executives had in mind. Television reporting was evolving into a special form; a good “page one,” not much more, not that much explanation of events. The correspondents were to be part wire-service men (in terms of the restraints on personal expression) and part superstars, more recognizable on national political campaigns than some of the candidates. They were intelligent and sophisticated, but they were often underemployed. The contrast between the shorthand of their regular appearances and the intelligence they flashed during slow moments of political conventions was striking. The news show was like putting the New York Times on a postage stamp. An insiders’ joke at CBS News was that if Moses handed down the Ten Commandments, the lead would be, “Moses today came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the two most important of which were…”

In the spring of 1962 Cronkite became the CBS anchorman. He was rooted in a certain tradition and he was the best of that tradition. He set standards by which others were judged. In Sweden, anchormen came to be known as Cronkiters. He was not a distinctive writer himself, but he was a good editor, and when others wrote for him, his ear told him what would work and what would would not. He was not a great interviewer; he was too aware of danger of seeming combative, and his questions were often easy (most memorably at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when he pitched softballs to Mayor Daley of Chicago). But he was a good synthesizer and clarifier, working hard in the brief time allotted to his program to make the news understandable to millions of people. And his style and character seemed to come through. People set him apart from his office, as they did Eisenhower. When news was bad or upsetting, the audience might be angry with television reporters, but rarely with Walter Cronkite personally. He was exempt.

In 1970, a President who viewed television commentators as a major opposing power center was manipulating political pressure against them, and networks were on the defensive. At a meeting that year between CBS executives and affiliate owners, the resentment and anger of the affiliates against the CBS news team was showing. Cambodia and Kent State had just taken place, and the Nixon-Agnew attacks on TV commentators were their peak. The meeting had been bitter and there was a smell of blood in the air. That night CBS gave a banquet and the management trotted out all the stars, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day and many others, and they all walked in and received polite applause. And then Cronkite came in and the house went wild, a magnificent standing ovation from the very people who had been echoing the Nixon-Agnew assault on CBS that morning. You can have it both ways.