Jul 17, 2009 8:15 pm US/Eastern CBS Legend Walter Cronkite Dies At 92
'Most Trusted Man In America' Was Also One Of The Most Influential Figures In Broadcast Television History
Iconic Journalist Anchored CBS Evening News From 1962-1981, Ending Each Newscast With His Trademark, 'And That's The Way It Is'
NEW YORK (CBS News) ― Walter Cronkite solemnly reports that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963.
Walter Cronkite, the iconic broadcast journalist who was dubbed the "most trusted man in America" during his time as the face of "The CBS Evening News," has passed away. He was 92.
Cronkite anchored the CBS News flagship broadcast from 1962 to 1981, signing off each broadcast with his trademark, "And that's the way it is..."
And for two turbulent decades – the '60s and '70s – Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr., told us the way it was when the news was good, and when it was awful:
"The flash -- apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m Central Standard Time -- 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time -- some 38 minutes ago," he said, his glasses in hand, his voice cracking with emotion, in the moments after John F. Kennedy's assassination.
He had a temper – when he saw correspondent Dan Rather getting roughed up at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, he called those trying to push Rather away "a bunch of thugs." That same year, he would share another opinion, with far greater impact, in his documentary, "Report From Vietnam."
"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate," he said to his viewers then.
In an interview years later, he said he was only doing his job of telling the way it is.
"I simply told people what I thought about the state of the war in Vietnam and it was that we better get out of it," he said.
When Cronkite declared the Vietnam war unwinnable, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."
In fact, polls found Cronkite the "most trusted man in America," and presidents knew it. He was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter in 1981.
It was the political conventions that thrust Cronkite into the limelight and propelled him into the "Evening News" anchor chair in 1962. His believability helped keep him there.
"We came to trust him, we came to believe him. One of the most important things that happened to television journalism was Walter Cronkite," colleague Mike Wallace said years ago.
And Cronkite certainly paved the way for the many honorable broadcast journalists who have since followed. Even Cronkite himself believed he lacked the talent seen in many personalities today.
"I don't think if I were competing today with the anchor people out there I'd get a chance of getting on the air," he once said in an interview.
He got on the air the old fashioned way. Some newspapering in Texas, then radio announcing in Kansas City, and later a UPI correspondent during World War II. He was chief correspondent reporting from the Nuremberg war crimes trials and joined the infant CBS Television News operation in 1950.
For 65 years, wife Betsy, whom he married in 1940, was by his side. They had worked together at KCMO in Kansas City. He called her "the most gorgeous creature I'd ever seen in my life." She died in March of 2005 at the age of 89.
Many have wondered how his signature closing line came to be. Since the news was expanding to 30 minutes back in 1963, Cronkite thought to himself, Why couldn't I have a signature line?
"And that's the way it is, Monday, September the 2nd, 1963," was the first time he'd say those very famous words.
And that is the way it was until Cronkite signed off the "Evening News" on Friday, March 6, 1981. He had been forced to retire by a CBS policy, no longer in effect, that required retirement at age 65.
He did other television after that, along with some writing, and he even contributed liberal opinion online. But for most of us, Cronkite chronicled the way were, and if we believed in him, so did he in us.
"If there's anything I've learned, it is that we Americans do have a way of rising to the challenges that confront us. Just when it seems we're most divided, we suddenly show our remarkable solidarity," he once said.
In 2006, CBS celebrated Cronkite's 90th birthday with a primetime special in which his former colleagues and longtime friends honored his legendary career.
CBS News colleagues Don Hewitt, Dan Rather, Morley Safer and Mike Wallace took viewers behind the headlines that Cronkite masterfully reported to reveal the professionalism, dedication and extraordinary influence of the man they knew so well.
Competitors Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, as well as the newest generation of anchors -- Katie Couric, Charles Gibson and Brian Williams -- spoke about the unique role Cronkite played in American culture and how he continued to influence them in the modern era of electronic journalism.
But, lest viewers think "the most trusted man in America" was one-dimensional and singularly obsessed with the news, some of Cronkite's personal friends, including actor/comedian Robin Williams, actor/director George Clooney and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, as well as President Bill Clinton and filmmaker Spike Lee, shared poignant personal thoughts and revealing recollections of the newsman's "other side."
Of Cronkite's unique journalistic abilities, Koppel said, "There is no way you can analyze it. You can't send it out to CSI and say, 'all right, look at the DNA of Walter Cronkite and how do we replace that or replicate it?'"
On his memorable live report of President John F. Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963:"He had to take a moment; take off his glasses. When that happens, you realize a whole nation can't speak," said Robin Williams.
Said Couric: "He handled it as a human being first and an anchorman second, and I think in times like that, that's what you want."
"It was a very frightened country. Walter became not only everybody's anchorman, he was everybody's minister, priest and rabbi," said Hewitt. "He calmed America down."
"I think that the day President Kennedy died was the day that television news as we now know it was born, for all intents and purposes," said Dan Rather. "And Walter Cronkite was a very important part of making it so."
Of Cronkite's coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Lee said, "Walter was one of the few people in power positions that got behind that and pushed the story. In Birmingham, Ala., 1963...four little girls were murdered...The fact that it was four little girls, the fact that it took place in a church, on a Sunday -- that really shook people up. America needed to look deep into itself, and this is one of the pivotal moments."
On Cronkite's coverage of the Vietnam War: "It pained him to have to say what he thought about Vietnam, but he also understood how isolating the White House can be and how people can get to the point where they don't hear discordant voices," said Clinton. "And he thought he knew what the truth was, and he thought he had an obligation to tell it."
"He changed the history of the war overnight because it was, for that time period in general, a young person's protest. And it became everyone else's wrong war at that point," Clooney said.
Said Safer: "It is...remarkable that one anchorman, one reporter, one journalist...could really affect the political fate of the country... But they didn't call Walter the most trusted man in America for nothing."
Of Cronkite's coverage of the space program and man landing on the moon, Couric said, "Here was something everyone could rally around, and I think Walter Cronkite's embrace of that program gave people American heroes at a time when they really needed them."
And of Cronkite's "other" side?
"I invited him to a Grateful Dead show...and it was Walter Cronkite at the soundboard at Madison Square Garden," said drummer Mickey Hart. "And he came back at halftime and I introduced him to Jerry [Garcia], and he said, 'I was thinking of a thousand reasons to leave early. But I can't think of one now!'"
"The best time to be with Walter is when he...was with [his late wife] Betsy," remembered Robin Williams. "You know and one cocktail...because they both get kind of wonderfully salty and funny."
Williams added, "To see him conducting the orchestra...that was a great thing to see. That was another skill he had [that] I didn't know [about]. If, all of a sudden, he put on skates at that moment, I'd go, 'Okay, a double axel.' [In Cronkite's voice:] 'I think I can do it. It seems appropriate.'"
Clinton and Clooney, perhaps, put it best. Clinton said, "He's a truly wonderful man, an old-fashioned gentleman, but a ferocious, ferocious citizen. He cares about things still."
Clooney added, "Every once in awhile, you get someone who is the exact right person at the exact right moment. In fact, I think we were just very lucky that it happened to be him."
CBS 2's John Slattery contributed to this report. CBS Legend Walter Cronkite Dies At 92 - wcbstv.com