Watching the remembrances of Walter Cronkite, there seems to be one theme emerging, that TV news will never see his like again, someone who wielded so much trust and whose Q score was never anything other than in the stratosphere. It was so great that he regularly had to decline invitations to run for public office. George McGovern considered choosing him as his running mate in 1972 — and he thought he could have won had he done it. (The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz Twittered: “There will never be another Walter Cronkite because we’re beyond the era of mass audiences and mass respect for journalists.”
But that popularity didn’t come so much from his objectivity — watchdog groups pounced on perceptions of media bias back then, too — but his enthusiasm. We may think of him as a dispassionate observer, but in truth he was willing to convey his emotion, the difference being that he knew the moment. He stepped out of the bounds of objectivity in voicing his doubts about Vietnam in 1968 — but it didn’t create a significant backlash.
“Walter set the standard by which all others will be judged,” President Obama said in taped comments that were broadcast on the “CBS Evening News” on Friday.
As the 40th anniversary of the moon landing approaches on Monday, we’ll see it in the CBS News clips of the story that Cronkite repeatedly called the most momentous of his career. “Oh boy. Whew,” Cronkite proclaimed after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Variety declared that the “enduring warmth, wit and down-home expertise” of Cronkite elevated CBS’s coverage above the competing networks. Teamed with astronaut Wally Schirra, Variety wrote that “the drama was intrinsic and the two Walters knew it.”
“The quick cut to the expressions of great relief on the faces of Cronkite and Schirra when the green light flashed safe landing at Houston control said it all.”
My favorite memory of Cronkite is of his accessibility — and not just in style. Getting media reaction to the death of John Kennedy Jr. in 1999, I was instructed to try to track him down on a Sunday. After failing to immediately reach anyone at CBS, my editor suggested I call information. Really? I did, and there in Martha’s Vineyard, he was listed. I called the number and he answered, as polite as ever.