A Reluctant Big Shot

A Reluctant Big Shot

Everyone is fussing about the departure of Walter Cronkite from the CBS Evening News–everyone that is except Cronkite.


A friend recently played a tape for me which he had made at the press conference when Bill Leonard, head of CBS News, announced that Dan Rather would succeed Walter Cronkite as anchorman and managing editor of CBS Evening News, a job Cronkite had held for nineteen years. The mood of the occasion was almost randomly solemn or businesslike or playful– as though no one could be certain as to how seriously the changeover should be taken. The principal concern, I sensed, was for the American people. There seemed a chance that Cronkite had accidentally become our electronic monarch, in which case this ordinary corporate event, the semi-retirement of an employee at the age of 65, had better sound a little like an abdication followed by a coronation–which it did.

Rather was the most solemn of all, and that is nothing against him. I don't see how he could have gotten out of being humble yet brave, and so on.

But that was a year ago. The actual crisis is upon us. On March 6, Cronkite vanishes from the Evening News, as promised. This is a test of how crazy television can make us, or fail to make us, and the news is good. I can find no one who feels that we are losing a leadership figure of any sort. The people have somehow managed to keep Cronkite nicely in scale–with a lot of help from Cronkite himself. A subliminal message in every one of his broadcasts was that he had no power and wanted none. So now we feel that a kindly and intelligent teacher is leaving our village. It turns out not to matter that the village happens to be as big as all outdoors.

I have seen Cronkite laugh like Father Christmas when he is told that he should run for President or Vice President or Senator. No one ever seems to mention a governorship or a seat in the House of Representatives. I have also noticed that nobody else laughs much at the joke, even when Cronkite explains it–when he says that he is only a newsman, Without any of the gifts and enthusiasms good leaders have. He intimated in a recent interview that he hadn't even aspired to be a big shot in television, that he would have been nearly as contented as he is today if he had remained what he was in the beginning–a print journalist of no great fame. He loves his family. He loves his friends. He loves his sailboat. And he remains as entranced by the unfolding of each day's news as a child with a new kaleidoscope.

What makes it hard for others to laugh along with him is that this is the land of opportunity, and no one here is supposed to fail to snatch any opportunity that is unlucky enough to be caught in the open. Walter Cronkite could have been President of this country, just as George Washington in his own day could have become King. All he had to do was to lose his temper in public, and to pick a side:

"This is Walter Cronkite, born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in Texas, and you all know me, and I am fed to the teeth with all the stupidity and greed I see in Washington. I can no longer sit by idly and so on.

His last name is Dutch, by the way–like Roosevelt.

Morley Safer, Cronkite's CBS colleague for the past fifteen years, said the other day that he expected local rather than national television news people to transmute their popularity into hard-edged political power. I thought at once of a young man of my acquaintance who had been a star reporter a few years back on a local show here in New York City. At the age of 30, he concluded in all seriousness that he should run for mayor, and that nobody could stop him.

"Why should you be mayor?" I asked him.

"Because nobody can jive me," he replied.

The young man was a famous crusader. Cronkite is not. He may still become one, although I myself do not particularly recommend it, but he has so far done nothing to match, for example, Edward R. Murrow's vivisection of Senator Joseph McCarthy on the air. Cronkite's lack of rudeness to any political faction over so many years may have had a curious side effect, as unwelcome to him, I'm sure, as it should be to all of us: he may have encouraged us to imagine that there is a sort of sanity and wisdom on which all Americans can and-should agree. Cronkite is not our electronic monarch–but he just might, accidentally, have become our electronic Uncle Sam.

No, Virginia, this is an acrimoniously pluralistic society. There is no Uncle Sam.

I asked Safer if there were any particular political, issues in which Cronkite had felt personally involved year after year. He said that Cronkite, as a public speaker off the air, is regularly angry and disgusted and alarmed over anyone, no matter how powerful or popular, who would in any way limit the freedom of the press.

This, I submit, is not how Uncle Sam talks. It is the romantic stubbornness of an old newspaperman.

Safer said, too, that when he worked under him Cronkite declared with utmost sincerity that his assistants were doing all the work, and that the investigating they were doing out in the world was what he himself most loved to do.

This is the raffish gallantry of an old newspaperman.

Cronkite steps aside just as old newspapermen are becoming as legendary as cowboys. As young as this country is, we will have a rich mythology, by and by. Radio and television news began with old newspaper people. How else could they have begun?

The noun "press" is now archaic as applied to news editors and reporters. Equally antique is the cliche that describes Walter Cronkite so well:

"He has printer's ink in his veins."

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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