Walter Cronkite dies

Posted: July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite, 92, the television newsman once famously described as the most trusted man in America, has died.

CBS vice president Linda Mason told the Associated Press that Mr. Cronkite died at his home in New York at 7:42 p.m. Friday after a long illness. His family was by his side. Mr. Cronkite's longtime chief of staff, Marlene Adler, said the cause of death was cerebral vascular disease.

The term anchorman was invented to describe Mr. Cronkite. As the anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 until 1981, he set a standard for accuracy, fairness, and dependability. His fame was worldwide: In Sweden, anchors are called "Cronkiters."

"He was a great broadcaster and a gentleman whose experience, honesty, professionalism and style defined the role of anchor and commentator," CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves said in a statement.

Mr. Cronkite's avuncular and authoritative baritone guided viewers through some of the most traumatic and spellbinding news events of the 20th century: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy; the civil rights struggles in the South; the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the first walk by a man on the moon in 1969; the Vietnam War; and the Watergate scandal. In an oft-quoted accolade, an independent poll in 1972 named him "the most trusted man in America."

After retiring from CBS, Mr. Cronkite became an active elder statesman, putting his prestige behind journalism education and efforts to improve television coverage of politics.

He also put his money behind a variety of charitable projects, especially those dealing with the environment and international development.

Mr. Cronkite's achievements at CBS were preceded by a distinguished career as a combat correspondent for the United Press wire service during World War II. He went on bombing missions over Germany, went ashore during the Allied invasion of Normandy, dropped into the Netherlands with the 101st Airborne, and covered the Battle of the Bulge.

In all, Mr. Cronkite's working life as a journalist spanned more than six decades.

After his retirement from CBS, Mr. Cronkite enjoyed a leisurely third career as a narrator of specials and documentaries on PBS and cable channels. He reflected on the lessons of recent history in a series of essays broadcast by National Public Radio. And he wrote. His memoir, A Reporter's Life, appeared in 1996 and, predictably, became a bestseller. An enthusiastic sailor, he also coauthored two books about sailing the waters of the East Coast: South by Southeast (1983) and North by Northeast (1986).

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Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., the only child of a dentist. His ambition to cover news began in boyhood.

"At the age of 6," he recalled, "I went running down the hill through our neighborhood to spread the news of President Harding's death. Three years later, I started peddling the Kansas City Star, so I guess that's when I knew the die was cast."

Several years after his birth, the family moved to Texas. In 1933, at age 16, Mr. Cronkite enrolled in the University of Texas, where he worked on the campus newspaper and as a stringer for the Houston Post and the old International News Service, which in 1958 merged with United Press.

In the most unusual of his several jobs, he called the race results in a bookie joint in Austin for $75 a week.

Mr. Cronkite dropped out of the university in his junior year to help support his mother, who was left without an income or alimony after her divorce from Mr. Cronkite's father, who had become an alcoholic. That year, 1935, he began life as a full-time journalist, first with the Austin bureau of the Scripps-Howard News Service and then for the Houston Press.

In 1936, Mr. Cronkite went to work briefly for a Kansas City, Mo., radio station, KCMO, where one of the most significant events of his life occurred. There, in a hallway, he told A&E's Biography in 1998, he saw "the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in my life, an absolutely sensational redhead."

She was a fellow employee, Mary Elizabeth "Betsy" Simmons Maxwell. They married in 1940 and had three children, and their union endured until her death in March 2005. He later dated opera singer Joanna Simon, who lived in his New York apartment building. "We are keeping company, as the old phrase used to be," Cronkite said in a 2006 interview of his relationship with Simon, sister of pop singer Carly Simon.

Well-schooled by his varied apprenticeship, Mr. Cronkite began an 11-year career with United Press in its Kansas City bureau in 1937. Kansas City was raffish and lively then, home to jazz clubs and strip joints, and young Mr. Cronkite took it all in. "The Chesterfield Club had nude waitresses, and that was for lunch," he told Biography.

Twenty-five years old when the United States was drawn into World War II, Mr. Cronkite made his reputation with a series of hazardous overseas assignments, including sailing in a convoy that was attacked by Nazi submarines and covering the invasion of North Africa. But he refused to be called heroic:

"I was scared to death all the time. The truth is that I did everything only once. It didn't take any great courage to do it once. If you go back and do it a second time, knowing how bad it is, that's courage."

It wasn't all fright, however. While he was stationed in blacked-out London, Mr. Cronkite's customarily keen powers of observation and analysis came into play during a walk on the wild side:

"As we males made our way down Piccadilly in the impenetrable darkness, we would hear the click of heels announcing the arrival of a lady of the night. Wearing cheap perfume, she would run her hand along our pants leg. That might have seemed the opening to a streetcorner mating dance. Wrong.

"This was economic foreplay. By feeling the cloth, the ladies could tell whether the male concerned was in the American or British army and whether he was an officer or an enlisted man. On that determination hung the price at which she would open the bidding."

After the war, Mr. Cronkite covered the Nuremberg war crimes trial and served as chief of United Press' bureau in Moscow. Like so many Unipressers, he left in 1948 because of the wire service's chronically low pay, and created a job for himself covering Washington for 10 Midwestern radio stations.

The dean of radio newsmen, the magisterial Edward R. Murrow, knew Mr. Cronkite from their wartime days in London. After the Korean War broke out in 1950, Murrow offered Mr. Cronkite a job with CBS and he snapped it up, starting a television association that lasted more than three decades.

Beginning with his Korean War coverage every night on WTOP, the TV station that CBS owned in Washington, Mr. Cronkite's rise was rapid. With little news film to speak of, working mostly with maps and a blackboard, Mr. Cronkite demonstrated his great powers to simplify and explain, backed by the sure sense of authority born of his experience as a war correspondent.

His WTOP work caught the eye of Sig Mickelson, president of the CBS news department, who chose Mr. Cronkite to spearhead the network's coverage of the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Mickelson coined the term anchorman to describe Mr. Cronkite's role as the hub of the coverage.

"Within hours of the opening gavel, an electric excitement swept through the CBS people," Gary Paul Gates wrote in Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News (1978). "The moment was not unlike an opening night on Broadway when a new talent explodes across the footlights for the first time."

The year 1952 brought a landmark in television history: It was the year TV replaced radio as the dominant force in broadcast journalism.

While Douglas Edwards anchored Douglas Edwards With the News in the 1950s, Mr. Cronkite busied himself with a variety of anchoring, hosting, and narrating assignments on shows including The Week in Review, Pick the Winner, and You Are There.

He never grumbled or shirked, not even when he was assigned to discuss the news of the day with Charlemagne the Lion, a puppet, on The Morning Show. "A puppet can render opinions on people and things that a human commentator would not feel free to utter," he wrote in his memoir. "It was one of the highlights of our show and I was, and am, proud of it."

While polishing his coverage of political conventions to peerless luster, Mr. Cronkite saw an opportunity to develop a second salient specialty when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. As Gates wrote in Air Time:

"He was determined to be better prepared for that story than any other TV correspondent, and he spent months studying the deeply complicated subject of astrophysics. As a result, by the time the astronaut program was launched in the early 1960s, he was far more conversant in the language of space technology than any of his colleagues or competitors."

In 1962, Mr. Cronkite replaced Edwards as the anchor of the renamed CBS Evening News, beginning a 19-year run in the role that made him more famous than most of the people he covered.

In 1963, as the show became more serious and scrupulous under his sway, the CBS Evening News was expanded from its original 15 minutes to the 30 minutes it still occupies today.

When Mr. Cronkite took over, however, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, coanchored on NBC by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, was No. 1 in the Nielsen nightly news ratings. It took Uncle Walter, as he came to be called by millions, years to overtake them.

On Nov. 22, 1963, a visibly moved Mr. Cronkite went on the air in his shirtsleeves to tell the nation that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

Mr. Cronkite encountered only one broken rung as he climbed the ladder of success in the 1960s. After he finished second to Huntley and Brinkley in the ratings for the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, CBS president William S. Paley ordered him replaced at the subsequent Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

But the replacement team of Roger Mudd and Robert Trout, derisively nicknamed "The Field and Stream Show," did no better. So Mr. Cronkite returned to the role that Mickelson had named for him and anchored all eight national conventions from 1968 through 1980.

Always a patriot, Mr. Cronkite supported the Vietnam War until the pivotal Tet offensive in 1968, when he donned a steel helmet and flak jacket to observe the situation for himself in Saigon and Hue. He returned to anchor a report, shocking at the time, whose conclusion still resonates decades later:

"We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . . For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . .

"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. . . . It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

In a famous reaction, President Lyndon B. Johnson told his aides, "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Subsequently, he decided not to run for reelection.

David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 while covering Vietnam for the New York Times, later wrote, "It was the first time in American history that a war had been declared over by a commentator."

Mr. Cronkite also influenced the Watergate scandal. Coverage, initiated by the Washington Post, was languishing nationally when Mr. Cronkite laid out the known facts in a lucid two-part report shortly before the 1972 presidential election.

"The White House went crazy, absolutely crazy," said CBS Evening News producer Sandy Socolow. Coverage perked up - "It was as if the story had been blessed by the Great White Father," said Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee - and remained unrelenting until Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. Mr. Cronkite was then at the peak of his popularity and influence. He had seized first place in the nightly news ratings in 1967 and never relinquished his grip.

"And that's the way it is," the closing line he made up, was said for the last time on the CBS Evening News on March 6, 1981. He was succeeded the following week by Dan Rather, who had worked with him for many years, notably as White House correspondent during Watergate.

CBS forced Mr. Cronkite out eight months before his normal retirement age, his 65th birthday, because it was anxious to retain Rather, who was being pursued by other networks. CBS locked Mr. Cronkite in what he called "golden handcuffs": He agreed not to work for either of the other major networks, NBC and ABC, and in exchange received a seat on the CBS board of directors and $1 million a year until he was 72.

Mr. Cronkite devoted much of his post-retirement life to promoting journalistic integrity and strengthening the craft through education.

At the request of Tom Chauncey, an old friend in Phoenix, Mr. Cronkite became involved in efforts to strengthen the journalism program at Arizona State University. In 1984, the university renamed its journalism department the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, giving the program "an immediate boost and national recognition," according to the school Web site.

Mr. Cronkite traveled to ASU each year to present the school's Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism to a leading figure in the field.

In 1996, Paul Taylor, a former politics reporter at The Inquirer and the Washington Post, persuaded Mr. Cronkite to serve on the board of Taylor's Alliance for Better Campaigns. The goal of the alliance was to pressure television to improve its coverage of politics.

Mr. Cronkite "felt passionately that the broadcast industry had an obligation to keep people informed about elections and that they weren't doing a very good job of it," said Taylor, now executive vice president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. "He did not like the 30-second ad or the 8-second sound bite."

And Mr. Cronkite "was quite willing to use the moral authority he had gained as a broadcaster," Taylor said. "He used his halo to bash his former employers over the head."

Mr. Cronkite underwent heart bypass surgery in 1997, but he soon went back to work in cable TV, his haven after his long association with CBS ended.

In 1998, for CNN, he coanchored the coverage as former Mercury astronaut Sen. John Glenn returned to space at age 77 aboard the shuttle Discovery. In 1962, Mr. Cronkite had covered Glenn when he became the first American to orbit Earth.

To the end, Uncle Walter lived up to his description by the National Review: "A legend, a national father figure, a symbol of decency and good character."

He is survived by daughters Nancy and Kathleen, and his son, Walter Leland Cronkite 3d, called Chip.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

Contact staff writer Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com

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