Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Remembrances of "the most trusted man in America" from Andy Rooney, Ronald Reagan, Isaac Asimov and others

Published July 18, 2009 8:18AM (EDT)

CBS-TV newsman Walter Cronkite is interviewed in his CBS office at the broadcast center 524 West 57th Street on Feb. 3, 1981 in New York.
CBS-TV newsman Walter Cronkite is interviewed in his CBS office at the broadcast center 524 West 57th Street on Feb. 3, 1981 in New York.

When longtime (1962-81) anchorman Walter Cronkite signed off the "CBS Evening News" with his signature "And that's the way it is," his audience believed that's the way it was, for better or for worse. The avuncular newsman, after all, was often cited by opinion polls as the "most trusted man in America." Several of his peers remember him below.

Andy Rooney, newspaper columnist and television commentator: A tough, competitive scrambler

A group of reporters would meet at St. Pancras station and board a train for Bedford. Among the friends I made on those trips were...Walter Cronkite with United Press...

Cronkite had escaped being drafted because he was color-blind....

These reporters were my teachers although they didn't know it. While I tried to act more like one of them than a student, I watched and listened carefully. Anyone who thinks of Walter Cronkite today as the authoritative father figure of television news would be surprised to know what a tough, competitive scrambler he was in the old Front Page tradition of newspaper reporting. He became the best anchorman there ever was in television because he knew news when he saw it and cared about it. He was relentlessly inquisitive. The subject of his interview always sensed that Cronkite was interested in what he had to say and knew a great deal about the issue himself. (London, 1942)

From "My War, by Andy Rooney" (Times Books/Random House, 1995)

Charles Lynch, Canadian journalist: Swarming the king

During the closing stages of the war in Europe, the "theatre" as it was called was visited ... [by] King George … All proceeded to the airport where a roped-off compound had been prepared for the press. [Press commandant Colonel William "Tug"] Warrener stood in front of the column, baton tucked under his arm, head held high, chin outthrust as the royal DC-3 rolled to a stop. The door of the aircraft swung open, the steps dropped into place, and King George VI descended on the soil of liberated Europe for the first time.

Warrener saluted smartly, and as he did so Walter Cronkite of United Press vaulted over the rope barrier and made a dash for the King. Cronkite was known to be fearless, having dropped into Holland by parachute to cover the Arnhem operation, so I followed and so did everybody else, and poor Warrener was left rooted to the spot, uttering shouts of "Scum!" and "Back, you bastards!" while we swarmed around King George and bombarded him with questions. (Netherlands, 1944)

From "You Can't Print THAT!: Memoirs of a Political Voyeur," by Charles Lynch (Hurtig, 1983)

David Schoenbrun, broadcast journalist: Middle America, middle-of-the-road, Middlebrow

Something strange was happening in the CBS broadcasting booth high over the [1952 Republican national] convention floor. A young man, in his early thirties, with a flat Kansas prairie accent, who pronounced words like "going" as though they were spelled "goeen," was calling the story, shot by shot, straight, clear, factually. It was Walter Cronkite, who had won the assignment as anchorman of the convention....

Cronkite was a veteran UP wire-service reporter, who had learned to be the first and fastest with the facts. No punditing, no larger meaning of it all, no concern about why, only about who, what, when, where, and how. He was Middle America, middle-of-the-road, middlebrow. He was fascinated by what he was watching and he projected that fascination to his listeners in words they could understand. He knew everything that was going on, knew all the delegations, and by his knowledge managed to project an air of authority and truth. He was an overnight sensation, a national figure on his way to becoming the best known and most trusted man in the land. He would hit some bumps along the road and go into skids but he would end up as the giant of television. (Chicago)

From "America Inside Out: At Home & Abroad from Roosevelt to Reagan," by David Schoenbrun (McGraw-Hill, 1984)

Reuven Frank, television news executive: Making him famous

The 1952 [Republican and Democratic national] conventions were the first most Americans had seen. …

CBS's anchorman was the virtually unknown Walter Cronkite, who had signed on with CBS in its Washington bureau only two years before. A journalist since his college days, Cronkite had covered Eisenhower and his headquarters throughout the war in Euorpe…

…CBS…consciously gave him center stage and drew attention to him. The CBS producers developed what was for that time an ingenious procedure, putting Cronkite's face in a corner of the picture of the proceedings, the relative size of a postage stamp. As a technical achievement, it was simple and unsophisticated, but no one had done it that way before, and it helped make Cronkite famous.

From "Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News," by Reuven Frank (Simon & Schuster, 1991)

Eve Arden, actor: The difference one man can make

We were given a welcome-back [from Europe] party by Dottie Leffler, a CBS publicist who had become a good friend while doing publicity for "Miss Brooks." That evening I was miserable with what I thought might be the flu....When I arrived, I still felt awful, so Dottie took me to the guest room to relax awhile. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself when suddenly Dottie appeared in the door saying, "Here's some company for you," and in walked Walter and Mrs. Cronkite and their daughter Kathy.

As we talked I began to feel better and better. He's always had that effect on me, whether on TV or the few times we happened to meet him on the street. He makes me believe in the difference that one man can make in this world. (New York, 1953)

From "Three Phases of Eve," by Eve Arden (St. Martin's Press, 1985)

Billy Graham, evangelist: Leading questions

I went to be interviewed by Walter Cronkite for his CBS television news show, recorded for broadcast the following night. He was an amiable host, and we had a great time, sitting together in a room overlooking Times Square. He asked the kind of leading questions I love to answer, about our work, our objectives, the message we preached, and what we had to offer New York.

The news staff then screened some film clips that they had taken around Times Square and Broadway, and Walter asked me to comment on them. I observed that thousands of frustrated and bewildered people there who were searching for reality, could find it if they would give their lives to Christ. (New York, 1957)

From "Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham" (HarperCollins, 1997)

Fred Davis, TV game show host: Marvelous man

One of my favorite moments was when we had Walter Cronkite up [to Toronto], in the old days, as a guest panelist [on CBC's "Front Page Challenge"], before he became Uncle Walter. A marvelous man. And I took a chance. You know, you think with these big-timers they're so busy, or they want to be alone. And sometimes they end up in their hotel room with nothing to do. And I said, after the show, "You wouldn't like to come home and have a cup of coffee or a drink, would you?" And he said, "I'd love it." And three of the most valuable hours I've ever had followed. Jo [Mrs. Davis] and I and Walter Cronkite sitting there." (late 1950s)

From "Front Page Challenge," by Alex Barris (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1981)

Don Hewitt, television producer: Irresistible

Walter Cronkite replaced Douglas Edwards on the evening news. It wasn't that Doug wasn't first rate, it was that Cronkite was irresistible. He had "anchorman" written all over his face. The CBS brass only had to take one look at this former United Press correspondent and they were ready to make a major commitment to television news. They seemed happy to have me on board as his sidekick. (New York, 1962)

From "Minute by Minute...," by Don Hewitt (Random House, 1985)

Dick Gregory, comedian and activist: Knew more than he reported

I carried the road show in my briefcase. It consisted basically of a copy of Life magazine, which showed still shots of the assassination [of John F. Kennedy] taken from Abraham Zapruder's home movie of the motorcade, along with some other useful and revealing photos. I presented my assassination road show in nightclub and concert hall dressing rooms, press conferences and personal conversations all across the country.

One night in my dressing room at the Village Gate in New York City, I showed my road show material to Walter Cronkite. I pointed out that the Zapruder film shows that Governor Connally was not hit until seconds after the president was struck. They couldn't have been hit by the same bullet...

Walter listened to my assassination rap with interest and patience. My stuff never made it on the "CBS Evening News" … It wasn't out of character for Walter to know a whole lot more than he reports on the evening news! (1964)

From "Up From Nigger," by Dick Gregory (Stein and Day, 1976)

Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer: "My father will be thrilled"

I taped a show with Walter Cronkite, who was narrating a program on the future, one called "The Twenty-first Century." I was rather excited about this, for I admired Cronkite extravagantly.

I sat down in a chair across a low, round table from him, and while the technicians fiddled with the light, I wondered whether I could say, "My father will be very thrilled, Mr. Cronkite, when he finds out you've interviewed me."

It seemed so childish a remark that I didn't dare make it. I was afraid Cronkite would call off the whole thing in disgust.

My hesitation gave him the chance to speak first. He said, "Well, Dr. Asimov, my father will be very thrilled when he finds out I've interviewed you." (New York, 1968)

From "In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov," 1954-1978 (Doubleday, 1980)

Billy Crystal, actor and comedian: Light in his eyes

I was going to NYU and working as an usher at a theater playing "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" when Walter Cronkite handed me his ticket stub. I led him by flashlight to his seat, then knelt down, shined the flashlight in my own face and said, "Mr. Cronkite, if there's anything I can do to help you in any way during the show, please don't hesitate to let me know." Then, automatically, without thinking, I flipped the flashlight into his face as though it were a hand mike. "Yes, there is," Walter Cronkite said. "You can take the flashlight out of my eyes." (New York, late 1960s)

From "Absolutely Mahvelous," by Billy Crystal with Dick Schaap (G.P. Putnam's, 1986)

Abbie Hoffman, political activist: Image advice

"Hi, Abbie, this is Walter," said the voice.

"Walter!" I responded excitedly, "but how can that be? I'm watching you right now on television."

"It's taped," said the Anchorman.

A few months previous Cronkite had worn horn-rimmed glasses. After studying the effect for three days, I wrote him a letter recommending that he get contact lenses. I thought the effect of his glasses was detrimental to his image … "I took your advice, you know," he offered graciously.

"We don't want to lose you, Walter," I said. "What's on your mind?"

"I'd like to interview you -- live, for 20 minutes, about the collapse of the movement," he said.

His voice signed off exactly on cue with the television set. An experience to contemplate, talking live to Walter Cronkite while he sped home to Connecticut in his limousine, yet watching him "live" on television. (New York, 1969)

From "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture," by Abbie Hoffman (G.P. Putnam's, 1980)

Sally Quinn, journalist: Unaffected

… the tenth anniversary of "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite." He was our interview [on "CBS Morning News"] that morning. I was excited because I admire Cronkite as both a good print journalist and a good television journalist. And for someone who has achieved such near reverence, he is easy, natural, unaffected, smart, gentle and funny. Cronkite has a beguiling, self-deprecating sense of humor and an appetite for an occasional salty joke....

I was surprised at how comfortable I felt, even at the start of the interview, because I had been ill at ease at the thought of interviewing such a veteran. But Cronkite, though, not nervous, seemed less comfortable at being interviewed than we were interviewing him. (New York, 1972)

From "We're Going to Make You a Star," by Sally Quinn (Simon and Schuster, 1975)

Lesley Stahl, broadcast journalist: Convivial and unpretentious

The first time I met Walter Cronkite, I was surprised at how young he looked in person. I had always heard that television makes you look ten years older; it put 20 years on Cronkite. I liked him right away, but then, most people did. Convivial and unpretentious, he is of that rare breed who wear the cloak of fame comfortably.

He was our leader in the true sense. If he as much as breathed that we in the bureau had been second best on a story, we'd pour ashes on our heads for a week. Once Cronkite thought a story had merit, CBS would pounce on it with full energy, as with the space launches. And in the unusual case when he took a stand on an issue, it had enormous influence. (New York, early 1970s)

From "Reporting Live," by Lesley Stahl (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

William Goldman, screenwriter: Script trouble

It was eventually common knowledge that I had written a dud ... Time wrote an article about the progress of the movie and mentioned the lack of quality in what I'd done...

I was at CBS once in the news department and Walter Cronkite was walking along a corridor. The guy I was with knew Cronkite and introduced us, which pleased me because during this Watergate time, when everyone was lying, he was among the few Americans you could trust. Following is the entire conversation:

MY FRIEND: Walter this is Bill Goldman who's writing "All the President's Men."

ME: How do you do, sir.

CRONKITE: I hear you've got script trouble. (and he continued on his way) (New York, mid-1970s)

From "Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting," by William Goldman (Warner Books, 1983)

Julia Phillips, film director: Didn't disappoint

Walter is one of the few big stars I have met who wasn't a disappointment. He'd been gracious enough to meet me and Steven [Spielberg] in the hooker-laden bar at the Sherry Netherland to talk about the remote possibility of playing the anchorman reporting the nerve-gas derailment/coverup on the network news [in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"]. Why not?

He had been an everyday fan/observer in Martha's Vineyard while Steven was shooting Jaws... (New York, 1975)

From "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," by Julia Phillips (Random House, 1991)

Patrick Buchanan, speechwriter, conservative commentator and presidential candidate: Truckled

Hank, who had been the accountant for CREEP, Richard Nixon's now infamous 1972 Committee to Re-elect the President, was suing CBS and Walter Cronkite for malicious libel. Cronkite had led his "Evening News," during the thick of the Watergate revelations, with the charge that Henry Buchanan, brother to White House aide Patrick Buchanan, had been operating a "laundry" in Bethesda for cleaning dirty money. The charge was utterly baseless; CBS had been worse than sloppy; and Hank intended to prove it in court.

At the Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner that year, as I was chatting away, I turned to have a friend introduce me, face to face, to the Most Trusted Man in America, the man I believed had libeled my brother. Cronkite extended his hand, smiled, and said graciously, "Hello, Pat, how are you?" Instead of some witty and cutting riposte, I responded, "Fine, Mr. Cronkite; how are you, sir?"

The rest of the night, I was beside myself for giving the appearance of having truckled. Both the "Mr." and the "sir" had come out automatically, reflexively, because Walter Cronkite was an older man, and because of those years of indoctrination. (Washington, D.C., mid-1970s)

From "Right from the Beginning," by Patrick Buchanan (Little, Brown, 1988)

Ronald Reagan, president (1981-1989): Didn't throw any slow balls

Tuesday, March 3 [1981]

During the day I did a 1 hr. interview with Walter Cronkite -- his last for CBS. He spent the 1st 20 min's. on El Salvador. He didn't throw any slow balls but the reaction was favorable. Because of our dinner we couldn't watch the show but I was treated to another W. H. [White House] service. They taped the program & played it back for us later in the evening.

From "The Reagan Diaries," ed. By Douglas Brinkley (HarperCollins, 2007)

Knowlton Nash, broadcast journalist: Intense competitiveness

When he retired in the spring of 1981, I flew down to New York to interview him for [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's] "Newsmagazine." In private he was basically the same as on the TV screen -- a comfortable, reliable, knowledgeable "Uncle Walter." But one thing not seen was his intense competitiveness. Nobody in the news business was more intent on beating the competition than Cronkite, a character trait probably from his days as a United Press news agency reporter, which was part of my background, too.

"I'll miss getting my hands into the product every day ... that's been my life," he told me. When I asked this "most respected man in America," as opinion surveys had declared him, his feelings about the enormously high audience impact of TV news, he replied, "It's far beyond reason...far beyond acceptability...What we can do is a bare microcosm of what the people need to know." He, of course, was right.

He worried, too, about "showmanship" in TV news -- the "giggle factor," he called it.

From "History on the Run: The Trenchcoat Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent," by Knowlton Nash (McClelland and Stewart, 1984)

Andy Warhol, pop artist: Nixon's language

Yoko's [Ono's] black-tie birthday dinner for Vasarely' the Dakota and had to leave our shoes in the hallway ... I sat next to Walter Cronkite...

I talked to Walter Cronkite and that was interesting. I told him I'd just read the Jody Powell thing in Rolling Stone. He said he thought Carter was the most intelligent president. And he said that years ago when he went to interview Nixon one of those times he was running for president, they sat him outside the door and he heard Nixon on the phone saying "piss" and "cocksucker" and "fuck," and Walter Cronkite thought it was a setup to have him hear all this so he would think Nixon was really macho, but then years later when the Watergate tapes came out he was surprised to hear Nixon talking like that all the time. (New York, 1984)

From "Diaries,' by Andy Warhol, ed. by Pat Hackett (Warner Books, 1989)

Ann Richards, Texas governor (1990-1994): Talking Texas

I went looking [at the Democratic National Convention] for Walter Cronkite.

I had know Walter for a number of years, had been a guest speaker at a roast for him in Washington several years before. He had already called the hotel and said that if I got a chance I should come over and see him at the convention hall. He's a warrior in the media battle, and he can set the tone for an entire broadcast. If Walter, by treatment or inflection or posture, makes it clear that you're worth people's 1time, then your stock can just take off.

"Walter," I said when I found him, "I want you to be prepared for what kind of [keynote] speech you're going to hear from me tonight." He looked at me. "I'm going to talk Texas."

He laughed. "Oh, well that's great." (Atlanta, 1988)

From "Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics & Other Places," by Ann Richards with Peter Knobler (Simon and Schuster, 1989)

Peter Arnett, war correspondent: Words of caution

Walter Cronkite came on the air from CNN's Washington bureau. The grand old man of television was in a philosophical mood as he chatted about the handful of American correspondents who had stayed in enemy capitals in the earliest days of World War Two. "I don't think the danger in Berlin or Tokyo, either one, was particularly imminent as it is for Baghdad today [during the Gulf War]," he observed.

Cronkite gave me some friendly advice over the air. "Peter, you're a very valuable asset to courageous reporting around the world. You've proved that. Don't grandstand this one. If you take all those things into consideration. Why, you know, save your skin, boy."

For a moment I stared blankly into the four-wire microphone. I did not expect to hear this from Walter Cronkite, one of my role models. Why did everyone want me to retire? (Washington, D.C./Baghdad, 1991)

From "Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones," by Peter Arnett (Simon & Schuster, 1994)

Helen Caldicott, physician and Nuclear Freeze activist: What he thinks

Walter Cronkite...was charming. When I met him and his wife, Betsy, at dinner one night, Walter amazed me by saying that if he had his way, he would remove all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. "What would the Russians do then, roll over people with their tanks?" he asked.

I said: "The American people love you, Walter. Why don't you tell them that?"

He laughed and replied, "I'm only loved because they don't know what I think." (New York, 1980)

From "A Desperate Passion: An Autobiography," by Helen Caldicott (Norton, 1996)


By Compiled by Dana Cook

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