It’s sad but fitting that Walter Cronkite should have died this weekend, as we mark forty years since the first manned mission to the Moon. When Cronkite succeeded Douglas Edwards as the host of the CBS Evening News in 1962, the broadcast consistently attracted fewer viewers than NBC’s rival Huntley-Brinkley Report. It wasn’t until the space race reached its climax in the late 1960s, when its coverage of the historic Apollo 11 landing, and later of the near-disaster of Apollo 13, put CBS News and Cronkite ahead for good. From then until his final broadcast as host of the Evening News in March 1981, he was the most trusted man in America.
That doesn’t mean everyone liked him. The feelings many conservatives had for Cronkite were reflected in the attitude of Archie Bunker on CBS’s All in the Family, who would sometimes turn on the television, fall back into his favorite chair and mutter, “Let’s see what Pinko Cronkite has to say this evening.”
But even many of those who disliked him still watched him every Monday through Friday evening. These days the Fox News Channel (of which Cronkite was an outspoken critic) attracts viewers by blatantly pandering to a politically conservative audience. People tune in not because they believe the news presented is more factually accurate, but because they perceive that the presenters of the news share their opinions. Cronkite’s viewers, on the other hand, were of all political stripes. He commanded attention from all sides of the political spectrum. President Lyndon Johnson once famously said, after Cronkite had toured Vietnam and declared the ongoing conflict there unwinnable, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
In and out of the anchor chair, Cronkite was politically outspoken when he saw the need. He prided himself on his objectivity and journalistic integrity, but when he visited Vietnam in 1968 he reported back with his honest assessment: “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.” Later, after his retirement from the Evening News, he was an advocate for campaign finance reform, trying and failing to persuade Congress to mandate free television airtime for political candidates, arguing that the current system “endangers out democracy.” He criticized the War on Drugs, calling it a failure.
His distinctive voice and easy delivery also served him well in fields outside journalism. Cronkite had dabbled in acting while attending college at the University of Texas, and returned to it here and there in the decades following his exit from the Evening News. He did voiceover work for the animated film We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story, and the PBS animated series Liberty’s Kids, where he provided the voice of Benjamin Franklin. Most of his other acting gigs involved playing himself in some capacity. In Apollo 13, for instance, he provided voiceovers modeled after his original coverage of the actual events.
For most of his tenure as anchorman, Walter Cronkite was news presenter of record for the people of the United States. In the years and decades after he left that position, it took not one but three men — Peter Jennings at ABC, Tom Brokaw at NBC, and Dan Rather in Cronkite’s old chair at CBS — to fill his shoes, with none of them ever quite as good a fit. I was only a baby when Cronkite signed off on the Evening News for the final time, so I never got to see him in his most indelible role. I heard him mostly in documentaries about the space program, saw him looking off-camera, smiling, rubbing his palms eagerly together as he and his on-air guests waited to hear that the Eagle had touched down on the lunar surface. To me he was a visitor from the past, a link to the world as it had been before, a world I would never know but would often wish I had. The world wasn’t always a very nice place during the 1960s and ‘70s. It had racial unrest, it had an endless and unpopular war, it had political turmoil from the White House on down. We’ve got all that now, but they had Walter Cronkite and we’ve got Katie Couric. With me it’s not nostalgia — I wasn’t even there. More like jealousy.
Read a proper obituary for Walter Cronkite here, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.