It's almost impossible for me to describe my feelings upon hearing today that Walter Cronkite has died of cerebrovascular disease.
He was known as the "most trusted man in America." To many Americans, he was "Uncle Walter," as trustworthy and dependable as the sunrise.
He lived a long life. He was, after all, 92 years old at the time of his death.
And, from 1962 to 1981, no one else was as widely trusted to give it to you straight. He was, as Douglas Martin of the New York Times writes, "a nightly presence in American homes and always a reassuring one."
I can remember, vividly, the night of Cronkite's last news show on March 6, 1981. I don't remember anything special about the news that day, just that it was Cronkite's last newscast. Who would have thought he'd live for another 28 years?
(Well, perhaps his mother, who was nearly 90 when her son retired and died at the age of 101.)
Actually, it was kind of ironic that Cronkite, who brought the news of all the major events of the 1960s and 1970s into America's living rooms, retired when he did. If he had waited a month, he could have anchored the news reports of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
As he said goodbye to his audience, he said it was merely the "passing of the baton." The anchorman, he told his viewers, was just the "most conspicuous member of a superb team" and, borrowing a famous line, pledged to return — and he did, in frequent news specials and documentaries.
No one who is old enough to remember Cronkite's newscasts and his signature line, "And that's the way it is," will ever forget the influence he had.
Personally, I am always reminded of a couple of things when I think of Cronkite. Actually, I remember a lot of things. But these two stories are worth repeating on this occasion.
- In the 1950s, Cronkite was the host of the CBS morning news show for awhile, but he had a bit of a falling–out with its sponsor, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
You may or may not be old enough to remember cigarette commercials on TV, but the Reynolds company had a slogan for its Winston cigarettes that went "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." Cronkite, who had a dedication to grammar that perhaps only a former copy editor can appreciate, corrected the grammar, observing that it should be "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should."
- In the 1970s, Cronkite made a guest appearance on one of the most popular TV programs of the decade, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
In the episode, Cronkite was visiting Lou Grant. Pompous local anchorman Ted Baxter had just won his first award (after lobbying for it) and tried to hit up Cronkite for a job with CBS. Somehow, Ted managed to get an arm around Cronkite's shoulder and was auditioning for a role on the evening news giving sports scores, saying lines like "In hockey, the North Stars 3, the Kings Oh!" Then he tried to engage in a conversation with Cronkite: "So, Walt, let's talk shop. Which words do you have trouble pronouncing?"
Cronkite turned his head, glared at Lou and said, "I'm gonna get you for this!"
I'm sure that somewhere someone has already concluded the newscast by saying, "And that's the way it is." It wouldn't be terribly original to say that.
So rest in peace, Uncle Walter.