Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Remembering Walter Cronkite

It’s not surprising that the country’s top broadcast journalists would have shown up today for the Walter Cronkite memorial at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The real testament to “the most trusted man in America” is that a former president, Bill Clinton, and the current president, Barack Obama, took time out to honor someone who was neither a head of state nor a beloved movie star. They were recognizing a journalist, and that made me so proud of our profession.

But Walter Cronkite was no ordinary journalist. As Clinton said in his remarks, the proof of how respected he was is that Obama, on one of the most important days “of his young presidency” -- he is set to deliver an address tonight to a joint session of Congress on his health care plan -- would fly to New York this morning to offer his praise.

The program opened with “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band playing “Stars and Stripes,” Cronkite’s favorite march, and one for which he holds the distinction of being one of only two civilians to conduct it, the other being John Philip Sousa.

Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, remembered Cronkite calling him on his first day on the job to say, “Hello, boss.” “The thought that I could somehow be Walter Cronkite’s boss was the height of absurdity,” he said. He spoke of Cronkite’s sense of humor, as many of the following speakers would as well, and his “warmth and compassion” that “were almost indescribable.”

Another who received a Cronkite welcoming call on his first day was Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of the CBS Corporation. “I thought, ‘Man, you have a cool job.’ He was a true gent. He allowed us to see his grief, his pride and sometimes his outrage.”

Clinton took the podium accompanied by a standing ovation and talked about watching TV news while growing up in Arkansas. “I have to confess my mother favored Huntley and Brinkley,” he said. But that changed after they spent the day of Nov. 22, 1963 watching CBS’s coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “After that we lived with Walter Cronkite. That’s all we knew.”

Then he shared an even more personal story. As president, he had gotten to know the then-retired Cronkite through social functions. “I just wound up being crazy about the guy. I thought he was one of the most interesting men I ever saw.” But it was during “a very tumultuous summer in our lives” -- when Clinton was facing impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair -- that he really came to appreciate the veteran newsman.

Clinton had gone to Martha’s Vineyard with Hillary and Chelsea. Cronkite, who had a home there, called and invite the Clintons to go sailing with him and his beloved wife, Betsy.

“He did something for my family that was so simple,” but was a gesture with profound impact. Clinton said that in making the invitation Cronkite had said the president might be followed by photographers, but not to worry. Clinton joked that he definitely hadn’t been concerned. “At that time I could have done with a picture with Walter Cronkite.” That comment brought a roar of laughter from the he crowd.

“He was a good man,” Clinton said in conclusion. “That’s just the way it was. I’m here to say ‘thank you’ to a profoundly good human being.”

Next up was a short, gray-haired man with a guitar. “It’s hard to follow Bill Clinton,” he said. “I’m Jimmy Buffett. Walter was my sailing buddy and I’ll always cherish that.” He then sang his classic song, “Son of a Sailor.”

Through all of this, a large black and white photo of Cronkite smiled down from over top of the stage. The testimonials proved he was larger than life in death just as he had been in life.

Following Cronkite’s death at 92 on July 17, many writers described his passing as the end of an era, but “he deserved his own era,” Sir Howard Stringer, former president of CBS News and Corporation, said. He gave three reasons why Cronkite inspired so much respect. First, his personality, with “his wicked sense of humor and lack of pretension.” Second, his self-awareness -- he knew his job but did it without ego. Third, his leadership skills.

“He cared, but he didn’t pander,” Stringer said. “He was the maestro of the newsroom. The biography of broadcast news is surely Walter Cronkite.”

Newsman and columnist Nick Clooney said he became friends with Cronkite late in life. “I never saw him pessimistic, even at his great age,” he said. “He still believed in it all. It was not important that we trusted Walter. What was important was that Walter trusted us.”

He recalled a touching story about a dinner he had had with Cronkite this past March at a time when it was hard for Cronkite to get around. Cronkite was his usual lively self though, Clooney said, sitting with his back to the other diners in the crowded restaurant. When they were leaving, Cronkite walked on ahead and Clooney saw the reaction as people recognized the distinguished guest. “They didn’t applaud, but one by one they stood up because this is what you do when a gentleman is leaving the room.”

Tom Brokaw hailed Cronkite as “the godfather” who showed generations that followed how the profession should be practiced. “He had a romantic idea of what it was to be a journalist.” He also loved being out and about in New York City, Brokaw said, often ending his night with breakfast at the Copa Cabana.

Singer and pianist Michael Feinstein offered his praise in a song, “And That’s the Way It Is,” for which he wrote the music and William Schermerhorn wrote the lyrics. “’To anchor in a quiet cove/ As the sun turns sky to red;/ And toast the passing day/ With friends and song./ It doesn’t get much better!’/ That’s what the captain said./ ‘The seas will teach you things/ Your whole life long.’/ . . . You were the one who told our stories/ And now it’s time for us to say good night./ We’ll keep sailing around the bend/ And that’s the way it is, old friend.”

One of the funniest tributes was from “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney who was in the audience but spoke on videotape, saying that he and Cronkite has been friends since 1944. Rooney got a kick out of how much Cronkite enjoyed all the awards he received after retiring. “He was the only man I knew who wore out three tuxedos accepting awards,” Rooney joked. He also told two stories centered around Cronkite’s hearing problems. In one case a stranger in a store walked up to Cronkite and asked him about someone and Cronkite, wanting to be polite, said, yes, he knew him, but not well. The stranger continued his questioning, wanting to know what Cronkite thought of the man and Cronkite was once again vague. Outside the store Betsy started to laugh and asked her husband if he had understood the name the man kept mentioning. Cronkite said he hadn’t. “It was Jesus Christ,” Betsy said.

That anecdote drew a great laugh from those present, as did the next story in which Cronkite was sailing his beloved boat and saw someone waving at him. He waved back and continued forward before getting stuck in the riverbed. Why didn’t you stop, he was asked, when the man told you it was low water. “I thought he was saying ‘hello, Walter,’” Cronkite replied.

Bob Schieffer, “Face the Nation” anchor, had his own great Cronkite story, one that showed Cronkite as the determined journalist he was. It was in 1976 when a fatal strain of flu was sweeping the country. The government was setting up vaccination programs, but the shots were making many people sick. People wanted to know if then-president Gerald Ford was going to get vaccinated. Barbara Walters, then a host of the “Today Show,” had lined up an exclusive with the president and told his staff if they allowed anyone to scoop her they would be killed. That’s how Schieffer told it. Well, Cronkite knew Walters had the exclusive, but he wasn’t deterred. He found out Ford was going to be in New York the afternoon before Walters’ interview was to run. He asked for time with the president, but was told no way. He then asked if he could just say hello to Ford. The president’s staff thought that sounded harmless and gave their approval. Then Cronkite said he wanted to bring a camera crew and was told he definitely could not. Cronkite persisted, saying he thought Ford would enjoy a record of their meeting. After hesitating, the president’s people finally said yes. Cronkite showed up with a microphone in his left hand, shook Ford’s hand and said, “So Mr. President, are you going to get your flu shot?” Ford assured him he would and that evening Cronkite beat Walters by leading his newscast with the announcement that in an exclusive interview President Ford had told him he would be vaccinated. It was his “nine second” scoop. One can only imagine how Walters fumed over that one.

Before Obama took the stand to loud cheers and a standing ovation, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Sextet, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, performed and then flowed out into the theatre, serenading us up one aisle and down the other, with the audience clapping along. It was spectacular.

Then it was time for another of my heroes, President Obama (at the podium under the Cronkite photo). It was thrilling to be so close to him and hear and see him live. He said he didn’t know Cronkite personally but that he had “benefitted as a citizen from his dogged pursuit of the truth. Walter wasn’t afraid to rattle the high and mighty. He was a voice of certainty in a world that was growing ever more uncertain. He didn’t believe in dumbing down. He trusted us. Through all the events that defined the 20th century, Walter Cronkite was there.

“Walter Cronkite invited the nation to believe in him and he never betrayed that trust. We are grateful to him for altering and illuminating our time.”

In closing, the Marine Band performed “God of Our Fathers” and “God Bless America.” Needless to say, I was in tears.

Others who spoke during the 2 1/2-hour memorial, beautifully put together by CBS, included Katie Couric, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Cronkite’s son, Chip. Outside on the plaza after the event more bold face names -- Diane and Charlie, Barbara, Phil and Marlo (another of my heroes) and many others who need only first names mingled.

I feel so fortunate that CBS gave me an excellent orchestra seat so I could be part of this amazing tribute. I had explained to them that Mr. Cronkite had written the introduction to my first book, Journalism Stories from the Real World. He had been there for me and now I wanted to be there for him.

It was a powerful tribute to a powerful man who wore his power lightly. I am honored that our names will be forever linked together on the cover of my book, and that I got to know this special man.

And that’s the way it will always be.

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