- And That’s the Way it No Longer Is
“I was sitting home alone one night/ in L.A./watching old Cronkite on the seven o’ clock news,” crooned Bob Dylan (“Black Diamond Bay,” 1976) in one of the many pop-cult shout-outs to the mustached face of American television news during that bygone age of three-network hegemony. Likewise, in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), when the NASA astronauts gather at the home of Jim Lovell to watch the moon landing on television, no channel surfing will be permitted: the Great White Father of the airwaves, everybody’s Uncle Walter, is the choice by acclamation.
The popular historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University and himself a regular talking head on television, gives full biographical treatment to the most firmly anchored of video anchormen. Cronkite hosted The CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, sitting comfortably atop the Nielsen ratings for most of the run, before reluctantly turning over the desk to former protégé and future bête noir Dan Rather). Even for viewers too young to remember, Cronkite’s visage will be a permanent archival accessory for much of the history of the era he reported on. In Brinkley’s telling, he is more than a bearer of tidings; he shaped the course of American history.
The sheer size and bulk of this doorstop of a tome is both a testimony to Cronkite’s longevity and a bid to place him shoulder to shoulder on the bookshelf alongside the thick volumes lauding Edward R. Murrow, the glamorous patron saint of broadcast journalism. Brinkley sees his subject as nothing less than “the preeminent television newsman of the twentieth century” (pp. 547–48)—although, as with any CBS-centric story, Murrow hovers just out of camera range, never quite exorcised from the control room.
Born in 1916 in St. Joseph’s, Missouri, and reared in Kansas City, Missouri, and Houston, Texas, Cronkite was the only son of an alcoholic, underachieving father and a feisty, self-reliant mother. An indifferent student at the University of Texas, he found his footing working on school newspapers, small-town dailies, and upstart radio stations. In 1937, as a wire-service reporter for the United Press (UP) syndicate, he got his first big exposure in the national press [End Page 728] by reporting on the horrific gas explosion at a public school in New London, Texas, that killed 295 people, most of them children. “The passerby heard men weep, heard rasp-like voices oddly strained in unaccustomed efforts to be tender,” read his terse, Hemingwayesque wire copy. Decades later, Cronkite still called the New London tragedy “his most memorable reporting assignment” (p. 58). Brinkley is exceptionally good at showing how the crucible of Cronkite’s apprenticeship as a hard-charging, fact checking “Unipresser” forged his journalistic sensibility ever after.
The book starts to kick in when the eager-beaver young journalist grabs the brass ring as a foreign correspondent for United Press in London during World War II. As a charter member of the legendary band of ink-stained brothers dubbed “the Writing Sixty-Ninth,” he pumped out patriotic puff pieces on the gallant boys of the Eighth Air Force, accompanied B-17 crews on bombing missions over Germany, and drank too much. UP marketed the Cronkite brand, boldfacing his byline and hyping their intrepid journalist as “Dean of the Air War.” During this time, Cronkite also began in a serious way to cultivate his radio chops. “With his firm, clear, and penetrative voice, Cronkite sounded distinguished on radio,” observes Brinkley. “He had a genius for accentuating syllables in a compelling way” (pp. 104–5). Hearing a voice of the future, Murrow tried to recruit him into the ranks of his soon-to-be legendary “boys.” Amazingly, Cronkite turned him down. Later, at CBS, he would say semi-jokingly that he belonged to the “Murrow-Ain’t-God-Club,” a sentiment tantamount to heresy in the corridors of Black Rock. Nonetheless, he nicked his famous sign-off (“. . . and that’s...