The favorite uncle inhabits a place of honor in the lives of most Americans. Since he doesn’t have to perform the fatherly duties of disciplinarian or motherly role of protector, we usually associate him as a provider of a wider information base. He knows baseball and fishing. Or he has a passion for classic cars. Sometimes he’ll give advice that mom and dad could never give. And he’s always there, a reliable figure in an unreliable world.
Walter Cronkite was an uncle to every American. He was voted “the most trusted man in America” in numerous polls over the years. Even in 1995, he was voted “the most trusted man in television news” even though he had been off the CBS anchor desk for 14 years. A favorite uncle’s place in the heart is permanent.
His place in the memory, however, is even more sacrosanct and indelible. Cronkite’s career traversed one of the richest and most tumultuous stretches of our history, and he not only presided over it, he was a part of it.
Before he took over the anchor chair (while simultaneously serving as managing editor of “The CBS Evening News”), he served as a correspondent in Europe and North Africa during World War II and afterward covered the Nuremberg trials. He joined CBS’s nascent television news division in 1950, and became a fixture on election coverage.
But Cronkite’s avuncular visage provided comfort during the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Apollo space missions, among many other events. He didn’t just deliver the news, he embodied it. He operated at a time before media consultants and Q ratings and personal hairdressers. When Cronkite spoke, there was never a doubt that he was delivering the truth, and it was rare indeed when anyone on either side of the political aisle questioned his motives, primarily because to do so would mean alienating voters who believed his every word.
Tears for JFK
As much as he has been praised over the years for being an icon of objectivity, Cronkite also shared with his audience the impact of the stories he was reporting. A favorite uncle is, above all else, human.
Perhaps his most memorable moment was when he informed the nation about the assassination of a prince: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. (CST) – 2:00 EST, some 38 minutes ago.” Then he paused for tears, as did millions of his viewers. Uncle Walter couldn’t make anyone feel better about it, he could only provide comfort by being there while they grieved.
He also invested his personal feelings in the Vietnam War. Before he knew the extent of our difficulties in the conflict, he was a staunch supporter. But he visited there after the Tet Offensive and came back with a different perspective: “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate.” And this knockout dose of candor: “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.”
Before that, he had not been known to inject his personal views into newscasts. Over the years, he had a mantra established from his days as a reporter for United Press, and that was to get the story “fast, accurate and unbiased.”
But this was an extraordinary set of circumstances. Now he was adding commentaries at the end of the evening’s report. It was a measure of the level of trust Cronkite had established among the American public that relatively few excoriated him for taking a side.
It was risky business, because Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of broadcast journalism, made enemies on the right when he and CBS went after Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the witch hunt for Communists in the 1950s. Murrow was equally respected after a distinguished career as a reporter, but his virulent anti-McCarthy crusade eroded trust in some quarters.
In recent years, Dan Rather, the man who replaced Cronkite in the CBS anchor chair in 1981, came into the job after serving as a dogged reporter in the field. When he ran afoul of President Richard Nixon, he earned a legion of ardent antagonists, some of whom hung around long enough to enjoy seeing him embarrassed by the George W. Bush National Guard memo gaffe before last year’s presidential election.
Sandwiched between Murrow and Rather at CBS was Uncle Walter, who also became synonymous with NASA because he was fascinated by space exploration. He spearheaded coverage of the Apollo XI moon-landing mission and was on the air for 27 of the 30 hours that it took.
In retirement, he kept busy, working on various documentaries and educational programs and writing opinion pieces. He took a side again, befriending President Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings and criticizing President George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq.
But pundits on the left, right and center dared not go after Uncle Walter, no matter what the hot-button issue. He was the one man in America who could speak his mind without fear of reprisal, because his integrity was unassailable and his intentions could not be more pure. Outwardly a gentle man, he found strength in the First Amendment, and then transferred it to his audience.
“And that’s the way it is” was his closing line. And during the long and exemplary career of America’s favorite uncle, nobody ever doubted for a moment that that’s the way it was.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com