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Jul 23rd 2009
From The Economist print edition
THE best hours of Walter Cronkite's life were not spent in a newsroom, or in pursuit of a story. They came after vigorous days of sailing his yawl Wyntje off the coast of Georgia or Maine. There was nothing more satisfying then, he wrote,
than dropping anchor in an otherwise deserted cove just before sunset, of pouring that evening libation and, with a freshly roasted bowl of popcorn, lying back as the geese and ducks and loons make your acquaintance and the darkness slowly descends to complement the silence.
An anchor, by the dictionary definition, was "a thing affording stability; a source of confidence". In its narrower sense of a man on television, holding a firm line through chaotic events, it was coined for Mr Cronkite in 1952, when he covered the Democratic and Republican conventions for CBS. That he went on to play the role of anchor for the whole of America, holding the craft steady through the gales of Vietnam, Watergate and the Kennedy and King assassinations with his reading of the CBS Evening News, was a source of both pride and surprise to him.
He liked to say he was a newsman. He aspired to be nothing else. But as America's stabiliser from 1962 to 1981, he was imbued with a different character. He was always a Midwesterner, from the deep middle, though he had spent his formative years in Texas rather than Missouri, where he was born. His voice was described as bass and stately, though it was often light and fast, gaining authority from the clipped fall of the sentences rather than the timbre. Viewers thought of "Uncle Walter", with his greying sideburns and sad, pale eyes, as calmness itself. But when John Kennedy was killed, in a flurry of rumours and alarms over his newsdesk, he constantly removed his horn-rimmed glasses, put them on again, and swallowed hard. When astronauts landed on the moon he gasped, mopped his brow and was speechless. Americans listening to him-husbands finishing the meatloaf, wives stacking the dishes, children already in pyjamas-sometimes described him as the voice of God. God created the world in half an hour (17 minutes with commercial breaks) and then, at 7pm, rested: "And that's the way it is on Friday, July 20th. For CBS News, I'm Walter Cronkite."
The objective centre
His career was founded firmly on reverence for facts, the natural bent of an old wire reporter who had done his footwork at the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy landings. The rise and rise of "infotainment" on television distressed him. Features were fine in their place, but a news bulletin should contain at least a dozen bits of hard news that made sense of his complicated country and, if possible, the world.
With facts came objectivity, his fundamental creed. He hoped he could be described as a liberal in the true sense, non-dogmatic and non-committed. He was "not a registered anything". Many viewers doubted it, claiming "Pinko Cronkite" helped to push the country to the left and lose the war in Vietnam. It was true that in the spring of 1968 he declared-in tones apocalyptic rather than calm-that the summer would bring only stalemate in the war, escalation meeting new escalation, until the world approached "cosmic disaster". He had had his private doubts about the build-up of troops for three years. But almost at once, he regretted that his public words put him "on a side".
Anchoring him, too, was his belief in the freedom of the press and the right of the people to know. In the last years of the Nixon presidency he found himself fighting against wiretapping and the bullying of journalists, "a cold draught" through the door, but pulled on his mittens and got on with the job. His faith was placed solidly in the constitution, and in law and order. He was never so angry on-air as when Dan Rather, his successor on the CBS Evening News, was punched by security men during the wild Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. The scene made him want to pack up his microphone and leave. Yet he did not support the demonstrators either, who were drawn to the TV cameras like moths to a flame. The way to change the country was by civilised dialogue; and he would mediate it, from the objective middle, if Americans wished him to.
Yet he was bothered by that. He regretted that Americans were so dependent on television, and on him, to explain the world. TV couldn't do it. All the words uttered in his evening newscast would not fill even the front page of the New York Times. He offered, in the end, just a headline service. Print alone gave the necessary depth of understanding.
His Walter Mitty dream, as he said once, was to take his boat and leave "the daily flow of this miserable world". He would stop attempting to make brisk order out of human affairs. Instead, he once told Sailing magazine, he might weigh anchor from the marshlands of South Carolina:
you start a little before dawn. The first light. I like to do that anyway. The sawgrass rises to meet the day, standing straight up, the blades of sawgrass with dew on them sparkle. All through the marsh grass, the birds are rising …and a little fog rises, the morning fog, the haze, as the dew boils away. And through all of that the fishing boats…meandering through the marsh grass, captain of the sea.
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