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Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

One day when Walter Cronkite was six years old, he tore down the bucolic streets of St. Joseph, Mo., clutching a copy of The Kansas City Star. The banner headline blared that President Warren G. Harding was dead. In that race to inform his parents about the startling news, Cronkite the newsman was born.

After leaving college and landing at a radio station, he joined United Press wire service in 1937. Four years later, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Suddenly Cronkite had a free pass to one of the most tumultuous eras in American history. He never took a backseat to history again.

Cronkite boarded the Battleship Texas and soon witnessed his first combat encounter in the North Atlantic. He was present for the Allied landing in North Africa. In 1943, he flew in a B-17 Flying Fortress with the Eighth Air Force. And when Germany capitulated, he covered the Nuremberg Trials, 1945-1946. The bitter stench of the grizzly trial footage –– emaciated Jewish men, women and children being gassed, burned, buried, unburied –– haunted him throughout his life.

In the memoir A Reporter’s Life, Cronkite recollected Nuremberg in an atypical, often anguished, first-person: “I don’t recall that it had ever occurred to me to spit on anyone before. But this was what I wanted to do now . . . I watched them as they watched the films of the concentration camp victims. They buried their heads in their hands, they sobbed openly. And I couldn’t help wondering whether they cried out of pity for the victims or out of fear of the retribution society sought?. . . Almost as shocking as those films were the tales from the witness stand, notably those of a very ordinary-looking man who calmly told of supervising the death of three million persons as if he were telling a neighboring farmer of having to put down a sick cow.”

In 1950, Cronkite decided to leave the cherished world of print journalism and join CBS at the dawn of television news. The American public warmed to Cronkite, whose direct, levelheaded modulation and professional acumen made up for his lack of physical glamour. Back then, you didn’t have to be a model to win the heart of America. You just had to be trustworthy. Americans trusted Cronkite’s factually unerring delivery of the news and the caring heart beneath the implacable surface.

That surface cracked only once, on November 22, 1963, when he reported that President John F. Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. During that news bulletin — that death knell — expressed through a familiar gravely voice with the whole world watching, Cronkite paused to remove his glasses. His surrender to personal emotion, so uncharacteristic of the public man, cracked wide the tears of a shocked nation. In a matter of seconds, Cronkite resumed, steady and steadfast. As did the nation –– eventually.

Walter Cronkite, known as Uncle Walter to millions of Americans and “Old Iron Pants” to his colleagues, died July 17, 2009, at the age of 92. After retiring as anchor of the CBS Evening News, a position he held, with our grateful consent, for 19 years, he wrote, traveled and loved his family. In that respect he sounds like any other good man. Cronkite the legend, and his high standards, will never be duplicated. Trust and accuracy don’t exactly define the Internet. Cable news is not exactly a fireside chat with a trusted friend. Cronkite’s credibility was aided by his medium. High civil discourse, which depends on TV news and newspaper reporting at their best, are more important than ever in a world fractured and denigrated by electronic media.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of America’s first landing on the moon –– an event Cronkite covered with pride, awe and plain delight. Be with the stars, Mr. Cronkite. We’ll be waiting for your report.


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