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And That's the Way It Seems

Bill Ingalls/NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Starting on Thursday, March 12, Walter Cronkite will be absent from the CBS Evening News. After 31 years with CBS and almost 19 years as anchorman, he will be replaced by Dan Rather. So far, the reaction has been remarkably restrained. CBS tries, through euphemism, to make the termination sound like a fresh start. Representatives of the network insist that Cronkite, 64, is not retiring, but "stepping down from the Evening News"; their word for retirement is "transition". Cronkite himself has also been somewhat evasive about the end, as if reluctant to come right out with the awful news. For the past few years, he has publicized a lot of reassuring plans: he will take on some of the world's biggest problems in hard-hitting documentaries. He will finally "speak out," if not on television, then "in front of groups where you can plant seeds, thoughts." And he just might come back to see us through the occasional crisis. In other words, he won't be gone, he'll just be "away"; no longer part of daily life, but likely to pop up helpfully at crucial moments, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In fact, the retirement will hit millions of Cronkite's viewers very hard. Cronkite has been a national figure for as long as many people can remember: longer than FDR, longer than Ike, and certainly longer than our many recent presidents. The very fact of his long career is enough to make his disappearance startling. "When we have done any thing for the last time," wrote another reporter (Samuel Johnson) in 1760, "we involuntarily reflect that a part of the days allotted us is past, and that as more is past there is less remaining." There is another dimension to Cronkite's strong appeal: he seems heroically honest. When "the most trusted man in America" leaves his anchor desk next month, it will seem, to many, as if this nation were losing its one incorruptible guardian. Walter Cronkite has won the kind of trustful admiration that our leaders ought to have deserved. They lived and vanished, he endures; they threaten the fabric of the system, he restores it. And, also like an ideal leader, Cronkite has, for years, managed to keep alien realities at a safe distance, putting the world in order every weeknight. In short, his charisma partly results from a long record of apparent objectivity.

Cronkite's unusual "longevity" seems to define the history of television journalism, and, therefore, the history of postwar America. The man who is now "the stalwart kingpin of CBS News" (as William Paley put it) joined CBS in 1950, at the request of Edward R Murrow. The following year, when the coasts we linked by coaxial cable, network television became a national medium, and television news, until then a mere novelty, soon overwhelmed radio news and began to compete with Time and the newspapers. Its progress (and Cronkite's) began at the Republican National Convention in 1952, where CBS was the first to demonstrate the possibilities of live coverage. Sig Mickelson, then head of the television news division, worked out the concept of an "anchorman," one authoritative figure at the center of a complicated broadcast. Cronkite was the first to play the role and take the title, and he did it brilliantly at both conventions. "By the time the Democrats had nominated the team of Adlai Stevenson and John Sparkman," writes Mickelson, "Walter Cronkite, unknown prior to the conventions, had achieved a status comparable to that of a Hollywood leading man." 

As news programming at CBS became more varied and elaborate, Cronkite's face became a more familiar sight. He anchored the 1956 conventions (and every convention since, with one exception), and appeared regularly on many different shows: as guide to the past on "You Are There" (from 1953) and "The Twentieth Century" (from 1957); as the narrator of "Air Power" (from 1956); as co-host on "The Morning Show" (1954), where his duties included kibitzing with two puppets named Humphrey the Houn' Dog and Charlemane the Lion; as anchorman of the "Sunday News Special" and the weekly "Eyewitness." His service on these last two shows prepared him for his final promotion, in 1962, when "Douglas Edwards with the News" became the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite." The next year, the program went from 15 minutes to its present half-hour, adopting the familiar newsroom format, with Cronkite at his semicircular desk, seemingly poised amid the hubub of communications. Although NBC's "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" also went to the half-hour a few days later, that show rejected the journalistic ambience in favor of coverage "from the studio," emphasizing witty scripts and the interplay of its two hosts: "Writing is 75 percent of the trick," said Huntley. "We're trying to emphasize reporting," countered Cronkite, whose program used more interviews and field reports. Huntley and Brinkley beat Cronkite in the ratings until 1967, but Cronkite always seemed the more authentic newsman. He seemed, in fact, to represent the purest impulses of his profession, and continues to evince the same integrity.

Cronkite's longevity has identified him not only with television journalism, but also with those events that television has imposed upon the national memory. His reactions at some of those extraordinary moments have been especially moving because they have been so unexpected, coming from the even-tempered figure, and because, generally speaking, they have expressed our reactions. This first happened a few months after the introduction of the expanded format in 1963, which was also the year that more people began to watch the news than read it. Many millions were therefore tuned in to CBS on the afternoon of November 22, trying to find out what was happening. At 2:33 p.m., Cronkite, still in his shirtsleeves, appeared on the screen, put on his glasses, absently put his thumb to his lip, then took paper in hand and announced: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash—apparently official—President Kennedy dies—at 1 p.m.. Central Standard Time—2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time—some 38 minutes ago." After this precise report, he gulped, his lips were trembling, and he kept putting on and taking off his glasses, as if trying not to look into the camera.

The image of Walter Cronkite blinking back tears is one of several Cronkite images that mark the highlights of the recent past. At the Democratic National Convention in 1968, we (and Cronkite) watched Dan Rather on the convention floor, struggling with "security guards" ("If you're not going to arrest me, take your hands off me!"), who finally knocked him down. Cronkite lost his temper: "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan—if I may be permitted to say so." Cronkite also has exploded in more jovial ways. Covering a space shot in the early 1960s, he roared at the moment of lift-off, over the revving of engines and the nattering of technicians, "GO, BABY, GO!"

Because Cronkite has been so deliberate about "hewing to the middle of the road," his few calculated departures from the pose of detachment have seemed as dramatic as his outbursts; these moments too reverberate historically. When Cronkite decided that the war in Vietnam could not be won, he made that point explicitly in a half-hour special, and criticism of the war suddenly seemed legitimate and influential. Cronkite's treatment of the Nixon scandals was equally striking. In 1972, reporting a complicated story about the Soviet wheat deal, he took the unprecedented step of standing up to explain a point with graphics. Later that year, he devoted 14 minutes of the Evening News to a report on "the Watergate caper." Although the second half of that report, scheduled for the following night, was mysteriously shortened (probably because of pressures from the White House), the presentations still directed national attention to the story, thus easing the burden on the Washington Post by giving Watergate its due exposure.

Cronkite is indeed a solid institution, like a reputable bank, and this aura must owe something to his many years of dispassionate service. But it is absurd to explain his appeal by pointing to its long duration; if he hadn't appealed in the first place, he wouldn't have continued to appeal. In fact, Cronkite projected his famous qualities long before he became a silvered celebrity. In 1965, one columnist wrote in the New York Daily News that Cronkite seemed "as solid as a mountain, as reliable as sunrise."

This image is what has won him so much influence and respect; or, more precisely, it is his image that is so influential and respected. Cronkite always bristles at the implication that he is merely a reader of lines, and he is right to resent this belittlement. As anchorman and managing editor of the Evening News, he has worked very hard, and his coverage of special events demands long preparation and enormous skill (and a steely bladder, as his nickname, "Old Ironpants," suggests). The fact remains, however, that Cronkite's most popular qualities are superficial. When he is praised, he is usually praised for how he seems, not for what he does. "He has given the news an aura of solidity," says George Reedy, LBJ's press secretary. Of course an aura is, by definition, immaterial. This kind of praise is common, and suggests that Cronkite's strength lies not in his journalistic abilities but in his video persona. To ascribe Cronkite's success to the appeal of his image is not to deny his achievement, but to point out that his success derives from something which is, basically, beyond his control.

Of course, Cronkite is careful to preserve the purity of this image. He would never do commercials, and has always been reluctant to editorialize: "Others are doing as good a job or better," he says, "but they do commentary and are classified as to ideological bias and that hurts them." Moreover, he has kept the Evening News free from gimmickry, show biz extras, and flashy graphics. The show's straightforward character, in turn, has enhanced Cronkite's own authoritative air. Cronkite takes pains with his image because he wants to be believed, not because he is a Machiavellian, setting up a deceptive facade. Cronkite and his image are continuous; he has not created it, but only maintains it. If you were to yank him out of bed at 3 a.m., he would still seem like Cronkite, even before he'd brushed his teeth. However, although this sincerity may help explain why people accept his image, it doesn't tell us what they love about it. There is much more to Cronkite's image than "honesty," "objectivity," or any other handy abstraction.

Why is that image so appealing? If we compare it with the images of other anchormen, we might discover something of what Cronkite isn't. Compared to Cronkite, for example, Dan Rather seems a bit tense. We remember him, not seated in Olympian detachment like his predecessor, but leaping into the fray, even when there isn't any. Whether sparring with Nixon, or confronting mendacious gas station attendants on "60 Minutes," or crawling around in colorful Afghani garb on the Evening News, Rather seems hyperactive. At the anchor desk, he sits ramrod-straight, eyes smoldering, reading his lucid copy in a measured tone which suggests that he can barely keep from jumping up and screaming. He is not, like Cronkite, comforting. We imagine, as he reads, that his knuckles are turning white.

John Chancellor of NBC is a little more like Cronkite: authoritative, quietly commanding, reading his copy with parental calm. Chancellor's air of command, however, is somewhat chillier. His tortoise-shell glasses and tone of ironic reserve make him seem like a stern headmaster (or chancellor), compared to Cronkite, who, with his jowls and sad eyes and graying moustache, seems capable of nothing harsher than a mild harrumph! NBC's technique also makes Chancellor look forbidding. Both men sit behind gigantic desks, the kind of thing that Mussolini would have used, if he had run a news program instead of a small nation. Chancellor, however, appears more dominant, shot from a slightly lower angle. Before commercials, Cronkite is shot from above, shown sitting amid the machinery of a busy newsroom: he looks, at those moments, like a vigilant captain. When Chancellor breaks off, the camera zooms back eerily to show him sitting exalted in twilit space, like Ming the Merciless. 

At ABC, on the other hand, the anchormen always seem quite close to the screen, as if the cameras were resting on the toes of their expensive shoes. They appear in close-up because such shots are more striking than longer shots, and ABC News has tended, since Roone Arledge took it over, to employ the snazziest effects and devices. The anchormen themselves are pretty snazzy devices: Frank Reynolds, of the wry grin and permanent tan, dashing Peter Jennings, and the decorous Max Robinson. They are all smoothtoned, well-groomed, and good-looking, and therefore don't seem entirely trustworthy. It looks as if Arledge, in need of a staff, went out and raided an escort service. Cronkite, on the other hand, seems made of durable homespun, and wouldn't fuss over his looks. So far, Cronkite's image seems a simple one: a figure of calm, benevolence, and unpretentiousness. But it is not simple at all. The image of Walter Cronkite is a national symbol; when it no longer appears at the anchor desk, it will be as if George Washington's face had suddenly vanished from the dollar bill. Such symbols contain opposites. In them, a culture's conflicts appear to be reconciled, its antitheses resolved.

If there is any word that comes to mind with Cronkite's image, it is "avuncular." Cronkite is "avuncular" as an underbelly is "soft," straits are "dire," and adventure is "high." It is a chestnut that contains some truth. That Cronkite seems "avuncular" suggests that he inspires a kind of warmth among his viewers, as if he were a member of their families. And yet there is a certain aloofness about "Uncle Walter Bear" (to use Nicholas von Hoffman's epithet), an air of inaccessibility. This is partly a consequence of Cronkite's refusal to speak his mind: "Each time I listen to you," Oriana Fallaci once said to him, "I wonder: What are his opinions? He doesn't express them, and he must have them." But his remoteness seems complete, involving not just his "opinions" but his very self. If he is avuncular, he is like an uncle whose visits are punctual and pleasant, but not emotionally draining.

In other words, Cronkite's quality of restrained benevolence is perfect for television, which always offers and withholds, seemingly intimate yet in fact quite cold. Cronkite's remarkable ease with the medium entails, paradoxically, a certain distance from the viewer. By contrast, Edward R. Murrow was ostensibly a much more formal man, always faintly ill at ease before the camera, unable to ad-lib well or smile easily; and yet, writes Alexander Kendrick, "through his entire career, people who heard him thought they knew him." Cronkite, on the other hand, seems less familiar. Television gave us "Ed Murrow," but not "Walt Cronkite."

This remoteness makes us trust in Cronkite all the more. We think of an uncle as especially benign because his affection is uncomplicated, as opposed to the ambivalence of the father. If Cronkite were "fatherly," it might imply an overbearing or competitive temperament, a love of ambiguous intensity. As an "avuncular" figure, he seems both reliable and innocent, a good protector.

This apparent innocence makes him seem strong, a hero from the heartland like Honest Abe or Mr. Smith among the crooks of Washington. With his wholesome midwestern accent (from growing up in Kansas City) and occasional boyish enthusiasm, he seems completely unsophisticated. It's surprising to recall that he makes a lot of money and lives in Manhattan. But in his apparent artlessness he never comes across as naive, because he seems as worldly as unsophisticated. He is surely the most elegant of newsmen, and this sartorial perfection enriches his image with the luster of success. Cronkite therefore offers us an image of virtue rewarded, the old-fashioned man of integrity doing well without selling out. We trust in Cronkite all the more for thus showing that the system works.

Cronkite's vindication of "the system" is not only implicit. He is a dogged optimist, despite his instincts. In many interviews, he mentions what he calls "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"'—overpopulation, pollution, nuclear proliferation, depletion of natural resources—and expresses reasonable doubts that these "immediately dangerous" problems can be solved soon enough. Invariably, however, he ends on a note of cheery nationalism ("We still have it as a nation") which leaves the reader feeling heartened. Thus Cronkite and television news often report serious problems only to express faith that we can lick them. Unlike the pessimistic Murrow, who, with his long face and uneasy gaze, often ended with a challenge to the audience, Cronkite is usually too easygoing to upset his viewers, who persist in thinking that, somehow, Walter will take care of it. The most significant contradiction in Cronkite's image is that it seems to convey the truth, "the way it is," yet assures us that everything is fine. If he were ever to stop tempering his "objectivity" with inspirational nuance, he would no longer be "the most trusted man in America."

That celebrated "objectivity" is really an illusion of transcendence. We believe in him, not because he tells us, "without bias," all about the world, but because he seems above that world, and therefore in a good position to console us. Surrounded by maps and clattering teletypes, the CBS correspondents giving their reports at his bidding, he sits at his anchor desk like God on His throne, white-haired and watchful. It is a comforting image: "Walter's at his anchor desk, all's right with the world." And it is comforting for another reason. In his mighty isolation, Cronkite seems the apotheosis of our national detachment, our deep-rooted faith that ideology is something that can be avoided, like herpes. Cronkite seems to prove that it is possible just to be a nice guy, while the mobs beyond our borders threaten us with politics.

Cronkite also seems above the mobs within the newsroom. His function is ceremonial rather than investigative; he therefore seems of a cleaner breed than his underlings. We identify him, not with unseemly grubbing, but with events of grand sweep and slight significance: papal visits, presidential jaunts, space shots, the Bicentennial. He also handles conventions, elections, inaugurations, and other apparent bench marks, always in a celebratory key. Even Nixon's resignation showed, he said, that "the system works." Cronkite's interviewing style reflects this reluctance to confront or probe. When his role is interlocutory, inviting reminiscence or reflection, his interviews are often unforgettable, such as his talk with Eisenhower on the special, "D-Day Plus 20 Years" (1964). He is not much of an adversary, on the other hand. Mayor Daley, on a visit to the anchor booth a few nights after Rather was punched out, defended his goons and chastised CBS in an interminable monologue, while Cronkite, eyes darting, fidgeted with his pencil and ended up commending "the politeness and general friendliness of the Chicago Police Department." The scene remains disquieting: Mayor Daley lied and Walter Cronkite suddenly became a cowering reporter.

Cronkite seems to transcend not just the news organization but television itself. He has kept himself aloof from the ceaseless intriguing at CBS, and has never committed a single indiscretion. He won't discuss his salary, or take sides out in the open. Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, Daniel Schorr, the Kalb brothers, Roger Mudd, and many others have left the company at various times and in varying degrees of anger, but Cronkite is, as his wife Betsy puts it, "a company man," right down to his cuff links, which bear the CBS logo. Even after he was briefly dumped from convention coverage in 1964, in an effort to boost ratings, he did not complain, and soon regained his place without a murmur.

This steadfast devotion to the company makes him seem, paradoxically, a thing apart. While we know the terms in Barbara Walters's contract, we cannot imagine Cronkite even having one. His apparent detachment from television's corporate world seems to confirm a more general air of alienation from the medium: he is on television, not of it. He is a tireless critic of the excesses of television news: "happy talk" ("It denigrates the news and hurts our image"), "hypercompression," and so on. Cronkite seems to be on television by some happy accident.

But Cronkite's popularity cannot be understood outside the context of television and television news. His "weight" seems more impressive on a lightweight medium; his air of sober calm has all the more effect within television's endless stream of disconnected fibs and trifles. When we take comfort in Cronkite's image, we are struggling with anxieties created by television itself.

Television has opened our eyes to the rest of the world and its afflictions. This is its unpleasant duty. We watch night after night, and the experience ought to teach us more and more, yet it is less informative than overwhelming. The sheer number of ugly revelations, exhibited in quick succession, creates a cumulative sense of chaos. Moreover, by ignoring the causes of events and neglecting to put things in historical perspective, news shows make the world seem not only hectic, but completely irrational: Iranian mobs appear on the streets of Tehran as if by spontaneous generation, overthrowing their rightful leader and insulting us for no apparent reason; thousands die in El Salvador, presumably because Latin Americans are rather excitable; and so on.

Unexplained, these isolated events seem to have no past. Thus the TV news merely does to daily history what television does to reality. In an eternal present, television erases everything that isn't on the screen right now: World War II, pet rocks, the ayatollah, Pittsburgh, Cheryl Tiegs, and whatever you saw 10 seconds ago are all equal in extinction, "off the air." Television news is therefore even more forgettable than yesterday's papers.

What does Walter Cronkite have to do with all these senseless and forgettable fragments? It has become a commonplace that Cronkite makes sense of each day's chaos: "Television made it possible to see all this, to see while it was happening," Theodore White writes about Cronkite. "But someone had to impose an intelligence on it, give a coherence to the random events." In fact, Cronkite does nothing so deliberate: the Evening News is full of unresolved crises. It is his mere presence that creates an illusion of order, as if by magic. But his powers only seem necessary to dispel the absurdity created by the news. Moreover, in a medium that obliterates the past, Cronkite is himself a tradition, a stable presence. And his persona lends a momentary aura of history to news items that have been cut off from history.

When Walter Cronkite is finally freed next month from these strange obligations, what will he do? Despite his wealth, his influence, and his golden reputation, he has been rigidly confined for years. All newsmen are inhibited by the journalist's code of objectivity, but Cronkite has been venerated as "the most objective" as well as "the most trusted," and therefore has been the most constrained of all.

He has not allowed himself to speak out on those public issues which, presumably, he knows so well ("My lips have been buttoned for the last 20 years"), and he has been unable to take part in any investigative reporting, although he has the kind of stature that could persuade the public to take all kinds of salutary steps. In short, he wields enormous power, as long as he doesn't use it. When he retires from the Evening News, will he use that power and sacrifice his image? Or will he appear from time to time as Walter Cronkite?