Walter Cronkite, The Most Trusted Man in America

American Icons, People
on November 20, 2005

The sound of his familiar voice announces his arrival even before he enters his 19th floor corner office in New York, a rolled-up newspaper poking out of his back pocket. Walter Cronkite asks his chief of staff, Marlene Adler, to confirm his evening plans and prepares to begin another day on a tight schedule.

At 89, Cronkite’s face is rounder and his jaw softer, but he retains the same iconic charisma of the newsman who addressed the nation each weeknight for nearly 20 years. He boasts an impressive shock of white hair and his trademark mustache remains impeccably groomed. “I grew it when I was 19 to look older,” he says, then smiles. “It’s long since outlived its usefulness in that regard.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Cronkite’s office, just a few blocks from Manhattan’s Central Park, is understated and completely functional—not a vast museum display bursting at the seams with the many accomplishments, awards and assorted career memorabilia of the broadcast journalist known for decades as “the most trusted man in America.” His Emmys are discreetly displayed on a shelf behind his desk, near a collection of navigational guides that reference his passion of sailing. The walls in his office aren’t plastered with photographs of Cronkite posing with the numerous world leaders he has interviewed; only a small photo of the legendary newsman and his wife, Betsy, with President Kennedy, along with a few framed handwritten notes from Kennedy sent in September 1963, which hang in a corner. A framed editorial cartoon, depicting the day Cronkite retired from his evening-news anchor’s chair on March 6, 1981, shows Mickey Mouse, another broadcast icon, weeping in front of a TV set as a voice from inside the television says, “. . . and that’s the way it is”—Cronkite’s trademark sign-off.

Settling in behind his desk, Cronkite moves slowly, nursing a damaged Achilles tendon torn four years ago in a tennis match. It never healed properly, he explains. Time has robbed him of much of his hearing, a cruel irony for one of the 20th century’s greatest communicators, but that hasn’t slowed him in the least. He travels nationally and internationally to deliver about a dozen lectures a year. “I don’t do a canned speech,” he says. “I do ad-libbed comments on the day’s news and answer questions. That has been a very successful format for several years now.”

Cronkite doesn’t have much time to reflect on his colorful career—mainly because he’s still busy with current projects. In addition to his lectures, he also creates about 12 documentaries annually for National Public Radio and its counterpart, Public Radio International, and still makes the occasional television documentary for PBS and other networks. He continues to serve as a special correspondent for CBS, his network home for more than three decades. Last summer, the former war reporter visited his old World War II haunts in London for a PBS documentary, City at War, which will air in the spring.

“He’s just so concerned with the world and thinks about it all the time,” says his close friend, 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney. “He has got all sorts of ideas about what should be done to make this world better.”

In December, Cronkite is scheduled to travel to Vienna’s Musikverein hall to host its New Year’s Day celebration for PBS, as he’s done for the past two decades. He plans to take January off and tour the British Virgin Islands on his 55-foot Ketch sailboat, Wyntje, before resuming his work schedule from February until May. He takes a three-month summer hiatus annually in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he sails as much as possible.

When he heads home from the office, he goes cross-town to Manhattan’s east side. Off duty, he likes conversing with friends “who have something to say.” He also goes to the theater, “like everybody else,” he notes. Apart from sailing, one of his other loves is serving as a guest conductor for symphonies and orchestras. He is the only civilian to ever conduct the U.S. Marine Corps Band, and he also has manned the baton for the Boston Pops and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra.

Although his professional schedule has remained the same for the past several years, his personal life was dealt a heartbreaking blow in March, when Betsy, his wife of 65 years, died of cancer at age 89. “I am still too affected by it to really discuss it,” says an emotional Cronkite, who has three children—Nancy, a writer and yoga instructor; Chip, a New York documentary producer; and Kate, an author—and four grandchildren. He does add that Betsy “was terrific. She put up with a lot without complaint. She was proud and interested in what I was doing. She also had a great sense of humor, which helps a lot with a journalist in the household. We got along great.”

A front-row seat to history

Cronkite was born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., the only child of a mustached dentist and his beautiful wife. The family relocated to Kansas City, Mo., when little Walter was 2. At age 6, Cronkite took it upon himself to report the death of President Harding to the neighbors. Soon after, he launched his media career by selling magazines and delivering newspapers.

When he was 10, his family was on the move again, this time to Houston, a re-rooting that would ultimately shape the rest of his life. “I was fortunate enough to be in high school in Houston, Texas, which had perhaps the first high-school journalism class in the country, as far as I know,” he says.

Fred Birney, a former editor of the Houston Press, volunteered his teaching services to five Houston schools. “I was lucky enough to be in his class,” says Cronkite, who became editor of the school’s newspaper. “He inspired me to want to be in journalism. He was so firm, really tough about any suggestion of putting your private opinion into an article of any kind. That stayed with me all my life. And then his other commands of accuracy and fairness were well implanted in me.”

After attending the University of Texas, Cronkite worked for the Houston Post before joining United Press International in 1939. As a UPI correspondent, he covered many important World War II battles, including the pivotal United States’ attack on North Africa and the Allied invasion of Normandy. “It shook up a whole generation of those who lived through it,” he says of the war.

He says he wanted to spit on the Nazi war criminals on trial in Nuremberg in the late 1940s for killing millions of innocent people. “It was such a terrible story of the malcontents of the world, who in this case were Hitler’s followers, that it was hard to believe that human beings could be so cruel to other human beings,” he says. “It taught us that we were in a whole new era of war, and with the added threat of the nuclear bomb.”

He left UPI in 1948 and worked for two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for a group of radio stations. He joined CBS in 1950, anchoring television newscasts from the news organization’s station in the nation’s capital. He was named anchor of CBS Evening News in 1962, just as the nation was entering one of its most tumultuous decades. Perhaps his most memorable newscast occurred when he announced, with tears in his eyes, the death of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Footage of his report itself has become a part of history and frequently is shown in TV documentaries.

“I really don’t understand why that should be such an icon of the assassination,” he says of the news clip. “But I am not ashamed of it in any way. I did indeed have to brush away a tear, and I have gotten awfully tired of seeing me taking off those glasses. It surprises me every time it pops up again.”

Reporting without prejudice

Cronkite has been lauded—and criticized—for being a neutral observer who did not reveal his personal opinions while delivering the news. “He was so careful, all those years he was on the air, not to reveal his opinions about politics or anything else,” Rooney says. “People didn’t know whether he was a Republican or Democrat. It was very difficult to do, and something that no one is doing today.”

Cronkite viewed his position as being “the front page” of the newscast, while TV commentators were “the editorial page.” “Those who write for the front pages, that is, for the news pages and not the opinion pages of the newspapers and on television and radio news, are obligated to try to not show prejudice in their reporting,” he says. “If they have prejudice, as much as possible they should put it aside and understand that their responsibility as journalists is to tell the story without injecting their personal opinion.”

But he was convinced to express his opinion in 1968 after returning from a trip to Vietnam during the war’s Tet offensive. He anchored a prime-time special on the air, and at the end, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Cronkite now says the commentary was not his idea, but that of CBS news president Dick Salant. “As I was writing my piece, he asked me how I felt about it,” he recalls. “I said to him at that time what I said later on the air, that it seemed to me it was a time for us to admit that we had done the best we could, spent a lot of blood and money to try to preserve Southeast Asia against Communist incursions, and we tried to save Vietnam. However, it had cost us too much and we had not succeeded. Let’s admit that we had not and get out. He said, ‘I think you ought to put that in your piece.’”

After the piece aired, President Lyndon Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

“A lot of people believe this was the final straw on the camel’s back that caused him not to run for re-election,” Cronkite says. “I don’t know whether that is so or not. I think it was just one little straw on the camel’s back, but it had some effect.”

By the 1970s, Cronkite’s newscast was hands-down the most popular network newscast in the nation, and a 1973 poll named him the most trusted man in America. “When I read those polls the first time, I thought, how silly,” he says. “I really did. I still feel pretty much that same way. It [made it seem] like I was more trustworthy than all of the members of the Supreme Court, the president and the bishops. That is perfectly ridiculous. That was only because I was the one person that was known all over the country because of being on national television.”

His friends, however, might disagree. “Certainly his reputation is what everybody would aspire to,” Rooney says. “I don’t know anyone who has a better reputation than he has. He is bright, concerned and decent. He is such a good, direct, honest person. There is no one I would rather be with.”

After much thought, Cronkite decided to retire in 1981 when he turned 65, a decision he now admits he regretted almost immediately. “I made a mistake stepping down at 65,” he says. “If I had known that my health was going to be so good for so long, I wouldn’t have done that. I was thinking of a life expectancy of far fewer years than I have enjoyed. Therefore, I was going to have time to do some things I had always wanted to do in life before I kicked the bucket. If I had known I was going to have all of these years, I wouldn’t have stepped down at that time.

“As a matter of fact, I regretted it within a couple of weeks. I had just stepped down when the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan took place. Here the story was, and I was missing it.

“Every time there was a big story, I wished I was involved in covering it in some way. That still goes on today,” he says with a warm smile.