How much of a political crusader was Walter Cronkite?

Walter Cronkite had, and deserved, a monumental reputation, helped along by a splendid poker face and a voice that incarnated authority in a time that believed authority was rather unproblematic. Now that he has passed, his career will be inspected for meaning--not least, political meaning. Was he: (a) The very personification of trustworthiness? (b) An agent of rebellious influence? (c) A spokesman for many of America’s bygone, no-longer-reliable authorities? (d) All of the above?

The correct answer is (d).

In the Fifties, before he became the brand of the “CBS Evening News,” he hosted a charming, clunky, weekly show called “You Are There,” in which present-day reporters “covered” historic events like the Constitutional Convention--history reported as news. The charm outweighed the clunk because the moral was that history was like the present, only it was over. It was knowable. Newsmen cut through the fog to get the real story. Cronkite, a former wire service reporter highly regarded for his World War II work, had the look and voice (steady, unflappable) of a man who found things out.

In 1962, Cronkite succeeded to the anchorship of the then only 15-minute-long “CBS Evening News,” and when the show went to a half-hour in 1963, his influence was felt immediately. It was no small deal to occupy such a place at an American network. The three networks were just about the whole TV story. CBS and NBC had the half-hour nightly news shows all to themselves until 1967, when ABC caught up. Those were the days of three networks, three auto companies, three breads (white, wheat, rye), with a scatter of marginal alternatives (DuMont, Studebaker, pumpernickel). The news was The News the way that Chevy was The Car. “And that’s the way it is,” Cronkite’s close-off, was a steady advertisement for TV’s ability to know what a citizen needed to know.

That meant, for the most part, reading his copy poker-faced and baritone, without any more inflections than a wire-service report. When Cronkite broke out of the ritual and, sitting at his desk, took off his glasses when he reported that John F. Kennedy was dead, and then swallowed hard, he was certifying what a massive truth that was.

Most doves thought he was dovish on the Vietnam war; most hawks thought he was hawkish. In 1962, he had narrated an anti-communist government propaganda film called The Eagle’s Talon. (In 1971, when the producer of The Selling of the Pentagon wanted to include a clip, he objected. It was included anyway. The tide had turned.) Cronkite had, in fact, helped turn it. In February 1968, after a Tet offensive that wasn’t supposed to happen, he stepped out of his anchor chair--and out of character--and went to Vietnam to find out for himself what was happening.

I asked John Laurence, formerly one of the stars of CBS’s Vietnam reporting, what he remembered of Cronkite’s special report. “The reason his Vietnam War broadcast in 1968 had such a big impact,” he wrote back in an e-mail, “was that it was so unlike him to take a position on anything. It just wasn't done in those days.” Laurence recalled dinner the night before Cronkite left Saigon:

Walter said he wanted to know what was really going on. The senior US military officers he had spoken with had told him the Tet Offensive was turning out to be a huge success for the allies because they were killing so many VC and NVA. They were predicting victory. I acknowledged the huge numbers of deaths, but pointed out that the Northerners would replace their losses and come at us again. And again, and again. And that the sooner we realized the fact that we were not going to win this fucking war, the better for everyone, especially the Vietnamese and Americans who were being butchered by the thousands. For no good purpose. I got a bit emotional and [chief CBS Vietnam correspondent Robert] Schackne gave me a polite but stiff kick in the shins under the table at one point, to suggest that I cool it.

CBS special aired on February 27, 1968, with this peroration:

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

These words were neither incendiary nor novel. That the war was unwinnable was already the view of the secretary of defense and a staple of public opinion. But Cronkite’s step out of character was a formidable symbol of broken legitimacy in an age that liked its symbolism straightforward.

In 1972, Cronkite threw his weight as managing editor behind another extraordinary break from the evening-news-as-usual. One of his field producers, Stanhope Gould, was convinced that the Watergate story was so complicated that the fragments trickling out day after day didn’t add up to a comprehensible narrative. With Cronkite’s approval, Gould put together a two-parter of unprecedented length. On October 27, 1972, Part I ran for 14 minutes and 40 seconds, roughly two-thirds of the entire news hole--a veritable War and Peace of the evening news, and eleven days before the election at that. Part II was ready to run at roughly the same length minutes. Said Gould in an e-mail, “Walter was the reason” the program broke precedent by going so long. “He pulled Managing Editor rank.”

No sooner did Part I run than Nixon operative Charles Colson phoned CBS chief William S. Paley to complain that the network was playing politics and issue a veiled threat, whereupon Paley called the late CBS president Richard Salant, who, said Gould, “left that encounter sure that Paley wanted Part II exterminated with extreme prejudice.” Gould, who thought the piece needed unusual length and repetition to drive the story home, was willing to compromise on an 8 minute version, which made a case that Nixon intimates H. R. Haldeman and John Mitchell were implicated. Cronkite, who had (according to varying accounts) either sized up the limits of his influence or acceded to a top producer’s desire to hold him back in reserve, stayed out of the meeting where Salant accepted the deal.

Cronkite wasn’t hell-bent on opposition, in either case. Eventually, his conventional patriotic persona went back to work. Beginning on the 50th day of the Iran hostage crisis, in 1980, Cronkite followed “and that’s the way it is” with “the 50th [100th, etc., up to Day 444] day of captivity for the American hostages in Tehran.” Two months after the hostages returned, he relinquished the anchor chair.

But the more truncated, parochial, and craven the networks became subsequently, the more Cronkite spoke out as the trustworthy personification of straight, unquestionable news to which attention needed to be paid. In many public statements over almost three decades, he lashed out at the trivialization of the news under increasingly desperate corporate management. One suspects that while his successor, Dan Rather, closed his own broadcasts with the words “That’s part of our world tonight,” Walter Cronkite persisted in the na?ve but sturdy faith that it was possible, and obligatory, to tell the big truth of his time, to establish a base-line of fact which all America, with its Big Hearth, ought to know and had reason--not least in his honesty--to believe.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is the author of many books on America and its culture, including The Sixties and The Whole World Is Watching.

By Todd Gitlin