He looked like a small-town barber, but as anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, Cronkite was essentially the voice of God for many Americans. He died July 17 at the age of 92, but he left behind a memoir. Here’s an excerpt about a day in 1963 when he led a nation in mourning.
— Benjamin Svetkey
It is an interesting thing about us newspeople. We are much like doctors and nurses and firemen and police. In the midst of tragedy, our professional drive takes over and dominates our emotions. We move almost like automatons to get the job done. The time for an emotional reaction must wait.
I was doing fine in that department until it was necessary to pronounce the words: ”From Dallas, Texas, the flash — apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time — a half hour ago [pause]…”
The words stuck in my throat. A sob wanted to replace them. A gulp or two quashed the sob, which metamorphosed into tears forming in the corners of my eyes. I fought back the emotion and regained my professionalism, but it was touch and go there for a few seconds before I could continue: ”Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly, and become the thirty-sixth President of the United States.”
I was on the air for six hours when our producer, Don Hewitt, said Charles Collingwood was there to relieve me briefly. As I got up from my chair, I realized…that I was still in my shirtsleeves…far more informal than I would normally appear on the air….
I went into my glass-walled office off the newsroom intending to call [my wife] Betsy. I needed an intimate moment to share emotions. Millions of Americans were doing the same. All afternoon I had been reporting that telephone lines were jammed and switchboards clogged across the nation. I had not thought that this would create a problem for me, but on my desk all twelve of my incoming lines were lit.
As I stared, one of them blinked dark and I grabbed it hoping to get an outside line. Instead there was somebody already there….
”Hello, hello, hello. Is this CBS?”
I confirmed that it was.
”Well,” she said, ”I’d like to speak to someone in charge of the news.”
I reported that she had reached our newsroom.
”I want to complain,” she complained, ”of your having that Walter Cronkite on the air at a time like this, crying his crocodile tears when we all know he hated Jack Kennedy.”
I was in no mood to listen to such unfair and distorted reasoning. I asked the lady’s name and it was, as her accent indicated it might be, hyphenated. Something like Mrs. Constance Llewellyn-Arbuthnot. She also threw in her Park Avenue address for full measure of her importance.
With all the outraged dignity I could muster, I told her: ”Mrs. Llewellyn-Arbuthnot, you are speaking to Walter Cronkite, and you, madam, are a damned idiot.”
From ‘A Reporter’s Life’ by Walter Cronkite. Published by Knopf in 1996.
The Way He Was
YouTube clips show how Cronkite became ”the most trusted man in America”
Removing his glasses to announce the president’s death was his most iconic moment.
When Cronkite declared Vietnam unwinnable, LBJ responded, ”If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
A self-described space junkie, Cronkite almost fell apart while announcing that man had landed on the moon.