It’s been a tough month for legends.
First, Dempsey Travis passed, leaving behind a rich legacy of music, entrepreneurship and activism behind here in Chicago that does and will reverberate throughout the nation.
Yesterday, it was Walter Cronkite’s turn.
The veteran newsman was 92 and had been retired from full time duty for more than 30 years, but that made his loss no less significant.
Tributes have issued forth from throughout the industry, hailing the integrity, class, and plain-spoken truth that made Cronkite “the most trusted man in America.”
David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be sheds valuable insight on the man who started in Missouri, broke into news coverage during World War II, and came of age during a time when network news TV had started its ascent over newspapers as the dominant source of information in American-a dominance that had not been challenged by cable news.
I’ve written about this book before, and, like so much of Halberstam’s work, it is a resource to which one can return over and over again as different contexts allow.
The Cronkite that emerges on these pages is tough, fair, scrupulously committed to objectivity, and, above all, decent.
Yet, ironically, some of his most memorable moments came when he shed, in one case, just for a minute, in another for a full half hour special, the objectivity he had cultivated so assiduously.
The first moment was when he announced that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. The clip of Cronkite removing his glasses and wiping away the tears he was shedding is definitely worth checking out for those who have not done so, and taking another look for those who have.
That was Cronkite at his best when delivering momentous breaking news-that a president who seemed to embody an ideal and an idyll had been assassinated, ending a life and also an era.
The second moment was, when Cronkite made a return visit to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and concluded that the war could not be won. Halberstam describes vividly his sinking sensation that the military leaders were not to be trusted and his agonizing decision to shift from reporting to what critics could call advocacy or personal journalism.
The move was noteworthy both because of Cronkite’s deeply held belief in keeping personal views out of the news and because it represented a profound shift in his personal opinion since he had first visited Vietnam three years earlier.
His words bear repeating for their directness, their simplicity and their impact:
“”We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds … We are mired in stalemate .”
He concluded with a push for negotiations, saying it was “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.”
Reports today will abound with then-President Johnson’s reputed remark that, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Halberstam’s take on Johnson’s reaction is helpful here. He writes that Cronkite’s comments told Johnson both that the national consensus had moved from supporting the war to a different position, and, because he himself trusted Cronkite so much, Johnson understood that the war probably was unwinnable.
Halberstam’s own commitment to fairness shows through later in the book, as he shows how Cronkite later fell out of favor with the CBS brass and how he, along with the rest of the CBS team, did not acquit themselves well during Nixon’s resignation. These details add texture to and underscore the remarkable nature of the contributions Cronkite did make. The world is poorer today with his passing, yet greatly enriched by all that he did during his time while alive. Halberstam’s classic work helps deepen our appreciation of this extraordinary newsman and human.