Saturday, July 18, 2009
And that's the way it was
I remember the announcement as if it were 46 seconds, not 46 years, ago. I was 8 at the time, a second-grader at Bell Road Elementary School in Rome, N.Y., and our principal, Mr. Clough, came on the public address system to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot and that the buses would be arriving early to take us home.
I recall fighting back tears as I gathered up my stuff and headed to the bus circle.
I arrived home to find my parents glued to the old, black-and-white television set in our living room. My mom hugged me tightly, and asked if I was OK. I sat down next to her and began watching the tube in hopes of making sense of the chaos.
Over the next several, surreal days, we and millions of other Americans were gracefully and gently guided through this tragedy by an avuncular, bespectacled man visiting all of our living rooms simultaneously.
His name was Walter Cronkite.
"Uncle Walt'' would become the trusted voice of my generation over the next 20 years, leading us through the triumphs and tragedies of a tumultuous time in American history.
He was the soothing, authoritative narrator we turned to during the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations; the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate, the moon landings, the Beatles music invasion and so much more.
In this age of seemingly infinite information sources, it's difficult to put Cronkite's reach and impact into context. Back in the day, you didn't have the Internet and YouTube and a jillion television options. We essentially had three tv choices - CBS, NBC and ABC - and the majority of us put the dial on CBS because Uncle Walt was a man we believed in most.
One story sure to be repeated often in these days following the anchorman's death Friday night at age 92 underscores his enormous influence on American society in the late 1960s. Cronkite went to Vietnam to do a series about the war. His indepth reporting convinced him that the battle had reached a stalemate and that negotiations for a settlement should begin as soon as possible, lest thousands more pointlessly lose their lives. With the encouragement of his boss (I don't believe that media honchos would have the guts to to this today), Cronkite ended his series of reports on the war with a commentary suggesting peace talks should begin immediately.
A deflated President Lyndon B. Johnson flipped off the set after watching the commentary and resignedly told press secretary Bill Moyers: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America.''
Cronkite was a journalistic giant, an American icon who revolutionized news coverage.
It will be interesting to see in the coming days how his passing is treated.
The celebrity-obsessed media of today clearly won't go ga-ga the way it did in it's over-the-top coverage of the recent death of entertainer Michael Jackson. It may not even cover it as extensively as it did the passing of journalist Tim Russert a year ago.
And, knowing Cronkite, that's probably the way he would want it. A consummate journalist, he was interested in covering the story, not being the story.