How Missouri native became 'most trusted man in America'

Kansas City StarJuly 17, 2009 

As the anchor of the "CBS Evening News" from 1962 to 1981, Walter Cronkite was much more than the country's most-watched newscaster. He became a reassuring interpreter of the events that roiled America and the world, from civil rights unrest to the Vietnam War to Watergate to the hostage crisis in Iran.

He also became a national icon. His signoff, "That's the way it is," was added to the lexicon of American popular culture. So was "Uncle Walter." The name Cronkite showed up in sitcoms and Johnny Carson's monologues.

John Anderson, who mounted a serious presidential bid as an independent in 1980, briefly considered putting him on the ticket as running mate. ("I wouldn't turn it down," promised Cronkite.)

Born in St. Joseph, Mo., Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. spent his first 10 years living in Kansas City before his father, a dentist, moved the family to Texas.

In his 1996 biography "A Reporter's Life," Cronkite recounted his introduction to the news business at the age of 9. "I took the streetcar down to the Kansas City Star every Saturday night and, carrying as many papers as I could, caught the Troost streetcar back to the end of the line and peddled my papers there."

His net was only about 10 cents a week, but, he observed, "it was a beginning."

Stretching out on the grassy slope beneath Liberty Memorial, looking at the railyards full of activity and downtown Kansas City beyond them, Cronkite recalled how "America was on display from that hill — its history and its promise."

At age 16 he found his calling, thanks to Fred Birney, a journalism instructor who circulated among Houston-area high schools. Birney appointed Cronkite editor of the school newspaper and then, in 1933, secured a job for him as the Houston Post's correspondent at the University of Texas in Austin.

"Things could have been a lot different for me without Fred," Cronkite told an interviewer in 2002.

Thus began a steady uphill climb in journalism. While on vacation, he stopped in Kansas City, picked up a copy of the Star and read of an opening at KCMO Radio. He was hired in 1936 as the station's entire news and sports department.

He began visiting 12th Street, where the wild night scene "helped me grow up in a hurry." On Election Day, two policemen working for Tom Pendergast escorted Cronkite to a polling station and instructed him to vote — twice.

He met Betsy Maxwell, who had just been hired from the University of Missouri's journalism school to write advertising copy for the station. She and Walter met on her third day of work and began a lengthy courtship.

"Betsy and I went from the studio to lunch and from lunch to dinner. And from KCMO through life together," Cronkite wrote. The couple married in 1940 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Betsy Cronkite died in 2005, two weeks before the couple's 65th anniversary.

Cronkite toiled in print and radio for nearly two decades. In later interviews he referred warmly to these formative years as a "journeyman reporter."

He was hardly a superstar then, but Cronkite did become valuable enough to the United Press, which he joined in 1939 to cover World War II, that he turned down an offer from Edward R. Murrow to join CBS and work in radio, because United Press countered with more money. Cronkite covered Normandy, the siege of London and the North Africa campaign and the Nuremberg trials for United Press.

When he finally did join CBS in 1950, it was on the television side. Over the next 12 years Cronkite wore a variety of hats: reading the local news at the CBS-owned affiliate in Washington, D.C., overseeing the network's coverage of political conventions — he was given the title of "anchorman," which stuck — hosting the CBS morning show with a puppet, anchoring its 1960 Olympics coverage and narrating a historical series, "You Are There," that was shown in classrooms for decades afterward.

In 1962, Cronkite was named the anchor of the "CBS Evening News," which ran a distant second in the ratings to the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" on NBC. He turned out to be the right person in the right place just as nightly newscasts were expanding to half an hour and asserting unprecedented influence in millions of living rooms.

Soon he set himself apart from the sardonic, opinionated "Huntley-Brinkley Report" with a more down-to-earth approach and a simplicity that reflected his journeyman roots.

He was willing to show emotion on the air, from his unbridled enthusiasm for space launches to his tearful reaction to news of the death of President Kennedy, which he announced on live television. "Cronkite cut through to the average person," said Craig Allen, associate professor at the Arizona State University journalism school that in 1984 was named for the broadcaster.

"CBS Evening News" overtook "Huntley-Brinkley" in 1968. The following year — as Cronkite cheered on the country's manned mission to the Moon —nearly two out of three homes in the U.S. were tuned to his newscast.

Because he communicated so effectively to the masses, Cronkite could occasionally direct messages to the elites that they ignored at their peril.

Unsettled by the surprise Tet Offensive in 1968, he made a fact-finding trip to Vietnam. Cronkite concluded that the optimistic assessments about the war from the Johnson Administration were at odds with the facts.

He told his CBS audience on Feb. 27, 1968, "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out . . . will be to negotiate" with the North Vietnamese.

This editorial reportedly caused President Johnson to despair that he had "lost Middle America." Five weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

As the Watergate crisis unfolded, Cronkite began to increase the amount of airtime devoted to it. This drew the wrath of the Nixon Administration, which threatened to pull the licenses of TV stations owned by the network.

On the 50th day of the crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1980, Cronkite began closing his newscast by reminding viewers — including President Carter —how many days the Americans in Iran had been held hostage.

Yet in his biography Cronkite wrote, "A career can be called a success if one can look back and say, ‘I made a difference.' I don't feel I can do that." In particular, Cronkite felt the values he had learned as a journeyman — clarity, modesty, accuracy — were rapidly being abandoned under pressure from corporate management and shareholders.

In a 1976 survey by U.S. News and World Report, readers selected Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America" — a moniker that would accompany him the rest of his life. President Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981.

Later that year he retired from CBS at age 65 and turned his attention to sailing, the space program and a self-appointed role as senior statesman for the kind of old-fashioned journalism he feared was vanishing from the American scene.

Cronkite, who never earned a seven-figure salary, spoke out against the networks for paying their biggest stars huge sums while cutting reporters and slashing resources behind the scenes. He was particularly harsh on CBS, and bemoaned the fact that his advice was ignored by Lawrence Tisch, the financier who took over the network in 1986.

He spoke out on a variety of other issues, such as climate change and the war in Iraq, ending the neutrality he had tried to keep under wraps while reporting the news.

Yet when asked about the sway he thought his opinions held with the public, Cronkite would try to distance himself from the personality cult that had built up around him.

"I always have been concerned about the idolatry connected with anchorpeople on television," he told the New York Times in 1989. "It bothers me a great deal that people would say, 'I believe every word you say.'"

With family on both sides living in Kansas City, he remained closely identified with the area all his life. He and Betsy returned often to visit relatives and friends. In 2000 he agreed to emcee the city's 150th birthday celebration at Arrowhead Stadium.

A first cousin, Kay Barnes, credited him with her decision to run for mayor, and he appeared at fund-raising events during her two campaigns.

At one of them in 2003, Cronkite criticized the Bush administration's plan to invade Iraq.

"We have shown arrogance, almost an egotism, in our conduct of foreign policy so that we have alienated most of our former allies in the world," he said, adding that the Iraq War "is going to get us in very serious trouble."

But his views never seemed to get him into much trouble or diminish his luster. NASA named him an Ambassador of Exploration in 2006, one of scores of accolades heaped on him over four decades.

And inside the CBS news division, Cronkite remained a revered figure, such that when Rather's successor, Katie Couric, took over the "Evening News" in 2006, Cronkite was asked to record the announcer's opening.

Last November, he unexpectedly failed to appear at the 25th annual Walter Cronkite Awards Luncheon at Arizona State University, leading to speculation that he was ailing. He had been a fixture at the event, which raises money for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

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