Walter Cronkite Is Back on the Space Beat, Reporting the Historic Soyuz-apollo Mission
God willing—and a lot of Soviet and U.S. engineers able—a great rocket will rise from the low, rolling hills of Kazakhstan in the USSR at 8:20 a.m. (EDT), July 15; seven and a half hours later a similar behemoth will thunder upward from Cape Canaveral, Fla. If all proceeds according to an ultrasophisticated binational plan, a Russian and an American spacecraft will link up in orbit 140 miles above the earth at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, July 17. It will be a rare moment in history—an outer space version of the driving of the golden spike—and more than 10 million Americans will depend upon Walter Cronkite to commemorate the historic event on their television screens. The role is familiar: Cronkite has reported every manned U.S. space shot since 1961.
A few weeks ago the broadcaster’s comfortable, gravelly voice was heard in connection with another landmark occasion—in this case the anniversary of the American Revolution. He had been asked to read the Declaration of Independence at a ceremony launching New York City’s observance of the Bicentennial. Scrunched in the front seat of a CBS limousine heading downtown, he perused the famous text which he would shortly deliver from the steps of City Hall. In the back seat his wife, Betsy, had a momentary vision of Cronkite running a sharp red pencil through Jefferson’s prose. “Walter,” she warned, “don’t try and edit it.”
Whether playing electronic Boswell to America’s astronauts or helping celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday, Cronkite’s down-home ways and no-nonsense views seem as sound as Ben Franklin’s. As he marks his 25th year at CBS this week, the 58-year-old “managing editor” and anchorman of the CBS Evening News is the most trusted, authoritative figure in the nation’s most powerful news medium.
Canaveral’s humid beach in July is a place to avoid if possible. But Cronkite would sooner scuttle his 35-foot ketch or raze his Manhattan townhouse than miss covering the launch. He’s become so identified in the public eye with America’s space conquests that there are people who believe he actually accompanied the astronauts to the moon. Cronkite wishes to hell he had. A man with an irrepressible wanderlust who dreams of circumnavigating the globe by schooner after he retires, he still hopes to reserve a seat on NASA’s moon “shuttle” in the 1980s.
To many of his regular 20 million viewers, the day is somehow incomplete until Cronkite intones his wrap-up of the world’s triumphs and disasters. Deep inside CBS’s New York broadcast center on West 57th Street, where he spends eight hours daily five days a week preparing his telecast, Cronkite is uncomfortably aware of the near-reverence he commands. “The biggest problem of the star system,” he complains, “is that everybody’s afraid of the star.”
Though technically he shares responsibility for the show with its executive producer, Burton Benjamin, Cronkite is the ultimate judge of what appears on the air. From 10 a.m., when he arrives at his office overlooking the newsroom, he influences every assignment, jogs correspondents on the phone for more information, scrutinizes their copy and meticulously edits every word of his own. (“I have nightmares about losing my script and having nothing in front of me.”) Cronkite has been known to go overboard on stories that strike his personal fancy and to balk at airing filmed pieces that fail to meet his exacting standards. His towering reputation—appropriate to his 6′, 190-lb. frame—dissuades most of the show’s 90-man staff from criticizing the star’s own occasional editing fluffs or lapses on the air. His television persona appears designed to brook no doubts. Night after night, there sits stern Uncle Walter Bear, all crisp business under the monogrammed Givenchy shirts, telling America every 24 hours how it really is from Moscow to Moline.
Actually the on-camera Cronkite is an electronic facade for an American of Rabelaisian tastes whose life-style is about as pompous as Mae West’s. His terpsichorean exploits are legend—he’ll dance anywhere with anyone to any music, from the Charleston to Cossack leg kicks. He once told a colleague that his greatest thrill was waltzing Ruby Keeler around at a party. When the camera turns off, the usually composed Cronkite can uncork a temper that would get respectful attention in a Marine command post.
Out on the town Cronkite enjoys studying belly dancers or rapping with cab drivers, one of whom chewed him out recently because Cronkite didn’t realize the day was a Jewish holiday. “At least you didn’t change your name,” the indignant cabbie told Cronkite—who as a matter of fact is an Episcopalian. Away from the studio Cronkite occasionally visits jazz dives, where the Dixieland beat can persuade him into a throaty imitation of a tuba, which he once played as a high school student.
Last fall Cronkite and Betsy—his wife of 35 years—showed up at a Boston burlesque house to watch Fanne Foxe, “The Argentine Firecracker,” unveil herself. A connoisseur of the striptease ever since his youth in Kansas City, Cronkite has been known to entertain friends at his annual birthday party with pantomimed disrobing to the piano strains of A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody. He’s never tried to subdue his humor or his appreciative eye. He once grabbed a pair of binoculars to join his colleagues at the window of a CBS office which overlooked some spectacular sunbathers on adjacent Manhattan rooftops. “Gentlemen,” Cronkite mischievously announced, “there’s one hell of a fire over there in Brooklyn!”
For most of his 40 years in journalism Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. has reveled in chasing fires. As a cub reporter on the Houston Post, he once shared a beer with Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde notoriety when the gangster was hiding out from the feds. He was a struggling sportscaster in the 1930s, earning $75 a week by calling horse races in a bookmaking parlor. (He makes a reported $250,000 a year now.) Later, using wire-service reports, a sound-effects man and his own imagination, Cronkite hoked up radio replays of football games. A United Press correspondent in World War II, he dodged enemy flak on the first B-17 raids over Germany and parachuted with the 101st Airborne Division into Holland—the land of his forebears, the Krankhydts. In 1940 he married Mary Elizabeth Maxwell, whom he had met in Kansas City where both were working in radio.
Lured to CBS (from KMBC’s news staff in Washington, D.C.) in 1950, Cronkite spiced up his life by racing sports cars until one day in 1960, when his sea-green Triumph missed a bend in the Great Smoky Mountains and plunged 100 feet into a river. The crash left Cronkite unhurt and determined to concentrate on sailing instead.
By the ’60s Cronkite was a fixture of CBS’s political convention coverage, though he was briefly demoted as anchorman in 1964 when network brass panicked over the challenge from NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley team. (Today Cronkite appears unruffled by NBC anchorman John Chancellor’s steady rise in popularity. The ratings, Cronkite insists, “are not a daily concern.”) He has continued his series of presidential interviews: John Kennedy, he recalls, was “very uptight”; Nixon answered questions “as though he were reading off a TelePrompTer.”
Detractors cite Cronkite’s show for its blandness, slick professionalism and superficiality. Few quarrel with his news instincts, but few also rate his sense of theater or power of analysis on a par, say, with that of Edward R. Murrow, the late newsman whose star preceded Cronkite’s at CBS. Murrow, who had tried unsuccessfully to bring Cronkite to CBS in the mid-’40s, conveyed a magnetic intensity in his broadcasts which eludes Cronkite. Nor have any of Cronkite’s numerous documentaries had the impact of such Murrow classics as his withering dissection of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954. At the same time, Cronkite doubts that Murrow could have successfully filled the role for which Cronkite is best known: covering the era’s great “live” news events from the anchorman’s seat.
Cronkite dismisses the criticism that he is too deferential an interviewer by claiming to be less interested in “headline-seeking confrontations” than in providing fresh insight into the character of his subjects. He argues that he has deliberately not editorialized on TV for fear that it would impair his credibility as a newscaster. “I could blast the hell out of some issue, and I personally don’t think it would affect my integrity,” Cronkite says. “But I can’t expect others to believe this.” Even cloaked in impartiality, Cronkite ignites ideological sparks: conservatives view him as a warlock of the left-wing Eastern media elite; radicals accuse him of mouthing the institutional Establishment line.
In fact, though he abjures taking stands on the air, Cronkite voices blunt opinions privately, within the industry and in speeches across the country. Cronkite used such occasions to repudiate Vice-President Agnew’s acid attack on TV news commentators in 1969. After Dwight Eisenhower denounced “sensation-seeking columnists” at the 1964 Republican convention, Cronkite upbraided the startled general during an interview in Ike’s hotel room. Some weeks ago he thundered his displeasure inside CBS at the “checkbook journalism” deal in which the network paid former White House aide H.R. Haldeman a reported $50,000 for an interview.
Vietnam proved the notable exception to Cronkite’s code of objectivity on the air: after a visit there in 1968 he concluded several newscasts with a clear condemnation of U.S. policy.
CBS’s special report on the war’s end last spring provided a backstage example of why Cronkite remains so formidable a competitor in his cutthroat trade. Bedridden with a back injury incurred on the tennis court, Cronkite, fortified with cortisone, drove to the studio and smoothly narrated a two-and-a-half-hour telecast while in constant pain. That kind of dedication has paid off in a variety of handsome ways: instant recognition, a good table at restaurants like New York’s Copenhagen, a rambling second home on Martha’s Vineyard—where he spends most of his annual three-month vacation—and his Garden 35 ketch, Wyntie, which he sails there in the summer. The witty, outspoken Betsy (who was once a women’s editor for the old Kansas City Journal) and their three children—Nancy, 26, Kathy, 24, and Chip, 17—make sure that in his headier moments Cronkite doesn’t try to walk on water. That could be tempting for a man who receives in his fan mail frequent proposals like the recent one from a German woman. She sent him cuff links engraved Ich liebe dich (“I love you”) and a one-way airline ticket to Frankfurt, where she proposed they marry and settle down.
Each weekday evening, however, Cronkite comes face to face with the realities of an uneasy world. At 6:29 p.m., he will rip the last rewrite from his typewriter, remove his chewing gum and Ben Franklin spectacles, take a final sip of tea-and-honey from a Styrofoam cup and submit to a dab of powder from the makeup woman. Then, as camera one’s red light winks on, Walter Cronkite will, in rolled and rotund cadences, bring America still another “Good evening…”