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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Uncle Walter (1916-2009)

On the anniversary of the first human footfalls on the moon, I made the Missus and the Munchkin watch the marvelous documentary In the Shadow of the Moon with me. Actually, the Missus didn’t need much convincing, but getting a nine-year-old to sit still for a talking-heads documentary about something that happened 40 years ago is a bit of a challenge. She was itching instead to watch once again (bless her, a chip off the old block) a DVD of Doctor Who. How could mere reality compete with the imaginations of the BBC’s best and brightest?

But once the film got going, they were hooked. The story is as gripping and compelling as any feature film. If you have never seen this movie, you should go out and find it right now. I had been wanting to see it again ever since I was enchanted by it at the 2007 Cork Film Festival. Not only is the footage shot in space and on the lunar surface amazing, but the reminiscences of the Apollo astronauts really make you feel as though you were along with them. It was an amazing time in human history, and few things (if any) have brought the planet together as one before or since.

Of course, no telling of the Apollo 11 mission is complete with a clip of Walter Cronkite exhaling with relief and excitement once it is clear that the Eagle had landed. That is one of the eminent journalist’s two immortal moments that were destined to be played over and over in historical reports and in documentaries. The other was the catch in his voice as he announced the death of President Kennedy. Could or would any reporter or anchor working today be able to display the same class on air and the same level of restraint? I seriously doubt it.

Timing is a quality that is important to the success of any journalist, so it is a bit ironic that the news about Cronkite’s passing broke on a Friday evening, the precise time that newsmakers deliberately unload stories that they want to bury. On the other hand, his timing was impeccable. He died during the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission with which he will always be identified. There is also some symmetry to the fact that he died a week and a half after former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, since the two men will also forever be tied to the unraveling of the Vietnam War. McNamara gave a fascinating, although somewhat self-serving, account of his involvement in the war in Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary The Fog of War. In McNamara’s version, he and Kennedy realized that Vietnam was hopeless and were planning to withdraw. But Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s stubbornness resulted in the war continuing and escalating—although there was no hint of any of that from McNamara at the time or for many years after. McNamara’s reputation was that of “whiz kid,” a relatively young man who had all the answers, who could crunch the numbers and fix any problem. But his blighted tenure as defense secretary was preceded over his presiding over the release of the Edsel at Ford and followed by a 13-year stint at the World Bank, where his laudable goal of eradicating world poverty resulted in monetary support for many third world autocrats and poor countries running up debts that they never had a hope of repaying. Let us always be careful of bright young men who seem to have all the answers.

The tide in Vietnam turned for America, in our minds if not in reality, because of Walter Cronkite. He was the most trusted man in America, and not without reason. His deep authoritative voice left no room for doubt. His kindly face and humble but competent manner made us believe him without question when he signed off every night by proclaiming, “And that’s the way it is…” When he went to Vietnam and then declared that the U.S. couldn’t win, I don’t know if it really changed public opinion, but it seems to have changed President Johnson’s confidence to be able to continue. There is huge nostalgia in the media, particularly evident during the Dan Rather forged memo scandal just before the 2004 election, for those halcyon days when people simply believed journalists without question. (If the truth be told, there is a similar nostalgia among political leaders for a theoretical time when their word was gold too.) So it is ironic that the unraveling of the historically brief period of journalistic unassailability was begun by the most trusted man in America. While most, though not all, consider Vietnam to have been a mistake, there is a significant view out there that a war, that was still winnable, was undone by a loss of morale fanned by the political left and abetted by the mass media, particularly Cronkite. To them, it was a point in the war comparable to the beginning of the surge in the Iraq war. The right has distrusted the media ever since and, in response, an alternative conservative media branch began flourish, thanks to AM radio, the internet and cable and satellite television. That fracturing is probably not a bad thing. More voices, rather than fewer, should help us get to the truth. Monopolies are never a good idea, especially in the marketplace of information. And the major broadcasters in Cronkite’s heyday were a virtual news cartel. The fact that one man could have as much power as Cronkite wielded was probably not a good thing. To his credit, he never seems to have ever been less than honest with his audience or less than professional. His successor, Dan Rather, turned out to be a pale shadow of his integrity.

Cronkite had a bit of a career in film and TV, apart from his journalism duties. But, inevitably, he invariably played himself, either in archival footage (as in Ron Howard’s movies Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon) or in actual cameos, notably in the 2000 TV version of Fail Safe. He was one of many prominent people recalling a bygone era in New York in Kristi Jacobson’s 2006 documentary Toots. He is credited as an actor in the 1993 movie We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (as the voice of Capt. Neweyes) and in the 2002 TV series Liberty’s Kids: Est. 1776 (as the voice of Benjamin Franklin). Personally, I most fondly remember his cameos on two CBS sitcoms dealing with TV journalists. He met the fictional anchor man Ted Baxter on an episode of Mary Tyler Moore in 1974, and he appeared (or at least spoke) on no fewer than three episodes of Murphy Brown two decades later.

In the field of journalism, Walter Cronkite was a titan. It is no exaggeration to say that, sadly, we will not see his like again. To paraphrase the fictional character Norma Desmond, it wasn’t that he used to be big; journalism has gotten smaller.

-S.L., 23 July 2009

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