Byline: Dan Rather
I was out to dinner with my wife when word came that Walter Cronkite had passed. We both had the same thoughts. First, sympathy and condolences for his family. Then: What a man. What a pro. What a life. And how lucky we were to have known him.
When our little family first came to New York City and CBS News from Texas in 1962, Douglas Edwards was anchor of the Evening News and had been for about 14 years. But NBC's combination of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley had demolished Edwards' rating dominance. CBS's corporate leadership made the change to Cronkite shortly after our arrival.
And thus began "The Cronkite Years." The civil rights movement. JFK's assassination. LBJ's Great Society. Vietnam. The moon landing. Watergate. An era of tumult for which he became America's indelible messenger.
I had the good fortune to see it all from the beginning.
Just after Walter took over the anchor chair, we talked by telephone, he in New York, I in some Mississippi town on the civil rights beat.
"Watch out for yourself and our crews down there," he said. "You're on a great story, just the kind of important story on which we need to be the best."
Call him 'Mister'
"Yes, sir, Mr. Cronkite," said I. For the first several months working for and with him, I never called him anything but "Mr. Cronkite." One of his producers finally told me to stop, but doing so didn't come naturally or easily.
Why would it? The man was covering World War II combat before I was in junior high school. After a brave and distinguished career as a newspaper correspondent in the war, he already was among those who had pioneered television journalism in the late l940s through the '50s. Now, he had reached the pinnacle. In the time and place I grew up, calling such a man "Mister" was not an option but an imperative.
That early telephone conversation with him, short as it was, told me a lot about Walter Cronkite, the man and the professional journalist.
Here was a true leader, one who didn't ask those who worked for him to do anything he wouldn't do or hadn't already done. He cared about his correspondents and producers, cared about their safety and cared about defending us when we covered controversial stories such as the civil rights movement and, later, the Vietnam War and the Watergate crimes. He had our backs, and he let us know it. Here, also, was a competitor who wanted to be the first and the best on any story that he believed worth covering.
Finally, here was the passion for reporting and delivering the news that came through then and for as long as I knew him. Walter loved his work and remained consciously, intensely and personally committed to widening the public's connection to, and understanding of, the important stories of his time.
The quick, early impressions gleaned from that phone call were borne out over the years, as his reputation and stature grew. Walter believed in television news, and he believed that it should be done right -- that journalistic values should always be the sole determinant of what got on those precious few minutes of evening news. Like Edward R. Murrow before him, Walter saw the danger posed by entertainment values dictating air time, and he saw the creeping encroachment of "infotainment," something I vividly recall him railing against one night after work in the mid-1960s at Manhattan's bygone Slate restaurant.
A giant of integrity
In newscasts seen and remembered by millions and in quiet conversations known only to those who had the privilege of working for him, Walter always stood strong and tall for quality news of integrity, and taught the rest of us to try to do the same. For those who saw the Cronkite era from the start, Walter's passing brings, along with sadness, a reminder of a turbulent time in history and a special time in journalism.
As we remember a life so well and fully lived, and as we plunge forward in the media-intense world of the 21st century, let's hope he can continue to teach us to value and care for the news as much as he did.
Dan Rather succeeded Walter Cronkite as CBS Evening News anchor from 1981 to 2005. He currently anchors Dan Rather Reports, which includes field reports, in-depth interviews and investigative pieces, for HDNet.
PHOTO, B/W, AP file photo; PHOTO, B/W, Reuters