The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Day that Will Live in Memory and in Grief

By Challenging Us Each Night to Face “The Way It Is,” Walter Cronkite Reminded Us of the Way It Could Be

Today, July 20, 2009 is a day that lives in memory because exactly forty years ago today, two men from the United States of America, representing all of humankind, first set foot upon the moon. Whatever disappointments have passed since then in manned space flight, even if we never venture forth again, it was still a remarkable endeavor – a moment of national pride in our achievement and one of universal wonderment in our exploration of the unknown.

Yet today also lives in grief because the man who brought that moment into so many of our homes is no longer here to share it with us.

Walter Cronkite died last Friday at age ninety-two. He gained his greatest fame by anchoring the CBS Nightly News for nineteen years, from 1962 to 1981.

The tributes heaped upon Cronkite over the past few days have been legion. President Obama noted of him, “He invited us to believe in him and he never let us down.” In so saying, our young President may have been wistfully engaging in hopeful expectation of his own legacy. Cronkite seems to be a standard against which many seek to measure themselves.

This was clear over and over again in the esteem paid Cronkite by his fellow journalists, both contemporaries and successors. Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s Face the Nation, perhaps said it best. “Walter was who I wanted to be when I grew up.”

When speaking of “greatness” among news anchors, many have lionized Edward R. Murrow to the point of deification. As the practical inventor of television journalism, he deserves great praise but, in many ways, he remained fundamentally a reporter throughout his career. Cronkite was the one who developed and advanced the traditional role of the anchor as dispassionate observer seated at a desk.

Murrow once said of television, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes, it can inspire. But it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.”

Although some of his writings and speeches after retirement revealed a personal ideology that ran left of center, Cronkite was absolutely committed to the concept of objectivity, fairness, and even-handedness. He regarded his chance to read the news each evening as a privilege and a responsibility.

In a 1990 column for the New York Times, he conveyed his “long-held principle” that no journalist, having achieved national recognition, should ever consider subsequently running for public office, even after retirement. In such a case, he shuddered, “the public is going to have every reason to question whether that person had been tailoring the news to build a political platform. The burden of credibility is already heavy enough without that extra load.”

The “burden of credibility” was always borne well by Cronkite. Numerous opinion polls voted him the “Most Trusted Man in America.” When the archconservative Archie Bunker referred to Cronkite as a pinko and a communist on the sitcom All in the Family, most Americans found it funny because it struck them as outrageously incongruous with Cronkite’s character and reputation.

However, in spite of his discipline and commitment to objectivity, Cronkite never forgot he was a human being reading news about human beings to other human beings. He was neither afraid nor ashamed to allow his underlying humanity to show. During the Apollo spaceflights, he shouted and trembled with boyish excitement. He choked up on air as he read the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. He delivered an uncharacteristic editorial in which he angrily denounced the Johnson Administration over Vietnam.

Some right-wingers roundly criticized Cronkite as unpatriotic for this last example. Yet his actual editorial never denounced Vietnam as evil or unworthy, never rejected the U.S. presence there as a mistake. Cronkite’s ire derived solely from his clear perception that our government’s leadership was lying to the American people about our military’s ability to end the stalemate and win a clear victory there.

Something about Cronkite struck a chord with the public despite, or perhaps because of, these brief but striking outbursts of empathy. Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, writing about Cronkite in Newsweek, remembered, “He conveyed seriousness through that face. That face and his behavior . . . He was not young and hustling; he was not overly aggressive. He was such a nice person on top of everything else . . . Everyone respected him.”

Possibly more impressive than the extent of Cronkite’s reputation as a guardian or trustee of the Truth was its durability. He spanned decades in the anchor’s chair and left his position just as well regarded, if not more so, than when he started. The most recent spate of network anchors has been noticeably lacking in this particular accomplishment.

At the end of the broadcast of President Kennedy’s funeral, Cronkite made a few closing remarks that sought to challenge his listeners as much as comfort them.

It is said that the human mind has a greater capacity for remembering the pleasant than the unpleasant. But today was a day that will live in memory and in grief . . . Were these dark days the harbingers of even blacker ones to come or, like the black before the dawn, shall they lead to some still as yet indiscernible sunrise of understanding among men, that violent words, no matter what their origin or motivation, can lead only to violent deeds?
. . .

Tonight there will be few Americans who will go to bed without carrying with them the sense that somehow they have failed.

To me, this was the greatness of Walter Cronkite. He was not a marble model. He was capable of bias and mistakes in judgment, just like any other person. Nevertheless, in a time before twenty-four hour cable news channels, the Internet, Twitter, and fact-checking organizations, when he was just one of a few voices shaping a nation’s perception of reality, he attempted, with steadfast determination, never to shape that reality, even to soften it.

Cronkite presented us with the unvarnished Truth. We never grew cynical from that, at least not due to him, because we sensed he never grew cynical about it.

In a eulogy/editorial this morning, the New York Times, opined, “Some deaths end only a life. Some end a generation. Walter Cronkite’s death ends something larger and more profound. He stood for a world, a century, that no longer exists. His death is like losing the last veteran of a world-changing war, one of those men who saw too much but was never embittered by it.”

Every evening, Cronkite sat behind his desk and analytically bade us look upon the world “the way it is.” For the simple reason that his demeanor was as free of despair as it was of jingoism, he inspired countless numbers of us not only to tune in but to care the world was that way and to hope, to seek for something better – the way it could be.

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