Walter Cronkite in 'retirement': a tradition winds down
Walter Cronkite wears a new kind of jocularity these days . . . like a crash helmet on a lonely motorcycle rider. It is the beginning of the end of Walter Cronkite's 19 years of service as anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News and I am visiting him on his last Monday in that position. Despite his full schedule -- he plans to zoom off to Washington soon after the Evening News to tape an interview with President Reagan to air the next night (this past Tuesday) -- he has cleared a few minutes for an admirer (and critic) from another medium.
Will he miss the nightly news job?
He becomes very serious, for just one moment dropping the familiar smile and the new, almost forced jocular air which he seems to wear today for protection, and perhaps, for reassurance. "Sure I will miss it. It'll be a real trauma . . . with withdrawal symptoms, I'm sure."
Suddenly he remembers something and reaches to his right behind the desk and switches on a seemingly new micro tape recorder. "For my memoirs," he says.
"I'll miss it," he repeats. "Whenever there is a major breaking story I will look at the CBS News and say to myself, 'I wish I were there.'"
Mr. Cronkite's office is a place I have often visited since he has always been so hospitable -- and respectful --to the printed press. It is a glassed-in , venetian-blind-covered cubicle just a bit to the left of the CBS on-the-air newsroom which so many millions of viewers have seen for so many years. Now, almost all of the decorations have been removed from the walls and shelves, placed in cardboard cartons, ready to be moved out.
Mr. Cronkite, in striped shirtsleeves, wearing a tie and his horn-rimmed glasses (seldom seen on camera anymore since he has switched to the less distracting contact lenses) has spent most of the previous weeks accepting awards from just about every major organization involved in news and information -- ranging from the Monte Carlo International Television Festival to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"My wife has warned me, I've got to stop accepting them," he jokes."There's just no more room on the walls or mantel -- so I can accept only if it fits in my pocket.
"But I'm going to be very busy. In fact, I may have to take another look at all my commitments and see whether or not I should get out of some of them."
At the moment, Mr. Cronkite reveals that he is just about to sign a new seven-year contract with CBS which will call for him to anchor the science series, "Universe," as a weekly show starting in June, and he will do special reports, documentaries, and news assignments. Already assigned is the Russian hour of a CBS News five-hour series on the comparative strength of the United States in world affairs, for which he will travel to the Soviet Union in June.
In addition, he plans to be involved as a consultant and chairman of Satellite Education Service, a nonprofit company formed to produce a new educational series -- "Why in the World" -- to be used as a teaching device in high schools nationwide through Los Angeles PBS station KCET. There will probably be some lecturing on the college circuit and maybe even a faculty spot at the University of Texas. And, of course, there is a lot of tennis and boating to get in, too.
However," he continues, musing about covering news, "if a big story breaks or if I stumble on something of interest, I would hope to offer the Evening News a piece, and take some part in it. On major stories I plan to do on-the-spot analysis but not interfere with the coverage at all . . . assuming the Evening News feels they've got time for me," he says just a bit tentatively.
Will Mr. Cronkite still be covering elections and rocket launchings?
He sighs. "I would hope so.I would expect they'd ask the old man to pontificate a bit. But I certainly won't be in the anchor chair."
Speculation in TV news circles is that, aside from his value to CBS News, one of the important reasons he is being tied to a new CBS contract, despite his move from the anchor spot, is to keep ABC News from signing him up. In fact, during the interview, news director Bud Benjamin interrupts us to show Mr. Cronkite a copy of Time magazine with an unprecedented full-page ad bidding farewell to him. "Thank you, Walter" it says . . . with the rival ABC logo prominently displayed. Mr. Cronkite seems pleased.
Lovely internetwork camaraderie isn't it? But, wait --later, a pragmatic and probably realistic CBS press relations person says to me about the ad: "Those people at ABC will do anything to call attention to the fact that Walter will no longer be anchor on the CBS Evening News." Meantime, in a continuation of the ratings war for evening news audiences, CBS is taking full-page ads in many places which read: "Introducing our newest correspondent . . . Walter Cronkite."
I tell Mr. Cronkite that I recently talked to Eric Sevareid whose advice for Walter Cronkite in "retirement" was, "Keep busy."
Mr. Cronkite laughs and continues to muse about retirement. "There's no question -- anybody leaving something they've done and loved for such a long time as I have is bound to miss it. It happens everywhere . . . especially in our profession. A guy comes off the police beat and gets a promotion to city editor but he never gets over the feeling that he'd like to be back on the beat. I suffered that when I moved here from being a foreign correspondent."
In an interview several years ago, Walter Cronkite told me that if people really knew his opinions he might not be as popular in the polls as he was. Is he now ready to reveal the realm Walter?
"Isn't that generally true of all of us? A good deal of my acceptability has been that I have maintained this air of impartiality which I feel is essential to do this job properly. I wouldn't think of doing anything else. But that doesn't mean I don't have deeply held feelings and thoughts about many major issues of the day.Some of them are conservative, some liberal, some radical.But I've always held them back and I think one in my position should. You and I know that we journalists are capable of having the deepest feelings about subjects and still be able to write totally impartial pieces. That is what separates us from other crafts. If there is any definition of professionalism -- and sometimes there is a question as to whether we are a profession, a craft, or a trade -- I think we can claim we are professional because of that one ethical consideration: the ability of journalists to write the facts as nearly as they can be determined and set aside their own prejudices and biases in doing that job.
"It's very much like a lawyer defending a known criminal. We have the same ethical consideration. Why should we challenge our readers and viewers out there? Why should I strain my credibility, my objectivity, by flaunting my beliefs in some things that don't make any difference anyway?"
Does that mean that ex-anchorman Walter Cronkite will now feel freer to express his views?
"I will be considerably freer . . . but I am not going to make a point of it."
Might the freer Walter Cronkite enter politics?
"No, no, no! Not a chance. I am absolutely opposed to the idea of any anchor person using the prominence he gains in the job to go into politics. I think if that ever happens, the people are going to have the right to question all anchor people as to whether they are doing an honest job with the news or trying to build some political base for the future. I would hate to see that happen."
Will Walter Cronkite be glad to get out from under that "Uncle Walter" image?
He laughs again. "Well, I have already moved out from the 'avuncular' Walter Cronkite and the 'fatherly' Walter Cronkite to the current 'grandfatherly' Walter Cronkite. I'm sick of all that."
How would he like to be identified?
"In a weak moment recently, I said I'd like to be known as a sex object for awhile!" He laughs loudly . . . but I am not absolutely certain that this fun-loving, youthfully active network sage is kidding.
What is CBS veteran Walter Cronkite proudest of in his long career?
"Well, I haven't had a chance to contemplate my navel yet. I guess I'll sit out on the boat and do that eventually. I'm not a very introspective person.
"But what I hope I'll be remembered for is that I kept the faith on journalistic ethics and principles . . . and perhaps brought an aura of journalistic professionalism to a business which is always in danger of crossing the line into show business."
Does Walter Cronkite have any advice for incoming anchorman Dan Rather?
"Dan doesn't need any advice from me," says Walter Cronkite, rising from his desk to dash to a staff conference before he flies off to Washington to tape his farewell interview with President Reagan.
After he leaves, I make my way through the half-packed crates and I ask his secretary when Mr. Cronkite has to vacate the office.
"Friday," she says. "On Monday this will be Mr. Rather's office."
I hate to disagree with Walter Cronkite as he leaves his anchor spot in triumph but I believe that all of us in the profession, Dan Rather included, would do well to take advice from Walter Cronkite.