From our files: An interview with Walter Cronkite
The Monitor spoke with the CBS anchorman, who died Friday, in a 1973 series of interviews with the three networks' broadcast journalists.
From the December 26, 1973 issue of The Christian Science Monitor
Watergate may prove to be a great boon to the American people, predicts Walter Cronkite, the most trusted public figure in the U.S.A., according to a recent Quayle survey in which he out-polled President Nixon by 14 percent. Says the CBS-TV evening newsman: "I have a feeling that when this administration is squared away - whether by resignation, impeachment, or accommodation - we are in for a period of considerable moral soul searching which may straighten us out for a good number of years to come. People have become so fed up with subterfuge, dishonesty, and lack of candor that we are going to find them demanding of their politicians a straightforwardness such as we haven't had for many generations."
Mr. Cronkite is talking in his office in the midst of the CBS-TV news headquarters on New York's 57th Street - a glass-enclosed refuge from the hectic newsroom which surrounds it. Since it is early in the day, he has not yet begun the task of scanning the news wires, writing and rewriting the news which continues up till the moment before the 6:30 p.m. broadcast time. In some areas, the show is seen on tape at 7 p.m., unless late-breaking news calls for additional live coverage.
Off camera, Mr. Cronkite is even more relaxed than he seems on screen - certainly more informal. His jacket is off, his tie is loosened, his feet are up on the desk in an almost calculated "Front Page" stance. He is reluctant to be deified as an all-knowing pundit and nods with amusement toward his feet. "See," he says, "clay."
"We're in such trouble right now that it's hard for us to see ahead," Mr. Cronkite continues. "But I think the soul searching may also lap over into our personal lives. We've got a grand opportunity for a new morality in business, in government, in our individual lives. I really believe we are on the verge of reaching a new plateau in human relations.
"Watergate just happened to come along at the same time as the demand for honesty in relations between the sexes, in advertising, in ecology, in almost everything. It just stumbled into that great big elephant trap that had already been built for it. That's what is forcing the President's hand right now. He simply has to do something to satisfy that nationwide demand for a thorough cleansing of our way of life."
A real effort
If there is any criticism of President Nixon in Mr. Cronkite's conversation, it is almost completely by implication. He makes a real effort to tread the line of impartiality in his remarks off the air as well as in his attitudes on the air.
"I guess taking a stand is valid for a commentator. But that's not what I am. I am a news presenter, a news broadcaster, an anchorman, a managing editor - not a commentator or analyst. I feel no compulsion to be a pundit. As a matter of fact, I really don't have that much to say about most things. Working with hard news satisfies me completely."
"Of course, ABC and to some extent NBC, have a different approach. ABC believes that its anchormen can do a regular analytical spot as well as present the hard news. I don't believe that you can do both jobs on the same broadcast."
"In all honesty I believe that has a great deal to do with my rating in that trust survey. I simply haven't alienated as many segments of the population as those who display their opinions openly. I've only stepped out twice that I can recall - once on the Vietnam war and once when I disagreed on something or other with President Johnson."
Does Mr. Cronkite believe that television news coverage has been "outrageous, vicious and distorted" as President Nixon has charged?
"Certainly the news is distorted. There is obviously a distortion whenever a newspaper or TV station or anybody else does anything other than report an entire event, an entire speech. Somebody has to make a selection as to which quotes are going to be used, what description is going to be given. But, I don't think there is any validity in Mr. Nixon's charge of distortion in the sense in which he means it."
"I think the presidential press conference as now being conducted is not adequate in any way. It permits the President to use it as he pleases. He has complete control of whom he calls upon. In that famous conference in which he attacked the networks, he called on people whom he knew would give him the opportunity to sound off in what appeared to be an extemporaneous release of pent-up emotions. But we know he was prepared to make that little attack before he ever went into the room that night."
At a signal from one of his secretaries outside the glass-walled office, Mr. Cronkite suddenly switches on one of the TV sets over the door which monitors the three networks. There's a news special on CBS. "Excuse me," he says, "I just want to see what's happening." The bulletin is noted and the sound is turned off by the remote control switch under his desk.
News advice to Nixon
"What I would like to see happen in this administration is a complete revision of the way information is dispensed. The people are certainly entitled to full knowledge of how the White House operates. What would really open it up would be if the President would conduct the 11 o'clck briefing himself. Let him invite the regular White House press corps - those correspondents who are there all day - into his Oval office every morning and brief them personally. Why shouldn't he do it? Of course, the President is busy. Of course, he is probably the most overworked man in the world. Of course, this would be a drain on him. But, what is more important than the President of the United States having a constant liaison with the people of the United States?"
"It might be desirable not to allow direct quotes to be used so that he wouldn't have to be constantly on guard against offending some distant power by a slip of the tongue. This would allow him to climb off the limb and say they didn't get it quite right. But, if the President did a very brief session every morning and then met the entire press corps of the world, in the same way, every three months, nobody would have any complaints."
"At the same time, he should be doing one-on-one interviews on TV at reasonable intervals - perhaps quarterly or semi-annually. They should be rotated with each network having a turn - or maybe even pooled by all the networks. Of course, the networks would have to be as ethical as they have been in the past in making certain that the President is not allowed to choose his interviewer, nor get any questions in advance. That would get the President in front of the public and they would see how he reacts to tough questions."
"If the President did those interviews and those briefings, then, at the risk of offending all my colleagues in broadcast journalism, I would say that regular monthly news conference for the writing press should be held without the presence of any TV cameras or radio microphones. "All of this would create a feeling of accessibility to the President. Nobody would have any complaints about availability anymore. Or, hopefully, about distortion."
Does Mr. Cronkite feel that President Nixon might heed such advice?
"No. Not this President. His distrust of the press is so immense that I cannot imagine him changing now, especially with the pressure of daily Watergate revelations."
In March, Mr. Cronkite will be the first TV newsman to be awarded the coveted gold medal of the International Radio and Television Society for his contribution to broadcasting. Previous recipients have included President Kennedy and President Nixon - a joint award for the presidential debates. Mr. Cronkite has interviewed both of those presidents, as well as Mr. Truman and Mr. Eisenhower. Were they the most impressive figures in his interviewing career?
"I found them all fascinating - people just don't get to be world leaders unless they've got a lot on the ball. There are no dullards, really. But, if I had to choose the most impressive world leader it might be Tito of Yugoslavia. Because of his marvelous personality, his overall awareness of the ebb and flow of history, around him, his vision of the future, his pragmatism, his candor about himself and the future of his country."
"Also, I found Egypt's Sadat a very interesting man. He was so different from what I had been led to expect. Very much less didactic than reported, much more open to ideas and future possibilities than is usually expected of any Arab leader. I interviewed him shortly after he took office and I thought he might be the one to finally bring the Middle East strife to an end. He certainly has the capability of understanding the need to bring the thing together.''
After more than 40 years in print and electronic news media - and for the last ten as network TV's first half-hour newscaster - Mr. Cronkite still maintains a frenetic schedule. He is at his desk from early morning till long after the evening news is wrapped up. He lives in New York City with his wife (a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism) and his two younger children - the eldest, Nancy Elizabeth, 25, is married and a student of architecture at Taliesen West. Mary Kathleen, 23, is planning to act in the sequel to the movie "Billy Jack," in which she played a walk-on role. Walter Leland Cronkite III is 16 and a student at Deerfield Academy. Says Mr. Cronkite with a warm smile: "I thought that III might get him into a good college - but we call him Chip.''
Tennis and sailing are Mr. Cronkite's main forms of recreation - there's a painting of his 35-foot ketch on the wall of his CBS office. The boat is kept at a club in Greenwich, Conn. and he doesn't get there nearly as often as he'd like. "But that doesn't really bother me - as long as it's work that keeps me away.''
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