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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,076

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This is the grave of Walter Cronkite.

Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Missouri, Cronkite grew up firmly middle class. His father was a dentist, which is about as middle class as one can get. The family moved to Houston when Walter was 10 and he graduated from high school there. He went to the University of Texas in 1933, got involved with drama, starred in a student play with his classmate the great Eli Wallach, but dropped out in 1935 after he started working for newspapers. He never did graduate from college.

Cronkite got a job in 1936 as a radio announcer in Oklahoma City, then became the sports announcer for a station in Kansas City as Walter Wilcox as the radio station demanded he not use his real name so he wouldn’t take listeners with him if he left. Interesting strategy. He was a rising star and became a UPI reporter in 1937. When World War II began, Edward R. Murrow offered him a job as one of the war correspondents working underneath him. Cronkite jumped at the offer because the chance to hit the big time was now very real. But then UPI came and offered him even more money and he stayed with them, making a lifelong enemy of Murrow. In any case, Cronkite became one of the top war reporters, working with the Army first in North Africa and then in Europe. He was one of eight journalists the Army Air Force selected to fly along on bombing raids over Germany, which he then wrote about. After the war, he covered the Nuremberg Trials and then was UPI’s correspondent from Moscow from 1946-48, just as the Cold War was developing.

With TV becoming a thing, Cronkite jumped at the chance to star on it, joining CBS in 1950. Cronkite certainly took advantage. He became the host of the first televised national conventions, covering both the Republicans and Democrats in 1952. In 1953, he started hosting You Are There, which was a historical reenactment program which sounds unwatchable to me. In any case, that was a popular show and he hosted it until 1957. Cronkite brought it back for awhile in 1971. In 1957, he began hosting another historical show called The 20th Century where he narrated a show about the past based on newsreel footage and other primary sources. In 1967, he hosted another show called The 21st Century that speculated on our fine century. I haven’t seen so I have no idea if Cronkite predicted the rise of a charlatan fascist such as Donald Trump and the conversion of the Republican Party to ending democracy. He also occasionally did sports too, hosting the first ever televised Olympics, the 1960 Winter games, though this happened only because Jim McKay was dealing with some mental illness and had to sit it out.

In 1962, Cronkite started hosting the CBS Evening News. Here he would become the supposed most trusted man in news. Now, there’s something we need to get out of the way. Much of our present discussion of the media and how it is has declined is predicated on men such as Cronkite and Murrow being the Voice of God telling Americans what they needed to know. In fact, most of the media history looks more like today than it does the 50s and 60s. It was tremendously partisan, full of lies and made up stories. The rise of television created a unique situation. But for a generation of people who grew up in the Cold War, Cronkite became the trusted voice. He knew this too of course and was happy to take advantage of that. That he was the reporter who broke Kennedy’s assassination only reinforced this image. This ended up being an important moment in the history of live news television as Cronkite provided the country with updates on the assassination.

Cronkite’s other crowning moment came during and after his trip to Vietnam in 1968. While there, he saw the war for what it was–an unwinnable conflict resting on a boatload of lies from Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara. So he came out and told the truth about it. Now, it’s apocryphal that LBJ stated that if he lost Cronkite, he lost Middle America. That almost certainly didn’t happen. But it does represent what Cronkite’s increased skepticism of the war meant–it wasn’t just for smelly hippies anymore. Cronkite thus became the reporter presidents wanted to court. For example, Nixon brought him to China when he met with Mao. Cronkite was who people watched when the first men landed on the moon in 1969. He was a massively skilled broadcaster who trained himself to speak at a very deliberate speed so that everyone could easily understand him. He was among the most trusted figures in the United States long after he gave up the broadcasting chair.

In 1980, Cronkite chose to retire. CBS still had a mandatory retirement age of 65 and Cronkite wasn’t going to challenge the network on this, though I suppose he was popular enough that he probably could have won such a fight had he wanted it. His last broadcast on CBS Evening News was in 1981. At this point, he entered into Senior Legend status. CNN, NPR, and CBS would hire him to do special reports. In a massive moment of American nostalgia to try and revive the moribund space program where the public had lost interest, NASA got John Glenn back in space in 2002 and brought Cronkite back to narrate it. Not many people cared. Cronkite also lent his voice out for a lot of voice-over work and narration. He also showed up a bunch in Murphy Brown and sometimes other movies and TV shows.

Later in life, Cronkite also showed his own politics more, which by this time were rich liberal NIMBY. He lambasted Republicans over the Clinton impeachment and the Bush administration for its horrible Iraq War. He also had a sweet place on Martha’s Vineyard and so of course opposed the development of wind energy that would get in the way of his viewshed. He also came out in opposition of the War on Drugs, which is an interesting point for an older establishment figure to take in the early 21st century.

Cronkite remained active until the end of his life, which came in 2009. He was 92 years old.

Walter Cronkite is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

If you would like this series to visit other television news figures, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Reynolds is in Arlington and Max Robinson is in Suitland, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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