Walter Cronkite has come to symbolize the very best in TV journalism, a reputation earned during his 18-year reign as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News.
Those were the heady years when millions of Americans invited Uncle Walter into their living rooms each night, when President Lyndon Johnson considered him the voice of the American people, and when in Middle America, his words were good as gold.
Cronkite set – and then lived up to – a standard never again achieved in network television news.
But it was not always thus.
The young Cronkite, a print reporter and war correspondent for the notoriously stingy United Press news service, scratched for his share of bylines from London. He was wide-eyed upon meeting celebrities like Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway, and he was filled with self-doubt when he failed to bag his biggest first-person stories, the D-Day invasion and the liberation of Paris.
For Cronkite, as for millions of Americans in their 20s in 1944, World War II was the defining time, the formative years that would shape his future life. It was the time when he first saw the world and in seeing it developed a greater appreciation for the American heartland he grew up in. It was when he first met the rich and glamorous, and in so doing, he only pined all the more for Betsy, his “Darlingest Dear,” back in Kansas City.
This is “Cronkite’s War,” a collection of sometimes repetitious love letters and wire service dispatches from Europe, stitched together by his journalist grandson, Walter Cronkite IV and historian Maurice Isserman.
In doing so, the authors have presented a highly personal view of the man whose face became familiar to every American in the 1960s and ’70s. There is little new in Cronkite’s descriptions of London or the Low Countries during the war. What makes this little book worth a summer’s read is the insightful view – the almost voyeuristic view – into the most private revelations of a young man who would become famous.
He was 27 years old in London in the midst of a war, and already, the traits that would endear him to America were being developed. The young Cronkite was hardworking, frugal, honest to a fault, homesick for America, and most of all, he was real. No pretense, no glitz. What you saw is what you got.
In the interest of full disclosure, this retired editor was a big fan of Cronkite and his type of news. We met briefly and only once at a conference of editors in the late 1970s. He spoke from the podium of the sacred duty of the TV networks – similar to that of the newspapers – to inform the public in a democracy about their government and those who run it.
Then back at the table, over a glass of wine, he candidly lamented his apprehensions that the news people at some networks were losing control to the entertainment people, and he predicted that TV news could become a three-ring circus if it fell into the hands of the entertainment people.
You can almost imagine Cronkite today trying to sell his type of newscast, and being put down by some know-it-all junior executive from an entertainment conglomerate: What do you mean you just want to report straight out what’s going on in the world? No spin. No splash. No shouting. No gimmicks? Cronkite buddy, that won’t sell any Corn Flakes (sorry, wrong decade), that won’t sell a single Cialis or Viagra capsule!
To Cronkite even in the ’80s, the CBS Evening News was “the broadcast,” never to be referred to in his presence as “the show.” The distinction is subtle but vital to understanding the difference between news reporting and feeding off news headlines as the springboard for entertaining news schlock and ratings.
Just how Cronkite developed into that plain-speaking everyman’s reporter is evident in the young Cronkite’s letters home to Betsy.
He made a name for himself at United Press (it had not yet merged with International News Service to become UPI). But in his letters he kept his heroics to a minimum in order not to cause his young wife any unnecessary anxiety.
His first scoop was flying a dangerous daylight bombing mission over Wilhelmshaven, Germany. He flew in the Plexiglas nose cone of a B-17, and it is said that against all rules, he fired the 50-caliber machine gun at enemy fighters. If so, he never reported it.
Later, he made a glider landing behind enemy lines and was caught up in heavy fire during the Battle of the Bulge. “I was scared,” he wrote Betsy. It is in the letters where you capture the tone of the 1940s. There are a lot of “honeys,” “gees” and even a few “swells.” He told Betsy he thought the film “Casablanca” was “pretty swell.” And, of course, never does he stoop to the written use of gutter slang, even in reference to the Nazis.
He described the V-1 and V-2 buzz bomb attacks on London, complete with scenes of devastation and suffering, and then added, as if in amazement: “The buses keep running. The people keep hailing cabs.”
There are some gaping holes in the war narrative when Cronkite was unable to write home, or when letters were misplaced or lost, but the authors strive to backfill with excerpts from his stories as they were printed in newspapers across the country.
Reading his Christmas letter, fraught with longing and despair, you can almost picture anchorman Cronkite nearly two decades later alone on the set in his most embarrassing on-camera moment when he choked up and couldn’t continue to speak after telling the nation President John F. Kennedy was dead.
This story ends with the German surrender and his reunion with Betsy in England (they were married just shy of 65 years when she died in 2005). In his last letters before they are reunited, he reports the horrible devastation of Holland and the suffering of the people who had had no fuel, no new clothes, no soap and precious little to eat for five years.
Cronkite’s whole professional career was ahead of him, but already you could almost hear him saying matter-of-factly: “And that’s the way it is.”
Cronkite’s War: His World War II Letters Home
By Walter Cronkite IV and Maurice Isserman
318 pages, $28.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.