"If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America..."
President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1968, when he learned
that CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite believed that
Vietnam was "unwinnable".
On Friday, 17 July 2009, we lost another chunk of America. Walter Leland Cronkite crossed the finish line of a most noble marathon. He was 92 years old.
According to journalistic lore, network news producer emeritus Don Hewitt coined the term anchorman on 7 July 1952, to describe the late Walter Cronkite's coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Hewitt defined Cronkite's role in that national event, as the anchor leg in the relay race of reporting.
The word anchor is apropos, especially as the term is applied to defining the violent, cultural riptide of the 1960s (and 70s) that crashed onto the shores of our consciousness. The JFK-MLK-RFK assassinations, astronauts doing the unimaginable and walking on the moon, the bloody Kodachrome footage of the Vietnam War, and thugs dressed up as political operatives (who tried to beat a young Dan Rather to the ground) at the1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, were unstable currents churning into the New American Maelstrom. A maelstrom that could have easily drowned our collective psyche in its dark and powerful undertow, had it not been for Walter Cronkite's calm and soothing sign-off: And that's the way it was.
Uncle Walter Cronkite was our sturdy anchor in the New American Maelstrom. It felt like he steadied the swaying zeitgeist on the CBS Evening News. As we say in the hood, Unc held it down. Cronkite supported us--as we gathered around those monochromatic (and later, color) television sets, eating our Swanson TV dinners on TV tables--hoisting our anxious spirits with a fulcrum of solid reporting, a firm but warm delivery, and eyes that occasionally exposed the compassionate human behind the unblinking journalist. For the next seventy-two hours, on cable and network tributes; on YouTube searches, and a ton of tiny Twitter urls, there will be the clip of Cronkite removing his black, horn-rimmed glasses -- almost losing his composure -- as he confirmed the murder of President Kennedy in Dallas.
That teary chink in Walter Cronkite's stoic armor, unified a racially divided nation -- glued to a cathode ray of black and white images -- to come together and mourn its savage loss. Cronkite pulled focus, finished the newscast, and came back the next night, and the next 6500-plus nights after that, until his retirement in 1981. And that's the way it was, was the Cronkitian summation of the world at large, and how it impacted us. It was the benediction in that shinning city on the hill, that was struggling with intermittent moral blackouts (Vietnam-Nixon-Watergate).
Will there be another Walter Cronkite? As much as I would readily elect bright candidates such as Keith Olbermann, Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, and even MSNBC newcomer Carlos Watson, to fill the vacancy of the most trusted person in America, the answer is a resounding, No. Walter Cronkite cast a long, imposing shadow. On the Rachel Maddow Show, the legendary Dan Rather -- who was mentored by Walter Cronkite at CBS -- grievously reflecting on the sui generis of Cronkite, said he was able to get through the glass. Walter Cronkite could connect with the viewers at home in a truly personal way,
We are living in a different time: the internet is the virtual hammer that allowed us to break on through to the other side of the glass. It only takes a credit card to pilfer the date of birth, real name, drivers license, and the GPS of where your favorite talking head is, at any given moment. Simply stated, this is the end, my gentle friends. We are The Generation Who Knows Way Too Much, and the more we know about your private life, the less we trust you.
While it may be true that the anchorperson on this side of the millennial divide is interested in helping us stay the course, more often than not, they also feel the need to raise their own profiles. Their Performer Q's. They can passionately speak to power, as Keith Olbermann does in the eloquent, even brave rants of his Special Comments, sorely needed during the Bush debacle.
However, unlike Cronkite, these nouveau anchor-people wear too much of their heart on their bespoke sleeves. They are a Network of intuitively refined and Ivy-League'd Howard Beales, who are not only mad as hell, and are not only not going to take it anymore, they are going to twitter-it-down to a sexy soundbite. Their is no layer of separation between their public facades and their private selves, and maybe that's just it. Maybe their public facades are not facades at all. It's hard to tell in a 21st Century where Me-ism masquerades as We-Ism. Or maybe I'm just getting confused by all of these isms.
Here's the thing. Could you imagine President Obama conferring the same power and access the unassuming Cronkite had with LBJ, to the narcissistic glitter-babies sitting behind the computerized desktops of the various cable/network news channels today? That might not be a good look. But who knows?
What I do know is this: like the death of Michael Jackson two weeks ago, the passing of Walter Cronkite represents the end of an era. Their departures embody nearly a century of American history that we viewed through the lenses of their lives. The sight of my parents crying in the living room of our shotgun flat on Amsterdam Avenue and 165th Street -- in the Little Washington Heights section of New York -- as a five-year-old, when Walter Cronkite announced the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on 22 November 1963, will live with me forever. I can now add two more dates to that spectral calendar: 25 June 2009, and 17 July 2009.
Walter Cronkite and Michael Jackson are two different men, who introduced us to two different moonwalks--the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon will be this Monday, 20 July 2009--that we'll always remember. And now, both men have come to the end of their individual journeys. When we lose public figures who become such an enduring part of our private lives, we lose a part of ourselves. We also realize, like Dylan Thomas, that we too, won't go gently into that good night. But we will submit to it.
And that's the way it is.
Thank you, Uncle Walter.