Senator Cronkite

07/17/2009 10:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Walter Cronkite was a liberal and no, he didn't have a problem with that.

Reporters can be wary of being pigeonholed by an ideology or a political party. There are even those like Mike Allen, who refuses to cast a ballot at the end of a campaign -- too guilty to let the candidates he covers know that he's made a choice.

But Walter Cronkite didn't have that problem. He was not afraid to express opinions when the situation called for it; he just insisted it be marked an editorial. There were critics, yes, but perhaps they never considered that it was their ideology getting in the way of them seeing things clearly. After all, even Richard Nixon didn't think Cronkite worthy of his enemies list. The famously paranoid president is said to have thought the anchorman 'the best of a bad lot.'

Even Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency came to an end in part because of a Cronkite editorial, did not harbor ill will. As the Tet Offensive was unfolding in 1968, Cronkite left for Vietnam... he simply had to see it for himself. Briefly trapped in Hue, he was evacuated in a helicopter with the bodies of dead Marines. Still, a 'Bigfoot' anchorman like him was treated far differently than the average combat reporter. He would dine with generals who told him how swimmingly everything was going. It was harder to make the conclusions that others could come to sooner. And though he could tell the younger reporters in Vietnam were "engaged in a contest among themselves to determine who was the most cynical, who the most confrontational in their rude challenges to the appointed [military] spokesmen," he could see there was no way forward.

Cronkite returned to America and publicly concluded that the Vietnam War would only end "in stalemate" (a clearly-labeled editorial). At that moment, aides recall that President Johnson turned off his set and sighed something like, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Yet Johnson still chose Cronkite for lengthy retrospective CBS interviews after he left the White House.

It was probably the Tet editorial that led Robert Kennedy to invite Cronkite to lunch later that February of 1968. Sure, they were there to discuss whether or not he would run for president, but as all of Kennedy's interaction with journalists, he was interviewing them as much as they were interviewing him. At one point the Senator asked whether Cronkite was registered to vote at his home in Connecticut.... New York, actually.... "Then you aren't registered as a Democrat."... An independent.... "Well that doesn't matter," Kennedy said. "We want you to run for Senate this year." Republican Jacob Javits was up for reelection and Kennedy didn't have a decent candidate to oppose him. He explained what kind of support Cronkite could expect, but it wasn't enticing.

When Cronkite returned from lunch, he found out that Roger Mudd had uncovered a big story on Kennedy holding presidential powwows with his top political advisers. The piece had to air but Cronkite was afraid Kennedy would think he violated his trust. So he called the office and told press secretary Frank Mankiewicz what was happening. Frank relayed Kennedy's reply for that evening's broadcast: 'Senator Kennedy said that he was contemplating running for the presidency just as Walter Cronkite is contemplating running for the Senate from New York.'

In all likelihood, Kennedy knew that Jacob Javits wasn't going to be defeated that November. He was sizing Cronkite up to be his replacement were he to run for and win the presidency.... Even if that had happened, it's doubtful Cronkite would have taken him up on the offer. He would never have been that influential in the Senate, nor was he the type of transactional politician you have to be in order to keep your job in a state like New York.

No, he was a journalist. A journalist who had opinions.

"It's not the journalist's job to be patriotic," Cronkite once told a secretary of defense. "How can patriotism be determined anyway? Is patriotism simply agreeing unquestioningly with every action of one's government? Or might we define patriotism as having the courage to speak and act on those principles one thinks are best for the country, whether they are in accordance with the wishes of the government or not?"