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Walter and Me

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While most of my time these days is spent documenting the health of the world's ocean and the lives of people who depend on it, I've had a long and varied career (Rolling Stone editor, National Geographic explorer, TV commercial maker and more). Early on I even had the pleasure of working a long, cold weekend with Mr. Cronkite, which is what the one hundred and thirty five CBS employees who flew into Des Moines for the month of January 1980 to cover the presidential caucuses called him.

I was the editor of the weekly alternative newspaper in Iowa and was hired as Cronkite's aide de camp for four days, handed the keys to a brand new Cadillac and a mobile phone the size of a brief case. CBS, then the nightly news leader, spared no expense covering the first-in-the-nation vote, shipping in a gross of workers, renting the Des Moines Civic Center for its broadcasts and out-spending by double what the candidates were then allowed to spend on the Iowa caucuses ($450,000).

When I picked Cronkite up at the airport he was not alone; he walked off the plane side-by-side with colleague and NBC competitor John Chancellor. "There must be only one plane a day to Des Moines," he joked. Though hidden behind dark glasses, he was recognized immediately. Polls at the time showed him running neck and neck with the Pope as the most trusted man on the planet, others suggested he should run for president himself.

Cronkite's wish was for some old-fashioned reporting, so we spent the afternoon visiting Democrats in their rented headquarters, first Jimmy Carter's, then the usurper Ted Kennedy's. Cronkite was invited to back rooms where he pulled a reporter's notebook out of his suit pocket for off-the-record briefings; between stops he and producer Ernie Leiser would compare notes in the backseat of the Cadillac. ("I'm surprised Carter's still working the phones this late," said Cronkite, "and can you believe what a hick that campaign guy was?")

Early evening found us at the Adventureland Palace on the outskirts of town to watch a Ronald Reagan speech. Chancellor was there too, and the two anchors stood side by side as the front-running governor of California pitched himself. Afterwards Cronkite said it appeared Reagan had "lost the wind from his sail." "He couldn't even read a good speech," he said.

The next morning began early on the stage of the Civic Center, where "Face the Nation" host George Herman was interviewing George H.W. Bush. Afterwards, leaning against vending machines, Cronkite and Bush watched Jimmy Carter on "Meet the Press." In the car afterwards Cronkite would predict the race a shoe-in for Carter and pick Bush over a "tottering" Reagan.

That Sunday afternoon it was the Republican's turn for visits from the King of Television, so we dropped into Reagan and John Connally headquarters' before hitting the Ramada Inn to watch a Howard Baker's stump speech.

Cronkite had considered inviting all of the CBS workers to watch Super Bowl XIV but when he was reminded there were more than 100, he limited it to a half-dozen: A pair of "Evening News" writers, Leiser, statistician Warren Mitofsky (who in the years to come would be credited as the creator of voter sampling used by all the networks), reporter Morton Dean and me. Cronkite sat in a burgundy chair, his feet propped on an ottoman, drank scotch, ate pork rinds and lost $5 to me when the Steelers trounced the Rams 31-19. After the game he was off to play tennis with the governor of Iowa. (He was disgruntled the next morning when the Des Moines Register reported that the governor's doubles team had beaten his twosome "handily." "I don't call 6-4 'handily,' " Cronkite joked.)

Early the next morning, in warmish January temperatures of twenty degrees, he taped stand-ups for the election night show in front of the Iowa capital and spent the afternoon preparing for his 10:30 special. He was a clearly a story while in town, more recognized than most of the presidential candidates, thus sat for interviews several times that day. "I really don't like all the attention," he said later, "I wish we didn't have to work under the kind of structure that makes 'stars' out of anchormen."

The major concern for Cronkite and his team was calling the race first, and correctly. Which they did, at 8:51 CST, Cronkite busting onto air declaring a certain Carter victory and a dead-heat between Bush and Reagan, each with 31 percent of the vote. CBS was the first network to call the races and once off the air Cronkite tipped his hat to Mitofsky.

By 11:30 p.m., Cronkite's duties were over. "We should have stayed at the Hotel Fort Des Moines," he said, "that's where the action is." So that's where we went. Bush was giving his victory speech on the second floor of the hotel (suggesting he now had the "Big Mo") and it was so crowded even Cronkite couldn't squeeze in, nudging past a dour-looking Bob Dole during the effort. Until 2 a.m. we went between bars at the Fort Des Moines and the Hotel Savery, Cronkite smoking a foot-long cigar and drinking scotch. During the course of the night several women asked his friends for the 63-year-old anchorman's room number.

The next morning, the New Hampshire primary just a week away, in the car to the airport Cronkite was still taking satisfaction in CBS's early calls. "Right on top," he said. (Carter trounced Kennedy, capturing 37 percent of the vote to 12 percent; Bush squeaked past Reagan, 31-29.)

"Walter, you know, you really should run for president yourself," said then director of CBS News Burt Benjamin, who'd flown in the day before from Los Angeles.

"Well Burt," came that all-familiar tone, from the back of the car, "I think we'll wait and see how many uncommitteds there are after New Hampshire. And then maybe we'll go after them."