iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Karen Ocamb

Karen Ocamb

Posted: July 20, 2009 10:40 AM

Walter Cronkite and the Player Piano

What's Your Reaction?

Dateline, Christmas season, 1975. A cab left me off in front of Walter Cronkite's Upper Eastside townhouse. Fresh out of college, I had joined CBS News two years earlier as a desk assistant and had become a regular substitute for Jim McGlinchy, Cronkite's clerk on the CBS Evening News. And now I was invited to his staff Christmas party.

The house was warm, filled with people, laughter and music. I found my way into the living room where Uncle Walt, sporting a Santa red vest, was playing the piano and loudly warbling some corny country song -- karaoke before there was karaoke. Of all the people gathered around him, some laughing, some just being polite, Uncle Walt was the one having the best time. I, for one, wondered why he was singing a country song for Christmas -- until he got up from the piano bench to go talk to someone and the piano kept playing by itself.

I was dumbfounded. I had never seen a player piano before and I never thought the "most trusted man in America" would have one -- let alone be a country music fan. Truthfully, I just never thought of Walter Cronkite as being fun until then.

I liked Uncle Walt. One night after the broadcast, we chatted about how he started out at a radio station in Kansas City, Missouri when my father worked for the Kansas City Star. He remembered my father's name. And curiously, just as Cronkite joined UPI and left the Midwest to cover World War Two, my father left to become one of the first Americans to join the RAF, the Royal Air Force, before the US officially declared war.

My father had also moonlighted as a local bandleader and we talked about the Big Bands, Louie Armstrong, Cole Porter and a fellow named Hoagy Carmichael. My father died just before I joined CBS News, so the exchange was poignant.

At the Christmas party, as many of my young colleagues went upstairs to watch a cool new television show called NBC's Saturday Night with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, I chatted and drank wine with Kathy Cronkite, who was around my age. She said she was thinking about going into acting -- and sure enough -- the following year she played a Patty Hearst look-alike in Paddy Chayefsky's incredible take on broadcast news -- Network. I didn't need to drop any LSD to know how psychedelic that was!

Like so many other Baby Boomers, Walter Cronkite stands out in the timeline of my life.

Though my father chose a military career instead of journalism, we always had the news on in our house. I was transfixed by John F. Kennedy and how the torch had been passed to a new generation -- a vigorous generation characterized by Jackie and Caroline and John-John playing in the Oval Office.

As a "duck and cover" kid who lived on or near Strategic Air Command Air Force bases when the Berlin Wall went up and Kennedy stared down Kruschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, my first thought when I heard the news that Kennedy had been shot on that fateful Nov. 22, 1963 was that the Communists got him.

But the steadiness of Walter Cronkite and a young reporter named Dan Rather calmed me. For the next four days, my family was glued to the television -- including watching "live" the murder of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Dallas club owner Jack Ruby and the mournful procession down Pennsylvania Avenue of JFK's flag-draped casket on a horse-drawn caisson and a riderless horse with the stirrups turned backward.

Later, in 1967, we were riveted again as Cronkite and Rather did a four-part series -- "The Warren Report" -- that included re-enactments of the shooting to examine the conspiracy theories.

But the most powerful Cronkite moment for me was his commentary about the Vietnam War.

It's difficult for many people today to realize just how revolutionary the 1960s were -- smacking back against the dark, closeted, conformist 50s. The JFK generation was kids joining the Peace Corps and using folk songs and marches to support of the growing civil rights movement -- which Cronkite insisted upon covering. Meanwhile, however, Robert McNamara (who also died recently), one of JFK's "best and brightest," was sending military advisors to Vietnam. The practice expanded under President Lyndon Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland who started drafting ground troops in 1965. Over the years, Johnson and Westmoreland kept up a steady drumbeat that America was winning the war, tossing out authoritative-sounding "body counts" of the enemy.

But the anti-war movement, which coincided and often overlapped with the civil rights movement, the student movement, and the Black, Chicano, gay and women's liberation movements, took to the streets, demanding accountability.

Initially, Cronkite talked about Vietnam in a stodgy World War Two style, uncritically reporting the White House's "domino theory" that if communism wasn't stopped in Vietnam, it would spread throughout Southeast Asia. But Vietnam increasingly became a television war, with reporters such as Rather, Charles Kuralt, and Morely Safer reporting from the frontlines. The country was divided: conservative response to Safer's famous report showing Marines lighting thatched village huts with Zippo lighters, for instance, was that it was a common practice during search and destroy missions when you can't tell the communist enemies from the innocent non-combatants.

Veteran war correspondent John Laurence covered the bloody battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive, a turning point. Launched Jan. 30 and 31, 1968, over 80,000 Viet Cong swarmed South Vietnam to the shock and surprise of unsuspecting South Vietnamese and American troops. The American public was totally shocked to see footage of the US Embassy in Saigon under attack.

Cronkite wanted to see what was going on for himself. He spent two weeks talking to everyone -- officials and soldiers -- and reporting on the battle of Hue. Upon his return, he did what no one expected him to do -- he dropped his renowned objectivity and outright criticized the military and the Johnson Administration.

As someone who vehemently opposed the war -- my friends were being drafted or running away to Canada or trying to figure out how to be homosexual so they wouldn't be accepted or coming home injured, crippled or in a body bag -- I watched Cronkite's Feb. 27, 1968 commentary with nail-biting anxiety.

Cronkite said in part:

"We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest cloud....For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate..... And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.... But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

I watched in jaw-dropped silence and then I jumped up and yelled and danced around -- catching the eye of my father who had retired from the military and joined Avco-Lycoming, an aerospace industry based in Stratford, Connecticut. Our move to Westport a few years earlier introduced me to a very liberal crowd -- and at one point I even called my father a "professional killer" over the dinner table. He slapped me and we were officially at odds. But after Cronkite's commentary, he changed his mind about the war.

He wasn't the only one. Bill Moyers reported that President Lyndon B. Johnson -- who withstood thousands of protesters screaming "Hey, Hey LBJ! How Many Kids Have You Killed Today?" -- said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

The next month, LBJ announced he would not seek re-election and New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy announced he would run in the Democratic Primary against poet and antiwar Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. My father liked RFK because he had a "strategic plan for withdrawal."

It was way past time, as Seymour Hersh's reporting of the My Lai Massacre revealed: On March 16, US Army forces murdered between 347-504 unarmed civilians, most of whom were women and children and elderly. Many of the victims had been sexually abused and tortured. Only William Calley was convicted, getting life but serving only three years under house arrest.

We came together as a family again to watch Cronkite's coverage of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK -- the latter on the day I graduated from high school.

We knew the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was going to be an opportunity to draw world attention to the Vietnam War. But I don't think any of us -- or at least not grunt students like me -- had any idea that Mayor Richard Daley would unleash his baton-wielding, head-bashing cops on the commie-pinko-faggot-scum demonstrators who were littering his city with unpatriotic puke. Daley was the Bull Connor of the North.

What we really, really didn't expect to see was the outside brought in when Rather got punched in the stomach and sank to the floor, yelling on air: "Get your hands off me unless you intend to arrest me!" Perched in a skybox watching with the rest of us, Cronkite was livid. "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan," he said, in a rare moment of pique. I always wondered, however, why CBS News didn't haul Daley into some TV booth and demand an explanation and on-air apology.

That unbridled hostility under the color of authority had its pinnacle at home with the May 4, 1970 shooting of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio. The Ohio National Guard wound up killing four students and wounding nine others. Some of the students were protesting President Richard Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. But others were simply walking on campus. Eight million students went on strike to protest the shootings, shutting down hundreds of universities and schools.

This is why Cronkite was so important: he was about the only person in this intensely divided America that both sides could trust. He was our no-frills common bond.

"And that's the way it is," he'd say closing each 7:00pm broadcast, as if that summed up one day, now we're on to the next. In his book A Reporter's Life, Cronkite writes that Richard Salant, the highly respected president of CBS News, didn't like the line because it ate up four seconds. Cronkite said that while he thought Salant might be right, "I was too stubborn to drop it." Thank heavens because the routine of that catch phrase was something to depend on.

I honestly can't tell you where I was or with whom the day 40 years ago on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11's space craft Eagle landed on the moon. We all needed a break -- a moment of pure unadulterated wonder watching as NASA relayed "live" pictures from the moon. Once again, Cronkite summed it up appropriately -- rubbing his hands with glee and saying, "Oh, boy!"

I started working as a desk assistant at CBS News in late 1973 (I took the proverbial one year off for an "identity crisis"). Coverage of the Watergate scandal was already well underway and I was thrilled to be there. The Washington Post broke the story but CBS News with Cronkite at the helm -- and Salant defending him against White House power plays -- brought the story to television and the national stage in late October 1972. Then Rather, the primary White House correspondent, worked the hell out of story which had so many threads until Nixon resigned in 1974 that I even broke a story one night on the assignment desk.

The CBS Newsroom at the time was one long loud unvarnished off-white room with a bank of wire service machines clanking away, muffled only by plastic enclosures that we lifted to roll copy for the reporters and writers. Facing the Flash Studio where Douglas Edwards still did the 12:30 news, the right hand side was for radio reporters and writers -- with a bank of closed-in radio studios at the far end. The left side was TV with offices for the National News Editor (wunderkind Peter Sturtevant who told me not to get an MA in journalism but to "learn by doing") and the brilliant Foreign News Editor Bob Little, with whom I would later get drunk at The Slate restaurant when Saigon fell and Bob thought his beloved and faithful Vietnamese cameraperson who stayed behind to get the story would be summarily killed. Bob later become my boss at Syndication, now Newspath.

Beyond Sturtevant's office was a door to the inner sanctum of the CBS Evening News. On the immediate right was the "Fish Bowl" where the executive producer sat. On the immediate left was the horseshoe desk where the writers sat -- national, foreign and "everything else," supervised by editor John Merriman. Against a long desk in front of a wall sat McGlinchy (or me, when I substituted) and others who were key to putting on the show.

The newsroom was really ruled over by Cronkite's short, stern secretary Hinda Glasser. She sat right outside Cronkite's sizable office but kept an eye on everything. I think she even threw a scare into the producers. But she could also be very protective and understanding.
Being a clerk was not an easy job when it came to airtime. Cronkite would come to his anchor desk a few minutes before broadcast and if there was a new story or he didn't like the way something was written -- he'd toss it back and gruffly order -- "Do it over!"

I would quietly freak out. I had to "break down" the script, give it to Uncle Walt, and then the teleprompter guy and then run like hell out the side door between the Fish Bowl and Cronkite's office down the hall, whip a left into the Control Room, hand the pages to the directors, and dash back to give the final copy to the executive producer and get ready to do it all over again in seconds, if necessary. Falling, running into people, hitting a knee -- no excuses. It was about getting those pages to the people who needed it right now with Cronkite live on air.

When I clerked for Rather, Bob Schieffer, and Morton Dean over the weekends -- my usual gig -- things were much calmer -- unless a story broke unexpectedly, of course. The paced quickened when CBS News transitioned to videotape from film, as well.

Charles Kuralt was a dream to work for when he substituted for Cronkite. He was famous for his On the Road series, which was a favorite kicker for the show. I asked him if he ever wanted to take over for Cronkite when he retired and Kuralt chuckled and said, no, he was an old hippie and he loved living in Greenwich Village and going out to meet people on the road.

My least favorite Cronkite substitute was Roger Mudd. A lot of the older journalists really liked him. But I thought he was an uncouth, arrogant sexist pig who droned the news. Now I grant you -- his documentary The Selling of the Pentagon was great. But he was really creepy to a young "everything else" writer named Carol Ross and everyone knew it -- and he just didn't give a damn.

This became a big deal for me when Cronkite was forced to retire -- not by Rather as some thought -- but by founder and chair Bill Paley's stupid rule that everyone had to retire at 65. There had been a lot of speculation about who would replace him -- with Mudd in the lead over Rather since Mudd substituted more.

I heard that Cronkite wanted Mudd -- but now -- 28 years later, I'm learning that may not have been the case. Regardless, I was a Rather fan. He was my mentor, he was smart, ambitious, generous and he created a terrific working environment. By the time they gave him the anchor job, I had been promoted and was working in Syndication so I wasn't involved with or privy to all the hoopla that happened afterwards.

But as Rather was finding his sea legs as anchor with an new administration in the newsroom and in the White House -- I got upset with Uncle Walt for what I thought was "bad-mouthing" Rather. He was saying that the news -- which had always been straightforward and headline-ish -- was now going "soft" and blending into entertainment.

But that was not what Rather was doing! One of the things I always admired about Rather was that he never forgot where he came from. He had hard-working parents during the Depression -- his father was a ditch digger and his mother waitressed. So when the Reagan White House put out unemployment numbers -- instead of just reciting the figures and showing a nice graphic -- Rather sent reporters to towns where the steel mills were shutting down. He wanted to tell the stories behind the numbers. That's not soft -- that's smart and humane.

I confess that I was miffed over that for a long time. But then Cronkite came to Los Angeles and I had a chance to chat with him after a lecture he delivered at the Wadsworth Theatre. (I moved here in 1984 -- my last assignment for CBS News was setting up a newsroom and co-producing the Olympic coverage for CBS News affiliates.)

I called him Uncle Walt -- which some of the older folks around me thought was rude. But he smiled and remembered me and we joked about that player piano and this odd little burlesque strip tease he'd done at that Christmas party.

My last best memory of Walter Cronkite was the night he opened the Emmy show after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the war in Afghanistan forced the show's postponement -- twice.

Sitting in front of the television with my family of choice, I watched Cronkite tell the audience that in the coverage of those two historic events, "television, the great common denominator, has lifted our common vision as never before."

And then on came show host Ellen DeGeneres who said she was the Taliban's worst nightmare: a lesbian in a pantsuit surrounded by Jews.

I just know that the most trusted man in America -- the guy with the player piano -- was cracking up backstage.