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Walter Cronkite: What America Lost

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The death of a famous person is different from the death of a loved one, whether it is Michael Jackson, Frank McCourt, or Walter Cronkite. We didn’t know any of them personally, and yet, we experience a sense of loss.

Fame lends itself to a different kind of intimacy -- on one level, a famous person becomes part of the backdrop of our lives. Sometimes, he or she steps into the foreground because we think we know them; we think they know us because they seem to speak to us directly, whether it is with their music, writing or what was once called The Nightly News. There seemed to be no other.

It may be difficult for people under the age of 40 to fathom what an imprint Walter Cronkite had on my generation. He has been called “the most trusted man in America,” and possibly he was. All I can recall is that what he said seemed sound and sensible. I do remember that in the early years of the Vietnam War I was impatient with him because he reported on the war dispassionately with no hint of doubt. I already had my doubts.

But when he declared that this war could not be won, and at best, end in a stalemate, we knew that the dissenters were not only marching in Washington, they had reached Middle America. It was a turning point.

Few people today could serve as such a precise barometer of American public opinion. Lyndon Johnson saw it, and perhaps even Archie Bunker, who had argued with his son about the war on television every week.

The extent of Cronkite’s fame was revealed to me in 1974 when I was a delegate to the Democratic Convention in Kansas City. (It was an interim convention that was held between nominating conventions to focus on re-writing the rules). We were attending one of these gargantuan receptions which are the hallmark of national political conventions when suddenly, the word spread through the crowd, necks craned and the crowd moved like lemmings in one direction.

“Who was it?” I wondered. “One of the presidential hopefuls?”

“No,” the word came back. It was Walter Cronkite. The real Walter Cronkite. We all wanted to go back home to tell our friends and neighbors that we had actually seen him, in the flesh.

His death is a loss, a loss of good reporting, a loss of cohesiveness which he could bring to our country and the simple loss of a man we felt was a friend.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.

This post was originally published on ChelseaGreen.com.