Walter Cronkite: When He Wasn't 'The Most Trusted Man in America'

08/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

News of Walter Cronkite's death did not come as a surprise. For more than a month, his close friends and family made it clear the former CBS News anchorman was gravely ill and would not recover. That his passing coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing is less a surprise than a cosmic alignment. In the days ahead, we will celebrate the men who first walked on the moon and the anchor who took us there with them. As we mourn "the most trusted man in America" we also mourn the kind of television news that no longer exists.

2009-07-18-CronkiteMoon.jpg Listening to tribute after tribute by journalists who remember Mr. Cronkite, every reminiscence appears to share the same sentiment: "Walter Cronkite was why I wanted to work in broadcasting." Even as a boy of seven, I recognized that he had that effect on me. It seemed miraculous for a Brooklyn kid that our babysitter's mom worked for Mr. Cronkite at CBS News. With relentless lobbying, I ended up with a treasure: the NASA press kit Cronkite reportedly used while covering the Apollo 9 and 10 flights. Just days ago, I paged through this relic: amazed at the audacity of the race to the moon and the memory of Cronkite's undisguised glee as Neil Armstrong touched the surface of a new world.

Everyone who watched Walter Cronkite somehow felt a personal connection to the newsman: whether they shared his coverage of the moon landing... or his agony announcing the assassination of President Kennedy... or endured with him the daily torment of an endless war in Vietnam or the despicable hostage-taking of diplomats in Iran. He was an outstanding journalist, to be sure. But we connected with him because of his obvious compassion, modesty, and joyous enthusiasm.

Thirteen years after my first attempt to work at CBS, I finally landed a job at the news network I was certain I'd work for. By then, Mr. Cronkite had retired. I feared I would never meet the man who inspired so many of us. I'm glad I was soon proved wrong. Let me share a brief encounter with the newsman everyone knew:

Did I say "everyone?" Well, almost everyone. Covering yet another war, this time Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Mr. Cronkite kindly agreed to help our coverage with an interview. I ran down to the lobby of the CBS News Broadcast Center to escort Mr. Cronkite to a studio. Well, in he came to the same building he hosted his broadcast for 19 years. As I prepared to whisk him off, a security guard at the front desk stopped him. "You need to show me some ID.," the fellow demanded. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Cronkite, " I said as I turned to the clueless guard. With quiet clarity and some ferocity, I let the security guard know the man before him was the Walter Cronkite, and we would not be showing him any identification and we would, right now, be on our way. The CBS News security man began to protest but saw a murderous look in my eye and wisely let us pass.

Ever genial and humble, Walter Cronkite laughed. I apologized again as we walked through the hallways and studio he knew so well. "That wasn't why I was laughing, young man," Walter said to me. "I was remembering another time. It was the same place ... and a similar thing happened. " Walter smiled modestly. "You see, this is when I was anchoring the broadcast. A few minutes before air, I really needed a cigarette. So I stepped outside for a few moments for a smoke. Heading back, I'm stopped by another security guard... a fellow I never saw before. I left my jacket and wallet in the studio... and we're going to be on the air in a few minutes. And this security guard just will not let me back into the building."

Cronkite is laughing now: "So, I tried to explain but the guard wouldn't budge. The broadcast was just moments away. Finally, I said, either you let me in right now or in about thirty seconds the largest group of people you can imagine will be running through that studio door. And they'll be looking for me." The security guard didn't fully believe him, but finally let Walter Cronkite in. "Indeed, a bunch of people were running around but I got to the chair in time for the broadcast."

Walter Cronkite defined the role of a television news anchor. Today, the job he perfected has largely lost its relevance. News no longer waits for a single trusted voice... and "the way it is" depends on who you choose to believe. Some claim to be "fair and balanced" and are clearly neither. Cronkite genuinely believed journalists could and must be "objective." It took a man of great character and outstanding humility to so sublimate his personal views and inherent bias to achieve that rather impossible standard.

At the CBS News Broadcast Center, and throughout the news business, Walter Cronkite largely defined the ethical and journalistic standards that engendered the trust of a nation. Yet the "most trusted man in America" seemed rather pleased he wasn't recognized at his own front door. It was as if he enjoyed being reminded to remain humble, especially after all of the success and adulation he earned throughout his remarkable career.

Forty years ago, a man walked on the Moon. Words fail to describe the magnificence of this accomplishment. Yet, much as I wished it might one day be my foot that stepped out beyond this Earth, being an astronaut didn't seem as much fun as doing what Walter Cronkite was doing. A rocket, more than 350-feet tall, lifted the astronauts into space. But it was Walter Cronkite and the team of journalists he inspired that brought the rest of us to the Moon. "Whew, boy..., " he said, as Armstrong descended the ladder. As the world saw a boot finally touch lunar dust, words briefly failed Walter Cronkite. Then he exclaimed, "Armstrong is on the moon -- Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon." Yet, in the silence, with a huge grin... his hand taking the horn-rimmed glasses off of eyes nearly filled with tears... Walter Cronkite told us all we needed to know.

Thank you, sir.