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A veteran remembers Walter Cronkite

July 29, 2009

Walter Cronkite, who died this last week at age 92, was one of the giants of the newspaper and television industry, and it is totally fitting that his passing has received such widespread notice. This despite the fact that Cronkite left his position as anchor of CBS News twenty-eight years ago. He is best remembered for a sobriquet “the most trusted man in America.” Though such an accolade was doubtless the brainchild of some promoter, it rings so true that it is repeated over and over again.

As one who counted him as a friend, I feel a very special sadness. Though today he is remembered principally for his role in establishing the television anchor, the veterans of the Second World War hold the name Walter Cronkite with a special warmth, much like that of Ernie Pyle. We feel that he was one of us.

He took risks greater than those of most frontline soldiers. The various tributes being rendered nearly all mention that he accompanied a B-17 bomber on a raid over Germany, but they rarely note that he glided into Holland with the 101st Airborne (Screaming Eagles) in the fall of 1944. He was later at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

There were no heroics in him; he was far too secure in himself to be pretentious. Forty years ago, when I was writing a book about the Bulge, I wrote Walter about a minor incident in which he and several other reporters politely declined General Maxwell Taylor’s offer of a jeep ride through particularly dangerous territory. Taylor had an urgent reason to make the trip; he was desperate to rejoin his division (again the 101st), which was bottled up in Bastogne. The reporters had no such motivation. To my question, however, Walter made no excuses; he simply wrote “I chickened.”  

Walter’s openness gave him a remarkable rapport with all who dealt with him. I first met him when he came to Gettysburg in 1963 to do a series of interviews with my father on the Eisenhower presidency. The results were so favorable that the executive producer of CBS News, the late Fred Friendly, proposed that Ike and Cronkite do the same type of thing entitled “D-Day Plus Twenty Years,” to be filmed on the Normandy beaches. I was part of the entourage, assisting my father.

It was a difficult show to make, and tempers were sometimes a bit short. But two people who never had a cross word with anyone were the serene Cronkites. Therein lay Walter’s strength, his aura of calm even when being very serious.

One humorous episode during that time remains etched in my memory. A scene called for Cronkite and Ike to be photographed in a jeep plowing its way through the loose sands of Omaha Beach. My father was at the wheel, thereby putting two lives in peril. The problem was not his age of 73 years; it was the fact that as a general and president he had not driven a car since 1942, over twenty years earlier. For a mercifully short time the jeep careened from side to side and the lives of a former president and a prominent news anchor hung in the balance. Through it all, Cronkite kept his cool, though his life was probably in greater danger than at any time since the Second World War. (This was before the onset of Vietnam.)

Despite his wisdom and good sense, Walter Cronkite was no oracle. In 1990, when a group of us spoke briefly before a joint session of Congress observing General Eisenhower’s one hundredth birthday, he frankly admitted that through the years he had, in his own words, been

“…inclined to concur in the general press corps wisdom that Ike did not have intimate touch with many of the decisions of his administration. After he left the presidency and we were doing his memoirs at Gettysburg, I found out how wrong I was.”

My reaction, I admit, was to regret that Cronkite had not perceived such when my father had been in office.

The last time I saw Walter was in 1994, at Omaha Beach, just after President Clinton had spoken in memory of their D-Day landings. Walter, my wife Joanne, and I leaned on the hood of a car and chatted informally, saying nothing that I recall. And much later I imposed on his good nature to write a comment for my book, General Ike, using as my excuse his friendship with my father. He graciously complied.

Though we were not close, I feel a great pride in my friendship with Walter Cronkite. Today we still have some fine reporters, but I can think of no anchors who have ever so actively lived the events they are reporting on the evening news. Walter Cronkite, above all, was for real.

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