Cronkite, a biography by Douglas Brinkley

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Biography of Walter Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley
Hardcover, 832 pages with photos, $34.99
HarperCollins Publishers
May 2012

Walter Cronkite’s unpretentious newsman persona made him “the most trusted man in America.” He was who the public wanted to hear and see reporting on the biggest stories of the day. He was a frontline journalist in WWII, he walked people through political party conventions, he consoled a nation in shock at the assassination of a president and narrated historic flights into space.

When Cronkite spoke, everybody listened, including heads of state. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson famously said “if we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the war,” in response to the newsman’s assessment that Vietnam was a “a stalemate.”

His figure, if not his standard, still looms large in broadcast news mythology. Douglas Brinkley, bestselling author of “The Reagan Diaries,” brings the broadcast journalist and his times into hi-def focus in “Cronkite,” and doesn’t avoid dimming “Uncle Walter”‘s haloed crown. (Editor’s note: Brinkley is no relation to newscaster David Brinkley, Cronkite’s competition on NBC.) With a few narrative lags over 700 pages, this has the feel of a definite biography; Brinkley makes a page-turner of a singularly fascinating life.

Indeed, Uncle Walter was not without foibles. Despite his blue-collar image, he had a very plum ego; he was hyper-competitive, fostered ongoing professional feuds, bungled some big interviews and even had a few conflicts of interest regarding reporting and politicians. But, in the image-driven world of broadcast journalism, as Brinkley shows, Cronkite was mostly above the mountains of industry hubris.

Cronkite’s early life had Horatio Alger mystique: He was born in St. Joseph, Kan., home of the Pony Express. His first job was as a paperboy in nearby Kansas City, where his father, a dentist, opened his practice. In high school, Cronkite worked on the school newspaper and won a journalism award for writing about the Leopold and Loeb trial of a decade before.

His parents divorced and he grew up in Houston and elsewhere in Texas. Cronkite was soon on his way by then, starting dual college and fast-track journalism careers. Soon the city desk and Houston nightlife took over and he dropped out of school. While visiting his father in Kansas City, he got a job as a sports radio announcer at an upstart radio station, recreating football games, sometimes disastrously, reading from wire service feeds.

But there was no doubt that Cronkite’s rich baritone was well suited to radio and a knockout on TV. Cronkite’s life changed when he heard eye-witness reporting from Edward R. Murrow as Hitler rolled into Vienna. As a star United Press reporter, Cronkite lobbied to be dispatched to London during the Blitz, he finally got there, credentialed to go on bombing raids over Germany. By now he was married to Betsy, a Kansas City Star reporter and in every way his match. In London, Cronkite was courted by Murrow, but UP countered with a better offer. Cronkite didn’t want to be in Murrow’s shadow, or beholden to him in any way.

During the 1950s, Cronkite continued to write his own ticket, distinguishing himself in areas that were not overshadowed by Murrow. Cronkite was also perfect for the new industry of broadcast journalism. He started to specialize in covering political party conventions, which was a vastly changed process by television coverage. He was also on the space beat more than any other reporter. Cronkite was defining an industry.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. He had acrimonious relationships with key players, among them Murrow and at times, CBS titan William Paley. He was alpha male competitive with many colleagues and later had very public feuds with politicians and colleagues, most protracted with his eventual successor Dan Rather.

In the social upheaval of the ’60s, Cronkite belied his famed “objectivity” and became known as a progressive liberal, after flipping his positions on Vietnam and identifying with the antiwar and eco movements. He was a supporter of left social causes for feminist principals, civil rights for African Americans and other minorities including gay liberation.

Socially, Cronkite had the “most extensive Rolodex” in the world, but otherwise he was a devoted family man, raising three children and devoted to Betsy until her death in 2005. They also raised three kids together and Cronkite was devastated by her death, but moved on quickly. Though a model husband, je was no buttoned-up suburbanite or prude— he drank, was known on the society circuit and even frequented strip joints.

Cronkite retired from network news in 1981, horrified at the new industry shifts, driven by cable, from ‘objective’ news reporting style, to personality driven, sensationalist styles that he found corrosive to the craft of journalism. When it eventually affected network news, Uncle Walter, as Brinkley details, was brutal in his assessment.

With 24-hour cable news vastly changing the look and sound of network news, Cronkite found himself odd man out. He had to face the bitter realization that CBS Evening News, at Rather’s insistence, had all but banished him from guest reporting. Cronkite became a freelancer, lending his talents to new cable channels to stay in the game. He pursued other interests, in the U.S. and abroad. At one point he was slated to be the first journalist to hitch a ride with NASA astronauts, but the special civilian program was scrubbed after the Challenger disaster.

The inner wrangling of power players at CBS gets tedious at points, and Brinkley’s enthusiasm for all things Walter occasionally gets claustrophobic. Amid an unfolding Cronkite scenario, Brinkley parenthetically alludes to the tragedy that unfolded at the 1972 Munich Olympics where seven Israeli athletes were held hostage and murdered.

With only one or two wrong notes, Brinkley balances Cronkite with expert research-analysis and engaging prose. His chapters on Cronkite’s biggest assignments from his first foreign correspondent junkets to the chapters on the ’60s, especially of Cronkite’s CBS News ground coverage of the Tet offensive, are vividly and expertly crafted.

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