Saturday, July 18, 2009

Watching Walter Cronkite at My Daddy’s Knee

Walter Cronkite had quite an impact on my young life. So much so, in fact, that the best song I ever wrote was about him. It was in ‘82 or ‘83, I think, when I wrote the song about the news anchors that came after Cronkite, called "Why Does Dan Rather (Wanna Be My Friend)?" It is still a favorite of all five of my fans and of mine. The bridge goes like this:

I grew up/With space shots and assassinations

I saw riots in the street/I watched with fascination

I watched the revolution/On my TV

Watching Walter Cronkite/At my daddy’s knee

We were a CBS family. Huckleberry Hound, Ed Sullivan, Danny Kaye, Gilligan’s Island; and, later, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family and the first two seasons of M*A*S*H. And, everyday at 5:30 in those years, I stood up, walked across the room and turned that clunky dial on our first color TV over to Channel 2 in Green Bay (or Channel 6 in Milwaukee – with an antenna on the roof, we were ambi-market-ual, TV-wise) and my dad and I watched as Walter Cronkite brought us the world.

From the first major events of my political consciousness – the crossfire assassination of John F. Kennedy and the subsequent murder of patsy Lee Oswald – through Vietnam, the race riots in ‘67 and the seminal year of 1968; to coverage of the most criminal pre-Junior Bush administration in American history (Nixon and Watergate), Cronkite provided the first draft of a wild ride in history. He did it with a rock-steady hand, a lift of his bushy eyebrow and a sing-song baritone voice.

We now live in a time of a thousand of mediocre voices; squawking, torturing and reading the news. Unless you lived through it, it is hard to grasp what it meant for Cronkite to dominate and excel in a world when there were only a handful of distinct electronic voices. As the seminal news anchor and the executive editor of the CBS Evening News, his was the filter through which all the important news passed (and, if it wasn’t on his show, it wasn’t important). Although trivialized as "Uncle Walter", Cronkite was a serious man who bore the weight of his never-to-be-seen-again gate-keeper responsibilities with courage, class and wisdom.

And, at crucial times in that history, he made a couple of calls that helped bring an end one Stupid War and that helped bring down the criminal Nixon regime. If only someone of his gravity and insight were available when Bush made the final push towards his Stupid War on Iraq. If only Cronkite were there when the lies of the war and the daily violation of the Constitution by the Bush White House were exposed. He could have single-handedly saved hundreds of thousands of lives and quite a bit of the nation’s dignity.

It was Cronkite – the heroic, cheerleading WWII war correspondent – who came back from the jungles of Vietnam and put the lie to LBJ and his war. It was Cronkite who took Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting and made sense of it for a national audience, with charts, graphs and long segments of his Evening News devoted to Nixon’s crimes. He brought us the sorrow of the JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations; and the curiosity and joy (at least for me, as a kid) of every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space mission, culminating in the first lunar landing, being celebrated just this weekend.

On March 6, 1981, a group of us at the Daily Cardinal – including our dear departed friend, Keenan Peck – walked across University Ave. from our office to a bar on the corner to watch Cronkite’s last broadcast. We drank beers and laughed as we always did, jeered at Dan Rather as Cronkite handed him the baton and generally mocked the over-hyped media event. It was the end of an era, and we knew it.