"Speechless About Cronkite"

July 29th, 2009

I grew up in a time when network TV news was presented in fifteen minutes. That all changed in September of 1963 when CBS expanded its format and Walter Cronkite became America’s first anchorman of a nightly, thirty minute newscast. Still, I recall that my parents preferred the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. So did most people. For many, that changed after Cronkite’ s accurate yet emotional reporting of the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. But Cronkite didn’t overtake NBC in the ratings until 1968, and after that, he never looked back.

The turning point came after Cronkite returned from a visit to Viet Nam, for a first hand look at the war. In an unprecedented move, the anchorman went on air and denounced the war as unwinnable, setting in motion the downfall of one President, the rise of another, and the eventual end to our involvement in Southeast Asia. In that respect, I guess I owe my life to Walter Cronkite, because by the time my lottery number came up to report for duty, Nixon had begun a de-escalation of troop deployments. Had it not been for Walter’s courage and conviction, and his willingness to speak out against the war, I might have spent time in a rice paddy, and come back in a body bag.

In the mid-1970’s I was lucky enough to snag a job as a studio camera operator at WFMY-TV in Greensboro, where I never grew tired of looking at photographs of CBS personalities which adorned the cinder block walls leading to the News studio. One of those photos was of Cronkite. I dreamed about meeting him someday, but for that moment in time, I had to be content with just watching one or both of his nightly “feeds” in our production control room.

After a year or so working behind the scenes at WFMY, I was tapped by news director Rabun Matthews to work in front of the camera. Matthews had just come from CBS where he was Cronkite’s head writer, and could be seen every evening seated off to one side of Uncle Walter on that massive news room set.

Rabun knew everyone in the business, so it was common for his buddies, like Charles Kuralt, to drop by our newsroom for a visit. But like Ted Knight on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, I always hoped that Mr. Cronkite would materialize, so that I could see him in person, instead of just settling for a glimpse of his image hanging in our hallway. It was not to be. At least not for awhile.

A few years later I found myself doing freelance reporting for newcomers CNN and ESPN, covering people and events throughout the southeast, including in Washington D.C. But sometimes I was also pressed into service by more established networks on days when even their considerable resources were stretched thin. One such day was January 20, 1981. That was the day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, and moments later, 53 American hostages were released by Iran. I was assigned to cover collateral activities at the State Department, such as when Hollywood stars like Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers showed up for a pre-inauguration reception.

After completing my assignment, I went over to the CBS building in D.C. to drop off some video tapes. I walked down a long corridor which was flanked on either side by small office cubicles, and as I passed a cubicle in the back right corner, I heard a voice say, “Hi”. I turned and looked. It was Cronkite, who had camped out in the Washington bureau to be close to the monumental events unfolding that week. My moment had arrived. I was meeting Walter Cronkite, and I just knew we would have a long conversation about TV news and what it was like being on television. After all, I was a TV weatherman, and quick on my feet. But for one of the few times in my life, words failed me (the other was at Tweetsie railroad when train robbers got up in my face). Suddenly I turned into a parody of Ralph Cramden, and all I could muster was to say, “Hi”. That was it. That was my big moment with Walter Cronkite, and I blew it. But as President Obama likes to say, that was also a teachable moment for me, because it taught me to always be prepared to speak with or interview anyone at anytime about anything.

I miss Walter Cronkite. He was the voice of reason. He was the guy who broke bad news to me, like when great leaders were assassinated. He made political conventions fun to watch. He took me to the moon and back. He kept me from getting killed in Viet Nam. His protégé gave me my first on-air job. And he taught me that it was OK for a journalist to have an opinion about things that really matter. I wish now I had taken time to write him a letter, or go visit him during his later years, and thank him for the role he played in my life. I never did.

Maybe some day, though, he and I will meet again, perhaps in TV heaven. He’ ll say, “Hi, Jim”. And once again I’ll be speechless. He’ll understand.

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