Monday, July 20, 2009

Raised on Cronkite

I have been immersed in watching and reading about Walter Cronkite the past few days. I am one of those kids who grew up with Walter in their living rooms, in that far away time when there were really only three television networks to watch and after a certain hour of the day every one of them took a rest and there was nothing left to watch but a test pattern.

I remember that day in 1963 when they sent us home early from P.S. 186 in Bellerose because the President had been shot. I have a snapshot in my head of our neighborhood over run with kids racing home, no one sure what was going on, but everyone knowing it was serious. In that snapshot my mother has the television on, a tissue tucked in her sleeve, looking very sad. The TV was turned to CBS, waiting the next update from Walter Cronkite.

That may not sound like a strange scene to walk home to but it was in 1963. TVs were not the constant din in the background that they are today. And the era of being glued to a screen, flipping channels to see whose coverage was best when something of critical importance was going on had not yet arrived.

But that was a different time. The best news coverage in our house was to be found on CBS and Walter Cronkite was the voice we listened to.

When people say he was the most trusted man in America it makes perfect sense to me. No one questioned what Cronkite said. His integrity was a foregone conclusion. His calm, steady voice never tried to sway you with his personal opinion. He gave you the facts, ones he had checked in advance, the who, what, where, when and why of a situation and let you decide what your opinion was.

By the time my father got home from work we knew the President was dead. My father sat glued to the television set, smoking his cigarette. My mother advised my brother and I it was best not to say too much and to be quiet. I remember sitting on the floor next to him, watching, too young to understand fully the implications of what had happened, but old enough to know it was a big deal. The television was on more in those next days than it had ever been. It is a black and white memory of the way things were before and the way things were after.

Walter Cronkite did not use his powerful platform to sway you in one direction or another. He did not abuse the stature he achieved with scandal to make us question his judgement. He did not report on a story to get a rating, but because it was a story that needed reporting and from there the rating came.

Cronkite was a combination of solid, Midwest upbringing combined with New York sophistication who loved what his job was, loved his wife, his family and was clearly grateful for the life he was blessed with.

I learned from him the importance of forming my own opinion. That getting the facts before jumping to a conclusion was important. I also learned to develop a distaste for the pundits who mistake themselves as reporters, inflecting their voices to incite, hoping in that way their opinion will become your opinion.

While I never really met him, like many others I felt like I knew him. So the day when I was sitting on the Delta Shuttle a dozen or so years ago en route from Washington, DC to NY, I easily recognized the voice of the man speaking to his wife as they took the seats in the row in front of me. And when I caught his eye, he smiled back as if he knew me too.

While his passing is sad in that we are not likely to ever see another Walter Cronkite, the story of his life is a great lesson in how to live, with purpose, integrity, authenticity, passion, humor and a true love of life. We need more of that in the world today.

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