In an earlier era, Americans had fewer television options and it was easier for one person to develop into a national broadcast news icon. For much of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, Walter Cronkite was such a person. With his avuncular and amiable style, Cronkite proved to be a reassuring presence on CBS News during a tumultuous period both at home and abroad. He was nicknamed Uncle Walter and polls showed him to be the most trusted man in America.
Cronkite, who left the anchor chair in 1981 and died in 2009, hadn't been the subject of a full-scale biography until Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley began working on one several years ago.
It was worth the wait. Brinkley's Cronkite is a thorough examination of its subject's life and times. It is a respectful, though not fawning, work that will be of great interest to scholarly and general readers who want to learn more about a seminal period of political and media history.
Brinkley (who is not related to Cronkite rival and former ABC and NBC anchor David Brinkley) sees his subject as a "defiant monument of what happened when a great news broadcaster had the sound, centrist judgment of the nation at heart. Cronkite wasn't like ordinary TV narcissists and braggarts. He didn't broadcast what the folks wanted. Cronkite instead wanted what the people wanted to be considered serious news."
Cronkite began his career as a newspaper and wire reporter. However, as the public relied more on broadcast news, he shifted to radio and eventually television. Though originally eclipsed by others, including CBS legend Edward R. Murrow, Cronkite prevailed because his calm persona resonated with the public. In addition, he came across as a persistent, though not obnoxious, interviewer. That style made him especially effective during moments of tragedy and triumph, such as the JFK assassination and the various space launches.
Some of the best parts of Cronkite are descriptions of the behind-the-scenes in-fighting at CBS. Cronkite's battles royale with Murrow and Dan Rather were legendary within the industry, and while Brinkley tells the stories from Cronkite's perspective, it's not all one-sided. And although there are plenty of quotes from Murrow and Rather and their allies, the reader comes away thinking that both of them (especially Rather) were petty and insecure.
Brinkley is more critical of Cronkite on an issue that fixates modern press criticism: the politics and detectable biases of the man. Uncle Walter usually played it down the middle, but he let his opinions come through on some subjects, such as the space program and civil rights, both of which he supported, and he displayed little, if any skepticism, about the Vietnam War until 1968. All three of these stances put him squarely on the side of the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
"Although Cronkite later cringed at the allegation, he was in fact behaving in 1964 like a rubber-stamp sycophant for LBJ -- and it should be added, as a reliable spokesman for NASA, with top-secret clearance credentials, and as an ardent foe of the Soviet Union since being based in Moscow under Stalin for the United Press, with a myopic cold war worldview," Brinkley writes.
After he left the anchor position (he was largely put out to pasture by CBS), Cronkite became more outspoken. He opined often in support of liberal causes, including the decriminalization of marijuana and opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Some of his utterances tarnished his image as a reliable centrist, but because of the reservoir of goodwill he had developed and his advancing age, Cronkite was given a great deal of leeway.
Brinkley, whose previous books have dealt with subjects ranging from civil rights icon Rosa Parks to President Theodore Roosevelt's environmental policies, has seemingly read everything written by and about Cronkite. In addition, he conducted extensive interviews with many of his subject's friends and foes.
The result is that readers have to sift through a vast array of information. While much of the book is fascinating and engaging, Brinkley occasionally gets too bogged down in minutiae and some of the stories are a bit repetitive. On balance, however, in Brinkley, Cronkite has a biographer worthy of his stature.
One unforeseen hazard of this book is that while readers are immersed in it, many will be frustrated by the excessive verbal food fights that are the hallmarks of contemporary broadcast journalism. They may find themselves longing for a return to the calming civility of Uncle Walter's era.