He was going to be my space buddy. He had always been. Walter Cronkite was my companion as a boy to understanding the world. His voice was the narration for the Kennedy assassination and his tearful gesture in announcing JFK’s death was, for my parents, the almost tribal gesture giving permission for us to grieve. Because Cronkite shed tears we could all move away from shock and step forward together.
Walter Cronkite was the story. He was the news. He was the news business. He was trained as a wire service reporter and embodied those values and virtues long after technology upstaged them. Nothing could ever trump the authority of Cronkite and today, newspapers and networks alike yearn to recreate and bottle it as though what Cronkite had was a part of his performance. The networks assumed that the authority in the news business belonged to them --like the phone company owns the telephone wires. But in their choices after Cronkite, each network made clear that other values such as youth and celebrity mattered as much to them as authority, and audiences got the point. Authority doesn’t share the stage well with the superfluous or the supercilious. Walter stood alone.
His passing signifies so much about the passing of the news business itself and even more about the fracturing consensus of America that Cronkite covered for his entire career. Like a lot of broken families, after the divorce the kids go their separate ways. The news audience and the shared experience of the America in the 1960s and 1970s has gone, never to return. (And of course plenty of people weren’t a part of the consensus at all.)
The greatest irony is that he died almost 40 years to the day of the Apollo moon landing. Walter was there when Apollo 11 launched and he was there to celebrate with all of us. The American space program is almost impossible to imagine without Walter Cronkite cheering the astronauts on and helping us all to understand the complexities and humanity of one of the world’s most important scientific missions. When Cronkite took his glasses off and showed emotion (I think he said “gee” or “wow”) after 27 hours of continuous coverage leading up to Neil Armstrong’s foot touching the lunar dust, it was the tribal national gesture giving us all permission to be overjoyed and awed.
Cronkite’s authority gave us all permission to oppose the Vietnam War without it being an act of treason. He, along with the efforts of two other trained print reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, helped us to understand when it was time for regime change in the U.S. after the Watergate scandal.
Years after he was pushed out of the anchor seat by a CBS with its own ideas about how to project authority, Walter and I entered a contest to choose the first journalist in space. Walter, it was clear, would get a pass despite his age. He had often talked on the air about how much he wanted to go into space like the astronauts he had covered as anchorman. NASA was going to return the favor. But the rest of us had to prove ourselves worthy. The program continued for a while after the 1986 Challenger disaster and the candidates were narrowed from a group of 100 or so male and female journalists from print, radio, and television (which included Geraldo Rivera) to 31 semifinalists (not including Rivera).
When the 31 semifinalists were announced, the wire services noted that I was in a wheelchair and the story was out that NASA had picked a paraplegic to go into space. CBS, in covering the Journalist in Space story, chose to have me on their morning broadcast that summer of 1986. I was told that there would be another guest: Walter Cronkite. The airtime was fleeting. We had just a few minutes. The morning anchor dutifully asked Walter about his age as a possible disqualification for going into space and Walter completely dodged the question and put one to me. Cronkite took over the broadcast and became the anchorman again, asking me about how fascinating it was that I was in a wheelchair and still wanted to go into space. He totally grasped my point when I said that I wouldn’t need a wheelchair in space. Sensing a wire story, the old journalist was tossing the question that would make the headline for the next morning’s papers. Imagine something like this:
NASA ON MISSION TO GET CHICAGO MAN OUT OF WHEELCHAIR
That was not the headline of course and the Journalist in Space Program ended soon after, a victim of the Challenger aftermath. But on that morning in 1986, Walter couldn’t have been more friendly to me or more cold to the CBS colleague who dared to question his age. It was a moment. Walter was going to be my space buddy. He was rooting for me. I was rooting for him. We met a few times and spent a long time in 1996 (when I was the anchorman for a program on MSNBC) talking about his career. I remember that as much as he could criticize the news business, he had no concerns about the news itself.
“The news is just the news,” he said. “Even the networks can’t change that.”
So long, Walter. It’s nice to know that the news will take care of itself… even though we’ve made such a mess of the business. See you in space.