For people of a certain age, which is code for people at least as ancient as I am, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was a friend of the family, a favorite uncle who could be trusted to tell us the truth.
It was a time when nightly news anchors handed information down from above, a Supreme Court of journalism whose opinions helped shape our own. For good or ill, they were news archons as well as icons.
Cronkite both fit and transcended the role, becoming as many people said then, and have repeated frequently since his death Friday at age 92, “the most trusted man in America.” He had an obvious passion for journalism, a well-earned reputation for integrity, and a face only a nation could love.
By the time I was old enough to watch him, Cronkite was in his 50’s and already had that avuncular-edging-toward grandfatherly demeanor that made it so easy to believe him. And he never did anything to violate that trust.
He did not make the news about himself. He did not pontificate as some “they who shall not be named” news figures do today. Cronkite simply told it the way it was. People gravitated toward him naturally. They say the term “anchor” was invented to describe him. “Gravitas” should have been.
His was a face made to trust, part Santa Clause, part another Walter (Disney). He seemed both wise and caring, which from all accounts he was. “Integrity,” my wife said. “You knew if he said something he had checked the facts.”
I won’t pretend that I watched the CBS Evening News religiously as a child, or even secularly for that matter. More than likely I was watching a re-run of the Dick Van Dyke Show or I Dream of Jeanie on the local independent in town.
But when I did watch the news, it was always Walter. And I was there with him for the events that altered and illuminated our times. I was home sick from school that black Friday when John Kennedy was shot and watched the news unfold. I saw Cronkite take off those huge glasses and wipe away a tear he could no more hold back than the rest of us.
I watched him catch his breath and marvel at the Eagle landing on the moon, capturing the “would you look at that” pride mixed with awe that we all felt.
I usually learned who my new president was from Cronkite in the wee hours of the morning. And in the case of Watergate, learned who my president wasn’t going to be anymore.
Cronkite seemed extremely comfortable in his role as both journalist and celebrity.
I was in in a restaurant, which is code for “bar,” on the waterfront in Annapolis in 1980, the year before he gave up the anchor chair to Dan Rather. The door opened and Cronkite, who loved to sail, walked in, tanned and well-tailored. Within moments he had attracted a bevy of 20-somethings, men and women, who fawned on him like a rock star. He was generous with his time, in high spirits, eyes twinkling under those awning eyebrows, and loving every moment of the attention.
I watched, envious. He was so obviously a happy man, secure in his own skin and his own success. Someone who liked himself and knew the world did too.