Keith Kay had been a producer in the CBS News bureau in Hong Kong for “about two weeks” in 1973 when he was assigned to produce a piece by Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite had been to North Vietnam to report on the U.S. POWs being released from Hanoi. Kay screened the footage and read Cronkite’s script, and he decided that the open didn’t quite work with the film.
Kay was a cameraman before he was pressed into service as a producer, and he eventually went on to a long career at CBS and ABC—behind the camera. But Cronkite, the consummate egalitarian, apparently took Kay’s advice to heart.
“I didn’t know what I was talking about,” Kay says. “I [gave] him my office, and he closed the door and went to work.”
Two hours before feed time, Kay opened the door and saw Cronkite still bent over the desk, a sea of crumpled paper at his feet.
“I said, ‘Walter, we have less than two hours to feed time, and I need some time to cut the story,’" Kay recalls. "He looked at me and said that he could not get the damn open right. I said that he should just be himself. I was a cameraman who had just converted to being a producer, and I didn't know shit.”
But Cronkite told the novice producer that he was right. And then he went back to work, finding the right words in time to make the satellite feed.
“I felt like such an ass,” Kay says, “me telling Cronkite that his open didn’t work when I should have just made it work.”
For Kay and several others who shared remembrances with B&C, Cronkite’s work ethic, his commitment to the story and his graciousness propelled him to a singular position in American broadcasting.
Beginning in 1962, he presided over The CBS Evening News for nearly two decades, interpreting events and exuding a calming influence during tumultuous times in the nation’s history. A rapt populace, undistracted by today's media onslaught, listened to Cronkite report historic moments: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the Apollo 11 moon landing and Watergate. He set the tone and the image for what an anchorman should be, and the generation that succeeded Cronkite—Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather—worked to establish themselves in Cronkite’s image.
“He was an American original,” says Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. “He was the news business for most Americans for the better part of 20 years.”
Wallace was Cronkite’s gofer for the March 1965 lunar space shot at Cape Kennedy. “The thing that impressed me most,” Wallace says, “was how extraordinarily prepared he was.” Cronkite filled large notebooks with every conceivable outcome of the lunar mission: what could go wrong, what could go right and every permutation in between.
“It became clear to me,” Wallace continues, “that one of the reasons he was so trusted, so respected is that he knew as much as the experts; he knew as much as the astronauts about what was going to happen.”
In 2004, NASA named Cronkite one of its Ambassadors of Exploration. He is the only journalist to receive the honor.
Flying on "Walter's Plane"
Tracy Wood was a young UPI correspondent in Vietnam when the great CBS News anchor came to Vietnam to cover the release of the last remaining U.S. military POWs (the same trip Kay would later produce for Cronkite). Wood had secured a visa from the North Vietnamese to travel to Hanoi, but the authorities imposed a nearly impossible and very expensive restriction: She had to do the trip in one day, which meant renting a plane to fly her in and out of Hanoi for the then-princely sum of $7,000. To offset the cost, UPI executives, after much debate, decided to invite other Western journalists, including reporters and photographers from UPI’s archrival AP, as well as ABC and NBC. CBS News, meanwhile, sent Cronkite, and the network had rented all of the available planes in the area to keep competitors out.
Wood had the visa, and Cronkite had the plane. In the end, Wood recalls, Cronkite “had to fly on my visa.” And all of the reporters, including Cronkite’s competitors at ABC and NBC, got a seat on “Walter’s plane.”
“I was in my early 20s, and he was the 'Big Walter Cronkite,'” Wood says. “I was really braced for at least some kind of sarcasm or something [from him]. But he was just so gracious about having to change every single one of his plans and take his own competitors with him on his plane.
“I’d like to think that other people would be as gracious,” Wood adds. “But in reality, that’s not the way people always act.”
Wood had plenty of time to talk to Cronkite on their plane ride to Hanoi and back. “Once I got over the shock that he was not going to throw a fit because he had to go with us, we had some really great conversations. It was great journalism talk, real shop talk.
“He was really proud of the fact that he was a newsman. [With] some people, it goes to their heads and they start thinking of themselves as being somehow influential. For him, the story always came first and he came second.”
Which is why it was so momentous when Cronkite began to let his doubts about the war in Vietnam creep into his copy, finally pronouncing in an on-air editorial that the U.S. was “mired in stalemate” and the only “rational way out” was negotiation.
Taking Kissinger to Task
Cronkite prided himself on his impartiality and deep sense of integrity. And while he was unfailingly polite, he was also willing to call out others on their failings. In the early 1970s Peter Arnett, then an AP correspondent, accompanied Cronkite during a meeting with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before Kissinger’s diplomatic mission to Hanoi. Cronkite wanted Kissinger to press Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese leader who was instrumental in the cease-fire and the Paris Peace Accords, to intercede on behalf of dozens of journalists missing in Cambodia including CBS News’ Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, believed to have been abducted by the Khmer Rouge.
Kissinger, wrote Arnett in an e-mail message, “oozed charm at Walter's presence, grasping his arm and propelling him to a comfortable chair, and ordering up coffee. We explained that we had assembled enough evidence to suggest that the North Vietnamese military, then assisting the Khmer Rouge, had at some point handled some of the missing journalists.
“[Kissinger] quickly agreed to help our mission and accepted our file of documents, and then he spent some private time with his famous guest. Three months later, long after Kissinger had returned home from Hanoi, Walter phoned me and asked for a meeting, at which he was very angry. ‘Damn it,’ he exclaimed, ‘Kissinger did nothing at all on our behalf in Hanoi, as far as I can see, and after he had promised to help.’ We discussed the issue for a while and then Walter said, ‘I'm going to write him a nasty letter on all our behalfs,' and did so within a few days. Months later, Walter mentioned that he had heard indirectly from Kissinger that Le Duc Tho had been unwilling to discuss any issues other than those earlier agreed upon. Walter was not impressed. ‘Kissinger could have done a helluva lot more to help find out what happened to our missing colleagues.’”
Cronkite displayed that uncompromising candor to the end. In a 2006 interview with this reporter for the New York Daily News, he took the Bush administration to task for what he saw as its dishonorable policy of not allowing the media to document flag-draped caskets returning from Iraq.
“It seems to me that people should be entitled to see their boys return,” he said. “In previous wars, it was always a point of patriotism when the caskets were seen unloaded from the aircraft draped in our flag. It was a rather important moment to the individual and to those who lost those young men and women.”
Cronkite, who was turning 90 at the time of the interview, also expressed regret that had not had the opportunity to go to Iraq. “I don’t dare look at myself too carefully,” he laughed. “But I would like to think that I’m still quite capable of covering a story. I always hoped that if I lived long enough, I would still be able to work and not have to just take a little place on the sidelines somewhere in my wheelchair.”