Luminaries from the worlds of politics, music and journalism celebrated the life and legacy of Walter Cronkite Sept. 9 at a memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.
Everyone who was anyone in television journalism was there: Cronkite’s CBS News colleagues Morley Safer, Bob Schieffer and Bill Plante as well as Katie Couric, CBS News president Sean McManus and CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves; Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and NBC News president Steve Capus; and from ABC News, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson and Barbara Walters, who all entered the hall together.
Cronkite, who anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, died July 17. He was 92.
President Obama stayed through the entirety of the program which included musical performances from Jimmy Buffet, Mickey Hart and Wynton Marsalis, and timed out at about 2 and half hours. He was seated in the front row, left corner, next to President Clinton.
In his speech, Clinton noted the Herculean task that awaited the president: his address to Congress, an attempt to regain control of the health care reform debate.
“In one of the most important days of his young presidency,” said Clinton. “President Obama still came to New York to honor Walter Cronkite.
Since Walter isn’t doing the news anymore, he doesn’t have to be so objective,” added Clinton, “I think I can say for him and for all of us….we wish ya luck tonight.”
Cronkite’s career, said Clinton, was defined by “a deep aversion to conformity” as well as an “open mind, caring heart and careful devotion to the facts.”
Clinton was among many speakers who recalled Cronkite’s caring nature, his habit of reaching out to people when they were in crisis and his generosity with colleagues and competitors alike.
In the summer of 1998 on Martha’s Vineyard, when Clinton was in the throes of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a “tumultuous” time in his presidency, he said, Cronkite called to invite the Clinton family for an afternoon on his boat.
"He said, 'Somebody might take a picture of it. But so what,'" recalled Clinton, adding, a bit sheepishly: “At the time I could have done with a picture with Walter Cronkite.”
Cronkite’s long-time friend Andy Rooney addressed the hall via a humorous video presentation that included old footage of the two of them at a smorgasbord and Rooney poking fun at the myriad of awards that organizations, some rather obscure, bestowed upon Cronkite after he left the anchor chair.
“He’s one of the few people I’ve ever known who wore out three tuxedos,” quipped Rooney. And when in 1990 Rooney was suspended from CBS News for remarks he made about gays and African Americans, Cronkite called to invite him to dinner. “He said, ‘I’d like to use any residual good will I have left with the American people by being seen having dinner with you.’”
Sean McManus recalled a story his father, ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, told him about covering the 1972 Munich Olympics and the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic village. Returning to his hotel after 18 hours on the air, McKay found a Western Union envelope waiting for him at the front desk. It was from Cronkite, said McManus. He wrote: “Jim, you were superb yesterday.”
Tom Brokaw's 1987 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev was one that CBS News surely would have like to land. It was a "big get," explained Brokaw. Immediately after the interview ran on NBC, Brokaw's phone rang and the “voice on the other end of the phone said, ‘Well that was magnificent.’ In my anxiety,” said Brokaw, “I didn’t recognize the voice. The voice said, ‘Who is this?! It’s Walter Cronkite for god’s sake! How quickly they forget.’”
Bob Schieffer called Cronkite “the most curious man I ever met. He wanted to know everything before everyone else knew it.”
Obama, whose vaunted communications apparatus has been battered by the angry and hyperbolic health care debate, used his speech to laud the ideals of journalism.
He did not know Cronkite personally, said the president, “but I have benefited as a citizen from his dogged pursuit to find truth, his passionate defense of the truth of reporting. Walter wasn’t afraid to rattle the high and the mighty.”
Acknowledging that it is “a difficult time for journalism,” Obama added that Cronkite embodied a “standard of honesty, integrity and responsibility” that is “harder to find today.”
“Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. And too often, we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed.
“’What happened today?’ is replaced with ‘Who won today?’" he continued. "The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should – and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation. We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society. Which price is higher to pay? Which cost is harder to bear?”