The Walter Cronkite You Never Knew

One day about 40 years ago, I almost met Walter Cronkite. I was supposed to receive a news photography award from a state journalism organization. The famous broadcaster was supposed to hand the plaque and check to me and shake my hand. Then he would have dinner with me and the other winners of coveted journalism awards.

But, a few months earlier, I had quit the newspaper where I had taken the award-winning photo. I was now a graduate student, and I was too broke to rent a tuxedo for the presentation ceremony and too broke also to risk driving my wornout car 250 miles to shake Cronkite’s hand. Furthermore, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to quit being a photographer and focus exclusively on writing.

So, I didn’t go. Someone from the newspaper accepted the award on my behalf, added the plaque to an awards wall intended to impress the newspaper’s visitors, and mailed me the check, along with a matching bonus.

For  years afterward, I felt bad that I missed getting to meet Walter Cronkite. But a new book, Conversations with Cronkite by Walter Cronkite and Don Carleton, adds up to much more than a quick handshake and a brief dinner chat. It is like getting to sit and listen to dozens of enjoyable, spirited chats.

It isn’t likely anytime soon that another journalist will be hailed as “the most trusted man in America.”

Before his death in 2009, Walter Cronkite wore that weighty mantle “exceedingly lightly,” writes his friend and CBS News colleague Morley Safer , in the foreword to this revealing and entertaining collection of conversations between the famed broadcaster and Don Carleton, director of the University of Texas at Austin‘s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

Out of the media spotlight, Cronkite “could be as ornery and petty and vain as the rest of us,” Safer adds, “but also a man by nature who could be relied upon to always do the right thing.”

In conversations initially recorded for his 1996 memoir, A Reporter’s Life, Cronkite said he studied journalism at UT in the 1930s, but missed many classes and was “a terrible student.” He finally dropped out, he said, so he could make money doing small jobs for Texas newspapers and radio stations.

Later, he was hired to broadcast Oklahoma college football games. Then he worked for Braniff Airlines and United Press, covering the 1937 New London school explosion in East Texas.

During World War II, his youthful bravado as a war correspondent took him all over, from ship convoys in the treacherous North Atlantic to advancing with ground troops under fire in Europe. He also flew aboard B-17 bombers during raids over Germany. The four-engine planes had no room for passengers, so Cronkite sometimes manned a .50-caliber machine gun and fired at attacking enemy fighters.

After covering the Nuremberg trials and working in Moscow for United Press, Cronkite moved to CBS News and wanted to cover the Korean War but was kept in Washington to do doing news reports in a new medium, television.

Cronkite’s discussions with Carleton provide fascinating looks into the evolution of TV news and how coverage of the 1952 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions helped fuel a national wave of television set purchases.

As Cronkite became a trusted broadcaster and documentary producer, he gained greater access to famous and powerful figures. In the wide-ranging conversations recorded over three years, he reflected on his interviews with several U.S. presidents and world leaders, plus his dramatic coverage of the JFK assassination and the U.S. space program.

Carleton has called the book a “companion” to Cronkite’s memoir. Yet it stands on its own as engrossing reading. And it includes considerable information left out of, or truncated in, A Reporter’s Life.

Proceeds from sales of Conversations with Cronkite will help support the Briscoe Center’s Walter Cronkite Papers and News Media History Archive.

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Si Dunn