The 24-hour media go gaga over a celebrity death. I think we are all sick of the MJ extravaganza, but a bit more refection on Walter Cronkite is in order.
Three major events shaped my generation: the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war and the Moon Walk. Those memories are intertwined with the earnest voice and image of Walter. He told us the way it was, and we believed him. Perhaps we were naive. In those days, news reporters didn’t publish stories about politicians’ affairs, and the gentlemen’s agreement of what could be reported did not serve us well. But we believed him, and that is something we cannot say about any broadcast journalist since.
The times were part of it. So was his face, his tone and his sincerity. People generally know when they are being lied to (although we always seem to get fooled again).
Allen and Cynthia Mondell made a series of films for the 6th Floor Museum’s permanent exhibit and I edited them. In one film, Cronkite says that the JFK assassination is when “TV news came of age.” Indeed it did. This was one of the first stories the TV cameras told better than print or radio. There is the famous moment at the end when he pauses and winces. This is the singular moment that represents how we all felt. His real but understated emotion shot through the news moment and connected to each of us at a time when we needed to know that he was not just reading copy. He had a soul, something that is totally lacking in all of today’s news.
Walter came out against the war in Vietnam, and many credit this for turning the tide of public opinion. Who could have such influence now?
But of all the stories he covered, Walter seemed to have the most passion for space. The Walk on the Moon seemed to be his happiest moment on camera. Strange that his death comes on the heels of the 40th anniversary of man’s first step.
Walter narrated some of the Mondell’s 6th Floor films. Because we were recording Walter’s part last, Allen Mondell read his script and I edited that into the cut, as a placeholder. When we got to New York to shoot Cronkite, I had the strangest feeling. I knew the words of his script by heart. (Editing a piece, over and over, means you can still recite lines 20 years later. ) But as Cronkite spoke them, the words sounded new, spontaneous, like they were just thought up. And there he was, reading from the teleprompter. It was spooky and a great performance and perhaps that is all it was. But we believed. We needed that then and we need it now: a singular voice, one we can trust. A voice that has breaks through the drone of the 24- hour buzz cycle. A voice that tells us the way it is.