I looked at the old clip again, and tears ran down my face as they did that terrible day in 1963. Walter Cronkite has just been handed a sheet of paper, and reads the news: President Kennedy is dead. What was broken could never be repaired, and the American century continued with assassination, war and calamity.
Cronkite read the news from a sheet of paper. He put on his horn rim glasses to read it. No teleprompter. No earphone. An old-style print and radio journalist, now moving into the age of television news and bringing with him his old school standards and matter-of-fact enunciation.
He seemed the voice of truth and reason, and fairness. He saw us through the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, through the Vietnam War, through the civil rights struggle, through the moon landing, through it all. At Cape Canaveral -- not yet Cape Kennedy -- his was the voice that lifted up with the astronauts, willing them into space.
It was a more straightforward time. The news was the news, and we believed those who reported it to us. They were sometimes mistaken, but they were sincere, and we felt they could be trusted. On television, CBS News was the gold standard, and Cronkite was the man who stood behind it, worthy of comparison with the icon Edward R. Murrow.
When he left the air, something else was already leaving the air: A sense of probity, of caution, of fact-checking, of restraint and decency. What did he make of these latter years of breathless nonstop around-the-clock cable news, with its shouters, its opinions, its fake teases, its blizzards of computer graphics, its obsession with trashy lives led in public?
He was 92 when he died. Will we ever again have a newsman who can be described as "the most trusted man in America?"
Part of our history has passed. He was a link to the standards and values of a better time, when ratings did not drive television and shape it to their will, and the average American was not only assumed to be interested in serious news coverage--but was.
He continued to be very active after leaving the CBS Evening News in 1981. He did regular radio broadcasts, TV specials, speeches, guest appearances, articles, books. He was never only a "news reader." He had started as a radio sportscaster, joined United Press in 1937, covered World War Two, flew in bombers over Germany, was a Moscow correspondent, all before television. He was the first anchorman at a national political convention, in 1952. In fact, he was the first anchor: The term was created to describe him. He was a reporter, and remained one until he died.
A touching memoir by one great reporter about another: Longtime Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder writes about "Walter Cronkite, my friend," and that is the right word to describe a man who was repeatedly kind and encouraging to him during all the years since Feder was 14: