Review of “Cronkite" by David Brinkley; Harper
"I was always a researcher," Walter Cronkite recalled of his childhood years, "and anything that interested me I'd go to the World Book Encyclopedia for information." Given the CBS Evening News anchor's insatiable appetite for information, he'd likely be proud of the level of depth and detail Douglas Brinkley employs in "Cronkite," the author's 667-page landmark portrait of the legendary reporter.
As a young boy, Cronkite feasted on books and magazines. Words, not teddy bears, were his bedtime companion. At age nine, he became a paperboy for the Kansas City Star, making trips to the Union Depot with the Star tucked firmly under his arm. If you were to alter the iconic images of Cronkite the newsman -- removing the mustache, unfurrowing his brow, losing the pressed suit -- the boy and the man would be practically indistinguishable. To the end of his career, he was a trivia buff with a childlike grin, clutching the news of the night as if it were that trusty old Star folded under his arm.
Brinkley proves how Cronkite was as much a part of history as he was its protector. He was present for some of the most sorrowful moments in America's recent past. On that fateful day in Dallas in 1963, for instance, it was Cronkite who informed the world that JFK had been killed. He was also the arbiter of news about Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the landing on the moon, the Watergate scandal, and Richard Nixon's subsequent resignation in 1974. Despite the hard times, Cronkite reassured his rapt audience that the torch of American exceptionalism still burned brightly. By sharing those vulnerable moments he quickly established himself as a confidant of the American public.
With the knack of a natural, Douglas Brinkley highlights these facts and more, doing justice to Cronkite's legacy. He crafts his life -- as he has in the past with Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan -- with the complexity of an orchestral arrangement. The details are layered and interwoven, and they build successive crescendos that mark turning points in the newscaster's life. The result is an experience as much as a leisurely read. From his humble upbringing in Missouri under the caring canopy of his attendant mother and father, to his high school role as "exalted copy boy" at The Houston Post, no moment in Cronkite's life is left unturned. We are left with the most lasting impressions of Cronkite, however, in the personal anecdotes, the stories that leave you feeling like you've known the man your whole life. In one early instance at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, "standing stationary in front of a new-fangled contraption called television -- really just a twitching little screen -- Cronkite looked into the camera and mugged by playing two clarinets at once like Benny Goodman gone mad." Brinkley goes on to say that this "thirty seconds of World's Fair camera time allowed Cronkite to comically boast that he was on the Tube long before Murrow, Brinkley, Sevareid or anybody else."
Of course, he wasn’t really the first reporter to make it big on television, and he knew it. But no other newsman's name has become as synonymous with TV as Walter Cronkite’s. In the span of human communication, it wasn't so long ago we were broadcasting messages from soap boxes and town criers. The cultural dynamite of TV had the explosive effect of unifying Americans, making them feel like they were a part of each other's lives, as it took over the 1950s. And at the helm of it all was the newsroom studio where Cronkite reigned supreme. He came to represent not just the news of a nation but the dawn of an exciting new technology. He owes his career to the medium, and the medium owes him a great debt in return.
If you aren't careful, reading Brinkley's "Cronkite" might stir within you a wrenching nostalgia. His crowning as "the most trusted man in America" reminds us that we might be too cynical for such a statement these days. He came of age on screen during TV broadcasting's wild frontier, when FCC regulations may have banned the spousal sharing of beds in I Love Lucy, but newsroom personalities remained untouched. Anchormen had opinions, and they weren't afraid to share them. More importantly, their opinions were their own. There were no thinly veiled mandates to be staunchly conservative like FOX news, or reactively liberal like MSNBC. There was a wholesomeness to Cronkite's era; a sincerity that is lost on television today. As I sit listening to numb delivery of the local news, from neighborhood shootings to the next pharmaceutical recall that may affect me if I "stay tuned," I'm tempted to pick up "Cronkite" for a second opinion.