Christmas Carols With Walter Cronkite
Holiday memories of the legendary TV newsman
I met Walter Cronkite while Christmas caroling in Austin at his daughter's home sometime in the mid-Eighties. He had left the CBS anchor chair half a decade earlier, and his daughter Kathy Ikard and I had been friends for several years already. The Ikard/Cronkite household (they're divorced now, sadly) was always abuzz at the holidays, with former LBJ officials, media names and political figures coming and going as if their place was a stop on some celebrity bus tour.
Kate always made sure to put her father with me. This first time, she paired the two of us with an Austin luminary named John Henry Faulk and hustled us out the door with a battered anthology that collected tunes such as "Oh Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" that had long been dog-eared for easy access. I knew Faulk as a raconteur who'd been blacklisted by McCarthyites in the 1950s but survived his ordeal to win what was at that time the largest monetary judgement in the history of American jurisprudence.
Everyone knew who Cronkite was.
Cronkite was not the kind to draw attention to himself, with his owlish eyebrows, slight stoop at the shoulders, and easy, deep chuckle. I was over the moon to have these two fellows on each arm, but I noticed pretty quickly that while Faulk was chirping away with a gleam in his eye, Cronkite was often murmuring and staring at me. Intently.
Once we were back inside, I took Kate aside and asked why the hell her esteemed dad was giving me the stink-eye. She laughed. "He's just hard of hearing, Kevin. He's reading your lips."
From Kansas City Jazz to the Beatles
Over the years I was a frequent visitor to their place and became known briefly as "that guy carrying Buck on his shoulders all the time." Buck, now Will, is the eldest of Kate's two sons, and for a while we even talked about me becoming a sort of "manny" for him, since I was freelancing from home anyway. Through the years, Cronkite would visit from New York, often with his wife, Betsy, at his side. At Kate's invitation, my partner and I became part of their urban family Thanksgivings. We'd bring a dish and some wine, and inevitably, she'd sit me next to her father, because she knew I couldn't get enough of interviewing the most famous interviewer I was ever likely to meet.
One particular Turkey Day, he sat down, placed a napkin over his lap, and looked up with an expression of glee. "So," he says, "I hear you've got a terrific book you're working on. Tell me about it." I proceeded to explain how I wanted to trace black-and-white race relations in America through the conversation we've been having in music, from the 1600s to today. Cronkite would take a bite, look down, chew, look up, and nod. "Ambitious. I like it," he said. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help."
Ultimately, Cronkite provided an invaluable reminiscence of Kansas City in the 1920s, a town brimming with the nascent sounds of jazz that had just jumped off the boats from New Orleans. It was also a town thrumming with booze, corruption, and racism, and Cronkite remembered it all as if it was yesterday. With some bemusement, he recalled bursting into his editor's office one morning with a scoop on some new hotshot bandleader he was sure would take the world by storm. "Betsy and I saw this fellow last night, and what a show! 'Cab' somebody." The editor thanked him, and assured Cronkite that Cab Calloway had already been a star for a while now, thanks.
Cronkite was a current affairs junkie and sometimes missed entertainment trends because his attention was on world events, but he also had uncanny news judgement. Cronkite's CBS colleague Ed Sullivan is credited with discovering the Beatles. That's true. Sullivan discovered them one night while watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. A few minutes after a report of Beatlemania sweeping Britain aired on Cronkite's newscast, Sullivan called. "How do I find them, these ... wattayacallem ... the Bugs?"
Cronkite left the anchor chair in 1981, not long after the shootings that wounded Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan and less than a year after the ones that killed Anwar Sadat and John Lennon. What he took with him is incalculable, because there isn't a journalist working today who so successfully appears to be impartial. Some, like Anderson Cooper, let sensationalism creep in. Others, like Keith Olbermann and his nemesis Bill O'Reilly, don't even feign objectivity. Katie Couric trots out snaps of baby Suri on her opening telecast, and Brian Williams is brilliant, witty, and inscrutable, which is much more David Brinkley than Walter Cronkite and much more personality than Cronkite ever felt comfortable projecting on a program he was certain wasn't about him.
The One Big Miss
Everybody over 40 knows the trajectory of his career: that he was there to choke back tears when JFK was murdered and there to beam with pride when man landed on the moon. He put Watergate in perspective early on, drawing disparate pieces of the puzzle together so that Americans could understand it. He correctly assessed Vietnam as "a quagmire" and may have hastened our exit as a result. In a generation that split the atom, created fast food and the interstate highway system, and ended legal segregation, he was a lodestar in his universe.
I still remember that one year we sat talking about his recently published autobiography, A Reporter's Life. By that time, we were well acquainted, although I'd not rush to call our relationship a friendship. That was for Kate and me, and I was always delighted to be Kate's confidant – that she had this amazing relative was just one of the many stars in the constellation of her personality.
So many people up and down the journalism food chain had interviewed Cronkite about his life's work. They'd gone over the highlights a jillion times. I wondered if there was anything I could ask this fellow that hadn't already been repeatedly run into the ground. I turned to him and told him I'd been following his media tour, and I asked that in all of the opportunities he'd had as a journalist and a broadcaster was there one interview that got away?
A slow, knowing grin crept across his face. He dabbed his lips with his napkin and looked me right in the eye. "I've always regretted I never got a chance to interview Hitler," he said. "Always bugged me."
He replaced his napkin in his lap and turned back to me. "No one's ever asked me that before, Kevin," he said with a smile. "Good for you."
Former KGSR-FM host Kevin Phinney is the author of Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture (2005).