He was our uncle, back when Americans trusted

December 12, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Walter Cronkite's been back in the spotlight recently, being treated with such veneration that those too young to remember him must be wondering exactly who this bristly old codger with the astonishing mustache might be.

It's not enough to tell them that he was once considered ''the most trusted man in America.'' In 1996, such a concept seems as old-fashioned as chastity. Today, if someone were to be accorded that unlikely title, it wouldn't take 20 minutes before a victim would be on the news, flanked by lawyers, agents and a recovered-memory shrink, tearfully explaining how Mr. Trustworthy had criminally abused her when they were in middle school together.

What's more relevant, perhaps, is the way Mr. Cronkite's name and face became parts of the popular culture of his day. This had less to do with trust than it did with ubiquity. A much higher percentage of people in that era watched network news than do today, and the majority of them watched CBS and Uncle Walter.

In Swedish, I read somewhere recently, the name for a television anchorman is a ''cronkiter.'' And in at least some American households, there was a time when, if somebody sneezed, somebody else would exclaim ''Cronkite!'' Other people have achieved that kind of celebrity stature since, of course, but none of them have been in the news business.

Among those of Mr. Cronkite's qualities which most contributed to his success, and which distinguished him from many others in his field, were that he had led a real life before he became a household word, and that he tried hard, with some success, to live a normal person's life afterward.

He was a brave United Press correspondent in World War II, with no neutralist illusions about whose side he was on; in a bomber over Germany he was given a machine gun to man, and when the chance came to fire it at enemy fighters, he didn't waste it.

After the war, on his slow climb to the top of the television mountain, there were plenty of demeaning pauses at lower altitudes. For example, one of his early partners on CBS was a puppet named Charlemane with whom he was expected to crack jokes. Later, on ''You Are There,'' he had to conduct preposterous ''interviews'' with historical figures -- such as Achilles before the battle of Troy.

But he was an honest reporter, with the old-fashioned belief that journalists should not be advocates or celebrities but should cherish the truth and value facts above fortune. He hasn't shed that quaint outlook. In his new memoir, ''A Reporter's Life,'' he sounds fairly somber about what's become of his old trade.

An ironic touch

That being the case, it's just a touch ironic that Mr. Cronkite didn't attain heroic stature within the American media culture until February 27, 1968, when he abandoned objectivity and declared the Vietnam War a lost cause. Victory was out of the question, he said, so an end to the conflict should be negotiated.

That one assertion, over which this honorable man agonized deeply, did several things, none of which he intended. It encouraged American opponents of the war. It contributed to Lyndon Johnson's decision a month later not to run for re-election. It gave the rest of the press a green light to editorialize, not just about Vietnam but any time an issue was deemed too important for objectivity. And indirectly it strengthened the resolve of the North Vietnamese.

As it turned out, he was quite wrong in his analysis of the war. The Tet offensive of early 1968, which brought on his February 27 commentary, he and most other reporters perceived as a great military victory for the North, instead of the tactical disaster which history later showed it to have been.

On the field of battle, Tet was to the North what Gettysburg was to the Confederacy -- a last desperate roll of the dice with all the chips on the table.

In each case, an outnumbered army went on the offensive, with suicidal heroism, to throw all it had at its foe. Each attack failed, disastrously. But where Gen. Robert E. Lee was ultimately defeated, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap prevailed.

Walter Cronkite didn't understand what had happened during Tet, and didn't believe those who did. It took three years for the North Vietnamese to rebuild their decimated forces, but during those years, the words of Mr. Cronkite and other less trustworthy observers ringing in its ears, America had no stomach for seeking to end the war through strength. It began to pull out unilaterally, in the process proving him right after all.

That was characteristically lucky for Mr. Cronkite, though not for South Vietnam. The anchorman went back to work, his authority undiminished. Later he retired, and was a little peeved when CBS didn't continue to consult him regularly, as it had promised it would. But he did a few specials, cruised the Atlantic coast with his wife in their big sailboat, and wrote his memoirs.

And that's the way it was. Not a bad life, not a bad man. And not a bad mustache, either.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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