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Books

'A Reporter's Life' by Walter Cronkite

America's Uncle

Sunday, January 26, 1997

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

A Reporter's Life

By Walter Cronkite

Alfred A. Knopf
$26.95

   
 

Here's the way it is. Any mention of Walter Cronkite automatically requires a description of the former CBS News anchor as "avuncular."

Now I don't know what kind of uncles you have. I had one who fancied himself a stand-up comedian, which Cronkite certainly was not. Another did bird whistles better than most birds when he wasn't telling bawdy jokes, disagreeing with everyone about everything and boasting that he always paid less than you did for whatever.

But Cronkite fufilled the image of what we hoped our uncles would be. Authoritative but warm, he was considered the most trusted man in America. He seemed like one of us, choking back tears on the air when President Kennedy died and whooping like a schoolboy when another moon shot went up.

He was America's uncle. We even called him Uncle Walter. Befitting his ancestry, he could even be a Dutch uncle from time to time - most famously upon returning from Vietnam after the Tet offensive and broadcasting his opinion that it was time to negotiate an end to a war he felt America could not win. "If I've lost Cronkite," replied President Lyndon Johnson, "I've lost middle America."

Cronkite is 80 now and not about to change his stripes. So his memoir, "A Reporter's Life," comes chock full of amusing, often self-deprecating anecdotes about bygone days, the occasional old-fashioned scolding of those who would compromise freedom of the press (and of certain contemporary practitioners of same, most notably his former employer) and exactly what the title promises - the story of a reporter's life.

If you're looking for deep insights into the monumental events and personalities covered by Cronkite in a journalistic career that spanned nearly half a century, you won't find them here.

Typical of Cronkite's personalized take on events is his account of covering the Nuremberg war trials for the wire service United Press. He mentions the 21 defendants, top officials of the Nazi regime.

"I wanted to spit on them. I don't recall that it had ever occured to me to spit on anyone before. But this is what I wanted to do now."

He spends four pages on Nuremberg, summing up with his opinion of that tribunal's importance:

"When we finally come to our senses and establish a world executive and a parliament of nations, thanks to the Nuremberg precedent we will already have in place the fundamentals for the third branch of government, the judiciary."

Pat Buchanan would scream about America ceding its sovereignity, not to mention Cronkite's leftist bias. Uncle Walter may have been scrupulous in trying to be impartial on the air, but here he makes no secret of his liberal proclivities.

Chiefly, "A Reporter's Life" recounts Cronkite's career - from copy boy at the Houston Post to radio sportscaster (one station billed him as "ace football commentator") to one-man news operation at KCMO Radio in Kansas City (where he met his wife, Betsy) to UP reporter to TV news anchor.

But to me, perhaps the book's chief attraction is in Cronkite's evocation of the America he grew up in, a place that's not here anymore.

Skillful in his descriptions of people and settings, Cronkite offers a feel for what it was like in places like Kansas City and Houston in the 1920s and '30s - peddling newspapers at the end of the streetcar line, working as a soda jerk at his grandfather's drugstore, getting baseball scores from the blackboard in the local smoke shop, which received them on a Western Union ticker.

He doesn't ignore the ugly side of life, either, telling how a new professional acquaintance of his father ordered a delivery of ice cream from the local drug store and then slugged the black delivery boy because he had dared to set foot on the front porch, where his white customers happened to be seated.

Cronkite reserves most of his passion, however, for sermons on freedom of the press, the responsibilities that go with those freedoms and his distaste for the managers who turned CBS News into "neon lights and whirling mirrors."

His screeds seem a bit dusty and old-fashioned. Then again, look at TV news in the '90s. Perhaps we would still do well to trust in Uncle.

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