Across the nearly 820 pages of “Cronkite,’’ Douglas Brinkley’s ambitious and deeply researched biography of the legendary CBS News anchor, the author returns time and again, Rosebud style, to the book’s central, and maddeningly elusive, question: What exactly was the trait, or set of traits, that made Walter Cronkite the Most Trusted Man in America?
In search of answers, Brinkley, an acclaimed author and Rice University history professor, bravely scaled the Evidentiary Mountain: the hospital and school records from Cronkite’s Missouri birthplace and Depression-era childhood in Texas; his youthful love letters and school newspaper articles; his wire copy for United Press; his many accounts of his World War II exploits; the thousands of hours of television and radio broadcasts Cronkite recorded at CBS; his reporting on the Kennedy assassination and the space program; the oral histories and interviews he did with other journalists; Cronkite’s own collected writings. On top of all that, Brinkley conducted roughly 100 original interviews.
The result is the definitive biography of Walter Cronkite, the steely but empathetic newsman with the stolid visage and stentorian voice who, from his perch atop the CBS News empire, served as a national father figure, a steadying presence who guided postwar America through its darkest hours and profoundest triumphs.
Recounted here in detail, with scholarly grasp and smooth narrative flow, are the familiar milestones and more obscure regions of Cronkite’s life. In these pages, we get to know Cronkite with the intimacy we always wished for when watching him on TV: a charming, well read, witty, and hard-driving man, paternal and aloof, salty and refined, a lover of the game and the self-anointed guardian of its standards.
At its best, “Cronkite’’ magically transports the reader to a bygone era, when men of standing in New York dined at Toots Shor’s, smoked pipes at their desks, drank a lot, read Michener, flew Pan-Am first class, and loved their country.
Nobody in America circa 1971 had a better Rolodex than Cronkite. He was encyclopedic about the comings and goings of blue bloods, military officers, and corporate CEOs. He made it his habit to trade in career updates, summer vacation plans, and casual gossip with the rich and otherwise powerful in American life.
Unfortunately, the author’s investigative zeal and gifts for nostalgia are not matched by analytical rigor. While he dutifully relates the anchorman’s many moments of personal pettiness and journalistic miscarriage — and their frequency and severity are the real eye-openers of this book — Brinkley avoids some of the tough conclusions his research warrants.
“Although his trade was objective journalism, his product was fair-mindedness, judicial wisdom, and a moral compass that knew how to decipher right from wrong,” Brinkley writes. Really? What of the Cronkite who Brinkley shows us ordering the bugging of the credentials-committee meeting room at the 1952 Republican national convention, and using the information gleaned from this invasion of privacy on the air? Or the Cronkite of 1964, whom Brinkley characterizes as “a rubber-stamp sycophant for LBJ,” the perpetrator, on his nightly broadcasts, of “ugly” swipes against Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater? Or the Cronkite of the early 1970s, who saturated radio airwaves with “over-the-top commentary full of pro-Democratic partisanship”?
Those energies Brinkley, a Cronkite fan from the age of six, withholds from the uncomfortable business of judgment, devoting them instead to answering The Central and Maddeningly Elusive Question. “They didn’t poll my wife,” Cronkite would quip when asked about the Most Trusted Man honorific, bestowed after a 1972 public opinion survey ranked Cronkite ahead of the era’s leading politicians on a “trust index.”
In each chapter, Brinkley ruminates on some facet of Cronkite that could have been the “defining ingredient that made him different,” vaulting him past all rivals to attain his iconic status. Was it his Midwestern roots, that marvelous voice, his easy-to-follow writing style, the sleeve-worn patriotism, some unerring sense for the Zeitgeist? Dan Rather, the protégé who succeeded Cronkite and became the one man he actively despised, correctly observes that Cronkite’s great gift was that “he could connect with people.”
But Brinkley had solved the mystery 150 pages earlier: “Cronkite’s defining quality remained competitiveness.” This observation echoes throughout, pressed by observers intimate and distant, by the devoted and, like Rather, the disaffected. All attest that Cronkite was as determined to beat his children at Monopoly as he was to vanquish NBC in the news ratings. “This nicest-guy-in-the-world was more Darwinian than you could imagine,” recalls Tom Brokaw, “when it came to being top dog.”
“Cronkite’’ brims with funny and telling anecdotes about this larger-than-life figure who helped shape the Information Age. But the one that brings us closest to him is the recollection of “CBS Evening News” executive producer Les Midgley, who remembered that whenever Cronkite saw NBC covering a story with more depth or skill than CBS, he would turn to his staff and cry: “Let’s do it better — and beat them!”