The Politician Behind the Performer

An Interview With Walter Cronkite

The truth can be told: some children grow up on mother's milk, building blocks and plastic trucks, or even with other children. I grew up with Walter Cronkite. My formative years were absorbed, not with coloring books and Crazy Cat, but with Saturn B Ones described in melifluous basso, and election nights in enormous studios resembling a Cecil B. DeMille vision of the end of the world. And conventions, where my hero sat serene above the tedium and hubub, reassuring a doubtful nation that democracy needn't be orderly.

Cronkite remains unflappably number one. He is a grey-haired man who looks rather faded in person, running behind schedule in the daily process of assembling a 24 minute melange of the day's news with which to inform the 25 million or so Americans who tune in each weeknight. His hair is askew, his shoulders stooped. It is not yet noon, and you can tell that Walter Cronkite has paid for all those years of busting his ass to be the first wireman with the story, and why he sounds like the voice of time. A couple of inches under six feet tall, with a midsection that suggests a comfortable, if not relaxed, lifestyle, he has survived for an extraordinarily long time by persuading his audience to disassociate him from the bad tidings he constantly bears.

He is not a man comfortable with technology. For someone who mastered with infectious enthusiasm retro rockets and fuel tanks, and could wax positively ecstatic over a million pounds of thrust, he cannot rewind his tape recorder. The mighty fall hard: midway through our interview, which Cronkite said he was taping "for my memoirs," the tape ran out.

"Can you come in and fix this darned thing?" he asked of a secretary outside the office. "One of the nice things," he explained to me, "about growing old and monied is having someone to fix your tapes."

The process of meeting heroes can prove painful. Maybe I caught Walter on an off day.

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Q: Are you aware of a power struggle within the news department to succeed you?

A: I wouldn't describe it as a power struggle. I really don't think we operate that way. Obviously, there's an interest among the people who would like to be named; it's a choice spot, quite clearly...I don't see any evidence of any jockeying for the position, anybody pulling any subrosa stuff..

Q: Regarding the Barbara Walters situation, there was a recent quote from Fred Friendly to the effect that he had nothing against Walters, but that ABC should use the money to hire more reporters, that he thought it was a ridiculous expenditure, that essentially no one was worth that amount of money.

A: Well, I'd have to say that people are worth whatever the market demand is. If ABC says she's worth that, she's worth it.

Q: But there is an element of showbiz in that, isn't there?

A: There's no question about that, but we got into show business a long time ago...I get a show business salary...A newspaperman, of whom there are many far more competent than I, doesn't make anything like what I make. So we're just talking about degree...I think that at CBS we put more emphasis on news ability and news background in hiring our people and permitting them an atmosphere in which to develop than others do...but the salaries are still better than what other good newsmen are getting in the print medium.

Q: Presumably the hiring of experienced, professional newspeople did not include Sally Quinn?

A: I didn't follow the Sally Quinn case, quite honestly, too closely. I'll tell you something--I don't read all these things. I really don't. I'm bored by it.

Q: What about the current tendency for journalists to write about other journalists?