Every knows craggy Walter Cronkite and dashing Dan Rather. The "60 Minutes" stopwatch and unblinking network eye are two of the most familiar symbols of American television. But few people ever get to see behind the slick facade of the nation's most popular broadcasting conglomerate let alone work for a whole summer with Cronkite. Rather and the legions of the CBS news division.
As might have been expected most of the other CBS pages were the children of network presidents, vice presidents, producers, directors and correspondents. My connection was far more tenuous and I often felt like something of a misfit with Dan Rather Jr. and company. I was disappointed when I couldn't fill in the name tag saving. "I'm------s kid," which the graphics department cheerfully distributed among "The Neps." Then again, I was a little less prone to being complacent.
When the Detroit Free-press visited our headquarters at the Republican convention, one vice president's daughter casually described the page corps: "We don't do anything at all. I just sit around reading magazines all day and get paid six dollars an hour." The comment ran in the paper the next day, and even her heavyweight dad couldn't get her re-hired for the Democratic convention in New York.
In fact, there was plenty to be done at the conventions and in between--from escorting senators to the "Face the Nation" set, to meeting Harry Reasoner at Detroit's Metro Airport and chauffering him to his hotel. One of more taxing duties while in the Motor City was arranging housing and transportation for all of the CBS employees jetting out from New York.
The star-shock never subsided. I could hardly swallow, let alone speak, the first time I had dinner with a very friendly red-suspendered Dan Rather. On the other hand, I was not all that surprised when I bumped into Andy Rooney one day and found him sporting a pink shower cap with his suit and tie.
During one of the most exciting stages of the Detroit convention. I managed to sneak into the main control room and sit in a darkened corner, watching all the components of the grueling four-hour broadcast come together.
With the CBS campaign theme song booming over the loud speakers. I watched Cronkite perform: he would grab his briefing book and glasses every time the camera cut away from him and then returned to the air with that everything's-completely-under-control composure of his. In the middle of all the confusion stood the director, shouting out what camera was next and how many seconds until the end of a shot.
When the broadcast ended, amid loud cheering from the whole crew, CBS patriarchs Bill Leonard and Bill Paley ambled in with broad smiles, joking. "Allright . . . once again from the top for the West Coast."
I was often occupied, however, by activities somewhat less stirring. In the greatest car town in the world. I spent a whole day returning a string of rentals for one president because "they didn't feel right." Even Uncle Walter kept us moving, often for no good reason. We spent hours in department stores shopping for the just-right pillow he could sit on during broadcasts. Crewmen were driven to the racetrack and to liquor stores, and once I even had to collect a bigwig's poodle clutching mistress from the airport.
But the last night of the convention season was nothing less than spectacular. Every lighting lackey and cable layer was invited to swanky Tavern-on-the-Green in New York's Central Park to dance and dine the night away with the top brass. With enough liquor to anesthetize a Russian army and with every kind of food known to man, we all soon got into the spirit. Beefy cameramen jostled the likes of Lesley Stahl at the crepe and caviar table, and pool secretaries chatted with producers at the bar.
At 3:30 a.m., Cronkite addressed the suddenly hushed throng, barely choking back tears when Leonard, president of CBS News, presented him with a gold-plated replica of the microphone the anchorman had used at his first convention on 1956. The 1980 gatherings were Cronkite's last.
The man who made "and that's the way it is" part of our vocabulary began rambling through some stories about his career at the network, and even the summer crew couldn't help but feel a little emotional. "I didn't want to go into television at all--I loved radio and wanted to stay there." Cronkite mused. "But they decided to give me a lot more money then, and they haven't stopped since."
Jovial and modest to the end he surveyed the crowd and said. "I really haven't done anything you guys. For years now I've gone along for the ride, while everyone else here has made my job easy. You are the important ones." Then, with a chuckle and a glance at his successor, Cronkite added. "Besides, I've decided that I'd rather stay than leave. Sorry, Dan.