He Was There

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As the editors discovered right at the outset of planning this issue, it is all but impossible to think about the course of the past forty years without also thinking about Walter Cronkite. He helped invent broadcast journalism, brought it to a level of professionalism that has never been surpassed, and for decades on “The CBS Evening News” explained to the nation the events that have since coalesced into history. Along the way, he made history too: his powerful reports in the wake of the Tet offensive, for instance, were pivotal in the country’s lone disengagement from the Vietnam War and may have played a role in bringing about President Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968.

During his years as a broadcaster, he was the most trusted figure in American public life; a 1973 poll put the figure at 73 percent, with the President trailing by a good fifteen points. He retired a decade ago, but today, in his late seventies, he still speaks with the calm authority that made him the dean of his profession, and he still pursues the sailing that has long been his chief avocation; indeed, he had just returned from happily contending with fifty-knot winds off the Maine coast when we spoke in the offices here last September.

 

I thought we might start by asking you a bit about your early career. I know that at the time America entered World War II, you, though still quite a young man, were one of the first correspondents to be accredited.

United Press brought me to New York City almost immediately after Pearl Harbor and sent me right down to 90 Church Street and I was given credentials with the Navy as a correspondent. But I’m not sure I was one of the first. That has appeared elsewhere, and I don’t know whether I, in a moment of braggadocio, suggested I was. But it was early on in the war, certainly. We still hadn’t moved any troops to Europe. The big story, as far as the war in Europe went, was that our Navy was beginning to escort merchant ships and then the first big convoy that took the elementary units of the 8th Air Force overseas. And on the convoy I was the only correspondent.

How long had you been a newspaperman at that time?

I’d started newspapering while I was still in college at the University of Texas, and actually I had worked as a copy boy in Houston during my high school years. So I had been in news full-time since 1936, and parttime before that.

What got you started in the first place?

Well, there was a magazine called American Boy , which was in competition with the Boy Scouts’ magazine, Boy’s Life . I bought both of them every month. And American Boy ran a series of novelettes that were intended as sort of career-guidance material. They took a career and glamorized it quite considerably. The only two careers that interested me at all were journalism and mining engineering. I thought I might be a mining engineer until I flunked physics. I couldn’t figure out how a pulley worked. I still don’t know why a pulley works. And I decided that if you don’t know how a pulley works, you better not go down a mine. So I took up journalism. I was terribly lucky: I was in a high school that, rare in that period, had a journalism course. An editor from one of the newspapers had convinced the Houston public school system that he should teach a course in the five high schools there, and he was a brilliant teacher, I thought. Fred Birney was his name, and he captured my imagination immediately. He was also the sponsor for the school paper; he saw that it got put out on a regular basis and was done well. He had a great devotion to accuracy and to the truth. I think he was the inspiration for my career.

You had an extraordinarily active war.

I was very lucky in that regard too. I covered the Battle of the Atlantic when it was still a major story, although it was very hard to tell anything about it, the secrecy was so great. Then I covered the air war from England, when that was the major story from Europe.

You went on an early bombing raid, didn’t you?