The Sadness of Walter Cronkite
I know the precise date because I saved my waterlogged notebook from that day as if it were a holy object. It was Feb. 22, 1976. I was covering the presidential campaign of Fred Harris, a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma.
I was in Manchester, N.H., sitting at a rickety card table set up in the front and to one side of a darkened high school auditorium. Someone had rather grandly taped a cardboard, hand-lettered sign to the front of the table that said "Press." I was just pouring a glass of water into a paper cup when I felt a presence behind me. "Excuse me," Walter Cronkite said, "would it be OK if I moved your coat?"
Move it? I would have let him burn it.
In Japan, Walter Cronkite would have been classified a living treasure. And here I was in my 20s, just beginning to write a column for a Chicago newspaper, and now Walter Cronkite was asking me if he could move my coat so he could sit next to me. I did the only thing I could do: I knocked over the water pitcher.
Cronkite helped me mop up the mess and pretended that making a fool of oneself was something that he did all the time. "So," he said, running the edge of his hand across the chair seat to squeegee enough water off it to sit down, "have you been traveling with Harris? Does he have a chance? How does the election look to you?"
At the time, I thought he was merely being polite, making conversation, treating me — ha! — as if I were an equal.
It was an exciting primary. On the Democratic side, besides Harris, there were Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown, George Wallace, Mo Udall, Henry Jackson, Frank Church, Sargent Shriver, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Byrd, Terry Sanford and Milton Shapp. (If you actually recognize all those names, you either are a political junkie or have led a misspent life. Or both.)
But here was Walter Cronkite, asking me about Fred Harris. To be a nice guy, I thought.
Only later did I realize Cronkite really wanted answers to his questions. He felt cut off from the process he used to cover with such joy.
Although I did not mention it to him, I had seen him earlier that week from across the dining room of the Sheraton Wayfarer Hotel just outside Manchester, where CBS was headquartered. Cronkite was trying to get a check, but the dining room was crowded, and he was having no luck.
As a joke, he stuck his napkin on his fork and waved it back and forth slowly over his head like a semaphore. And I reacted the same way almost everyone else in the dining room did: We all tried to find a waitress for Walter Cronkite. We began madly signaling, waving our arms. One man got up and stalked into the kitchen. Walter Cronkite needed a waitress! We did not know Cronkite, yet we all automatically felt that when he needed a waitress, he deserved to have one.
"Waitress!" people were now shouting. "Mr. Cronkite needs his check!" When I looked back over at him, he was staring silently into his plate, abashed at what he had set off.
At the Fred Harris rally in the high school auditorium, people now crept silently, hesitantly forward and formed a line to get Cronkite’s autograph. Politely but firmly, he refused each one, while at the same time trying to talk to me about Harris.
But the line grew longer, not shorter, even as each person was turned away. And Cronkite’s refusals grew more plaintive. "Really," he said. "Really, I thank you. But I am working. I am trying to work."
When Fred Harris took the stage and began his speech, people continued to come up to Cronkite. He was just too big for this event, too big for a Fred Harris rally.
"You must get this a lot," I whispered to him, wondering why on earth I was suddenly feeling sorry for Walter Cronkite.
"Everywhere," he said. "I don’t report anymore. Hardly ever. It’s almost impossible." He shook his head. "That’s why I envy you."
I looked closely into his face to see if he was kidding, but he did not seem to be.
Four years later in New Hampshire, I would interview him on the CBS set, a few minutes before he was to go on the air and do his last broadcast of that primary as the CBS anchor. He recalled that day at the Harris rally and talked about it.
"It is one of the great sadnesses I have," he said. "It’s so difficult to go out on the streets. The fame thing is so, so –" He finished the sentence with a wave of his hand. "I wanted to go out to people’s homes with the canvassers this time. You know, to see what people were saying about the candidates."
I had done it the week before. I had walked around with a Ted Kennedy canvasser one day and a Jimmy Carter canvasser the next. It was a good way to see how people were reacting to the candidates without having to depend on polls.
"Well, there was no way to do that," Cronkite said. "My presence would affect the canvass. My being there would make it appear that I supported a particular candidate. That makes it difficult to even go to rallies. I am seen there, and they say I am supporting the man speaking. And the crowds. I get surrounded. The autograph-seekers. There is no way to get around it. It goes with the territory."
"I know TV affects things, but I don’t see any way around it," Cronkite went on. "And we can do good things. Before we presented the first coverage of political conventions, the people of America didn’t really know how conventions worked. They didn’t know how democracy worked. TV showed them how."
Word came to the set that he would be on the air in a few seconds. I got up. It will be your last time anchoring the New Hampshire primary, I said to him. The last time Walter Cronkite will be the voice of the campaign. Surely, that must make this night special.
"You know, I hadn’t really thought about that," he said. "Tonight is just another job. It’s just one more story."
He would have many more stories before he died last Friday. But he would pay a price for them all. With the stories came fame, and with the fame came a certain kind of isolation. There was no way around it. It went with the territory. It was a territory he chose and loved and did so well in.