A discussion about “the most trusted man in America” with Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University and author of the book “Cronkite”.
Ted Simons: Walter Cronkite was a regular and welcomed guest in the living rooms of many Americans during the 1960s and '70s, but few got -- Who got their news from the most trusted man in America knew much about Cronkite's life. Author and historian Douglas Brinkley has written a biography of Walter Cronkite, the book chronicles the life and career of a journalist whose personal philosophy according to Brinkley, had a huge impact on public policy. Joining us now is historian Douglas Brinkley. Good to see you. Thanks for joining us.
Douglas Brinkley: It's a privilege to be here.
Ted Simons: This is quite a biography, and it's a biography after very public figure that while we don't -- A lot of us don't know much about him, we think we do because he was in our living rooms so often.
Douglas Brinkley: And we called him Uncle Walter. He was really a pioneer of television broadcasting. I argue along with Edward R. Murrow, that it's Cronkite got on TV in 1950, and stayed on until '81. In '81 the internet exploded, cable television, but from '50-81, when Cronkite was working for CBS news, that was all you got, some places only got CBS and some NBC and ABC, but it was the big three at best, and Cronkite was the dominant figure. So I wanted to look at American history through Cronkite, Watergate, on and on.
Ted Simons: How do you find, though, something new about an icon like this? Where did you go for information?
Douglas Brinkley: Excellent question. All of Walter Cronkite's papers were donated to the Brisco Center at the University of Texas. He was a drop out there. He was there for two years and his big love was here in Phoenix working with Arizona State University, building this extraordinary journalism school. That became his passion later in life, but he gave his papers, by that I mean diary and photos and all, to his quasi alma mater U.T. So I was the first scholar to go through all that material, which helped me write the book, and I interviewed everybody, from Neil Armstrong to john Glen, to Andy Rooney, to Barbara Walters, just a host of people to get the portrait I wanted, including all three of Walter Cronkite's children.
Ted Simons: What kind of guy was Walter Cronkite? Was he curious, was he optimistic? Who was the guy?
Douglas Brinkley: Both. Hugely curious. I would say that's his -- the number one word I'd put for Walter Cronkite. He would ask anybody anything. Where are you from, where -- Great reporter that way. Then he learned early on the old fashioned, you know, who, what, where, when, and why, the five W's of journalism. He started as a print reporter, and in the wire service you had to get to the crux of the story. So Cronkite wasn't just a broadcaster on TV, during the World War II he had embedded with the eighth Air Force and was at the battle of the bulge and D-day, he opened up united press bureaus in Belgium, he was there at the Nuremberg trials. So by the time he found television, he has all of these clipping and all these great street credentials as a real gumshoe reporter.
Ted Simons: As far as the guy personally, it sounds like he might have been tight with the dollar? Might have enjoyed a drink or two now and then? Again, maybe enjoyed jokes that people would be surprised that Walter Cronkite would enjoy? He was a human being, after all.
Douglas Brinkley: Very much a human being. Loved cocktail hour, as you mentioned, and was unbelievably frugal. He wouldn't pick up tip. Part of it was growing up poor during the great depression. His father was an alcoholic and his mother raised him, they had a shoestring budget. He was very frugal, but he took it to hyper frugality with his money. And dirty jokes was part of his stock and trade. He loved the illicit joke that you could do to disarm people. I think that kind of humor, everybody thought oh, my gosh, Walter Cronkite. One dirty joke made people realize he was no different than somebody working in a restaurant or giving him a cab ride.
Ted Simons: I know he says he refers to himself as a ham. How much of an ego did he -- Was it out of bounds, in control, was he more humbled than people would realize? Where was that ego?
Douglas Brinkley: He was extremely humble, had no sense of elitism. He did have a big ego, and had sharp elbows. He recognized that in TV, the key was face time. That a lot of people won't even remember what we're talking about now, but they'll see you on the street and say "I saw you on that show! Good job!" So he was an air hog. He liked to stay on. He wasn't good at the toss, turning it over to somebody else. On the other hand, he compensated for this impeccable ability to not make mistakes. He would not go on air if he didn't have a triple source. So you detective get these retractions like you do today. So he was sort of a gold standard and people picked up on that with the Kennedy assassination, when he took the glasses off and looked at the clock and guided us through that tragedy in Dallas for that whole long weekend.
Ted Simons: You mentioned I think one of your quotes was I've never come across a man as hyper competitive as Cronkite, yet he seemed to be as so many journalists are, always worried about unemployment, even Walter Cronkite.
Douglas Brinkley: Always.
Douglas Brinkley: The unemployment factor was big. It gave him great depression because he didn't know what his job was at CBS in the 1950s. Edward R. Murrow was the big guy, TV was new, it used to be in a broom closet. His first job at CBS in Washington, DC, it was just Cronkite and a little camera. They had 4,000 people watching and he had to get his own sponsor. And nobody knew TV was going to be what it was in '51, '52. But they gave -- MURROW didn't want the conventions and Cronkite covered political conventions, gavel-to-gavel. And he did it in '52, '56, and he started carving out a niche as a go-to guy on American political history.
Ted Simons: And he -- Many respects he invented TV news to a great degree, don't you --
Douglas Brinkley: Yes. He invented that half hour news format that all local news does. He's the patron saint really of local news. They all love him around the country, not just CBS affiliates, but more than that, he's the one that turned television into being able to carry out these long dramas and follow -- Once he went from 15-minute news to 30, you could cover civil rights on the back end, Vietnam war, earth day, all these other things. So CBS during Cronkite's heyday would follow a story and it would affect history. Martin Luther King would do things, where is the CBS camera? So I can get on the Cronkite show and I'm reaching that kind of box office.
Ted Simons: That's interesting, you mentioned civil rights and women's rights, and Vietnam, and ecology and all these things, but you also mention that he seemed to have a knack for the next big thing. He seemed to know are that these things were going to hit. We better get on board this first. Was that a talent, luck? What was that?
Douglas Brinkley: Talent. There's always an element in luck in life. In World War II I mentioned he was in Europe, he had embedded with military aviation. Well, '57 the Soviet sent Sputnik up, NASA gets created, and Cronkite had a Rolodex filled with Air Force contacts. He got down to mosquito-laden cape Canaveral, Florida to watch these rockets shoot out of the ground and he recognized space is the future and also satellites. And also doing the feeds from here to Europe through telestar. Just as Kennedy learned how to use TV as medium, Cronkite knew to do it too. They're very attached on a lot of things, not just the assassination or space.
Ted Simons: I know you wrote his personal philosophy had a huge impact on public policy. Some would debate whether that's a good thing, but the fact is, he didn't just -- he wasn't just there for all these things. He impacted all of these stories.
Douglas Brinkley: Look, he had to be Mr. Center back in those days. You had to be the objective journalist down the middle. In truth, he was a new deal FDR democrat personally. But he did not want that to bleed into the nightly news. And he did an extraordinarily job of not showing his hand. Why? Because sponsors, many CBS affiliates were conservative owned. So he had to do this tricky balancing act. I talked to a lot of old-time conservative owners of CBS affiliates, Republican owners and said, we'd be mad at Walter for running something, but he'd show up and we'd go out for lunch, and we just couldn't dislike him. And that was part of his charm. It was very hard to find anybody that had attention with him except Dan rather and a few other names, but basically everybody loved Walter Cronkite. He was a nice guy to be around.
Ted Simons: It sounds as though he called himself a reluctant big shot, but you mentioned Dan rather, Edward R MURROW, it sounds like there was tension there as well. It just -- I think about the Vietnam -- Why in the world didn't the country turn against Walter Cronkite as opposed to turning against the Vietnam effort?
Douglas Brinkley: It's a little bit of a longer story, but I will tell you, Cronkite worried about that. He did a nightly news program, saying basically it's the best to stalemate, we need to get out of Vietnam. That was in February, February 27th, 1968. The fear was all of this conservatives and pro-Warhawks would turn on CBS. Instead, Lyndon Johnson steps down a few weeks later and the Republicans, Goldwater Republicans said, you know, Walter is helping us, he's criticizing Johnson's Vietnam policy, so it's sort of -- They were defanged. And the liberals thought, yeah, you're right, so the people that were left to complain were some kind of conservative democrats that were for Hubert Humphrey, a small group of people. So he was able not just to get around that, but by the end of 1968, Richard Nixon and Walter Cronkite were the two kind of Titans that had survived that year.
Ted Simons: As far as what you had expected when you started the book and what you got when the thing was finally done, did anything surprise you?
Douglas Brinkley: I was surprised how much I liked him. He just grows on you all the time because of that humor and the jokes, and how much of it. And everybody has that I interviewed had a Walter Cronkite joke. Also got a little melancholy for the era of where today where entertainment is news, what Lindsay Lohan does, or this is -- Cher's got a new boyfriend or whatever it is. It gets equal coverage of Afghanistan, or what's going on, you know, in Libya. And that saddens me. I think there's been a decline in news standards on broadcast news. Not on a program like this, not on LEHR news Jose Herrera, PBS, certainly not -- Even the half hour news broadcasts are pretty good, but the cable in some ways has cheapened news delivery.
Ted Simons: We've got about 30 seconds. How would a Walter Cronkite, a young Walter Cronkite fit into this environment?
Douglas Brinkley: He would have to -- I am going to talk, I am talking at the Cronkite School. You've got to want it, and you got to do like Walter Cronkite did, be willing to not make a lot of money, believe journalism is a calling and get out there and get your own beat. Follow something if it's climate change, get into it, if it's immigration reform, get into it. So your name gets known, you start getting your clippings, now the clippings are blogs or things online, internet. But get your byline throughout and make sure you can stand by the facts in the article.
Ted Simons: It's good to have you here. Congratulations on the book. Thank you so much for joining us.
Douglas Brinkley: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Ted Simons: Tuesday on "Arizona Horizon," we'll learn about the every controversial killing of the only known Jaguar in the United States. That's Tuesday evening, 5:30 and again at 10:00 on "Arizona Horizon."
Ted Simons: That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.
Douglas Brinkley:Author, "Cronkite";