BRIAN LAMB, HOST, C-SPAN: Douglas Brinkley, on your book Cronkite, you say in the back in acknowledgments, ”I am now close with the entire Cronkite clan.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, AUTHOR: Yes.
LAMB: Can you say that after they read this book.
BRINKLEY: Well I became, you know, when you write a book on somebody like Walter Cronkite or any biography, you will be always wondering how the family is going to feel about it. In this case, Walter Cronkite’s son, Chip Cronkite lives in New York. And I was very nervous. I wanted him to read parts and he he liked it. There’s a lot of mainly positive things about Walter Cronkite in the book, his father. But he was willing to accept a lot of the criticism of Cronkite that comes out. So I felt very good about that.
And then Kathy Cronkite, Walter Cronkite’s daughter lives in Austin, Texas where I live and Kathy couldn’t have been more generous, also giving me interviews and telling me where to find, you know, missing pieces of their parent’s legacy and all that. So when you’re a biographer, it’s a real plus when you have kids that actually saw the plus of a historian taking on a full life and times of their father.
LAMB: You can tell if you read the notes in the back, he’s talked to a lot of people in the media business. I am going to quote Tom Brokaw from your book. And it was just exclusive to you this quote?
LAMB: OK. ”Walter was always open for business. He never grew bitter or unapproachable. Walter got up every morning knowing who he was. Dan Rather woke up every morning trying to decide who he’d be that day. As a result, ”Rather didn’t have a clue.”
BRINKLEY: Well Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite formed a great relationship. I think when you think of the two TV anchor people in the US history, Brokaw and Cronkite are very synonymous. But Brokaw knew that to make it to be top dog, you’d to have sharp elbows, that it wasn’t just avuncular uncle Walt. That he worked very hard, but Walter was always authentic to his Midwestern roots. He was from Missouri and he grew up in Texas. And in fact he kept his clock on Central Time even when he was in New York City, Walter Cronkite.
So and Rather was a different animal altogether. Dan Rather is a much more of a deep investigative, I got you, kind of character. Cronkite was a little more like Tom Brokaw went for gravitas.
LAMB: When I quoted their quotes, Dan Rather was the second most quoted in terms of different meetings. You had six different meetings that you acknowledged in there. Why did he talk to you so much?
BRINKLEY: Oh, Dan Rather was very helpful in this book because Walter Cronkite didn’t like him. And he knew that Cronkite didn’t like him. Nevertheless, Dan is, you know, one laid down a lot of interesting tracks for me. Both have stories. Cronkite’s reasons for disdain Rather and Rather’s problems with Cronkite. It all stems back to Edward R. Murrow, in many ways that Rather saw himself as the last really of the Murrow boys. Cronkite was not liked by the Murrow crowd.
And more than that, it it, you know, Cronkite actually promoted Rather to takeover for him as anchorman in 1981. But within days, Cronkite regretted stepping down as CBS anchorman and turning it over to Rather, because the Rather regime just went cold shoulder to Cronkite. There wasn’t a very warm way of keeping him on. And Cronkite floundered. He had a show in the 80s called Universe that not too many people remember. And once that got taken off of prime time, there was a show about science and oceanography. Good show, but it just didn’t get ratings.
Cronkite sort of was grumpy about Rather, and Rather didn’t do anything to extend a role for him say the way NBC Today has found a nice role for Tom Brokaw. Cronkite became kind of old and in the way or almost like a pariah figure. And it festered many reasons why that relationship never worked. But Cronkite admired Rather’s journalism, particularly during the Kennedy assassination. In Dallas, they were a team. He knew what a good investigative reporter he was, but he didn’t think he had the right personality to be coming in, beaming into the public everyday like he did.
LAMB: You know, in an earlier quote with Tom Brokaw, he said that he never grew bitter and then I read this is just one line that you wrote, ”when talk about the Gulf war started, Cronkite turned bitter. ”
LAMB: And there are other references to how bitter he was about Dan Rather and other things. Why the difference between Mr. Brokaw and Mr. Rather?
BRINKLEY: I think I think Tom is a friend of Walter Cronkite, and he knew you know, remember different generations. Both incidentally; Brokaw and Cronkite really looked up to the soldiers of World War II and troops in general. But Tom Brokaw knows the social Walter Cronkite very well. They would go out to eat. They went to, I believe, the Kentucky Derby once together, the Cronkites and the Brokaws. And Tom’s wife Meredith modeled how do you survive with the husband traveling as anchor all the time off with Cronkite’s wife Betsy.
So their closeness was very, very real. And he he knew the funny Walter Cronkite and the bitterness that was there was directed towards CBS and towards Rather. So it was not just Dan Rather, but the new regime. He thought he was going to be able to hang around CBS in the 80s and 90s, and they didn’t really have a role for him. But Brokaw also said to me something very interesting. He said he was very he was always had to be the top dog, Walter Cronkite, that he was very Darwinian. And that that comes across on my research also that, you know, I think the problem is with Walter Cronkite people see him only as the avuncular friendly man, which he was to everybody. But there’s another side of him that wanted to be the best. He was obsessed with ratings, with beating Huntley-Brinkley report every night. And he is probably the fiercest competitor I’ve ever read written about. And I’ve written about presidents and generals and Cronkite’s desire to be the best was very pronounced.
LAMB: You talked to now deceased former Nixon aide Chuck Colson. What did you learn from him about all?
BRINKLEY: He was very nice to me, I recall this is before he died in Florida, I learned that Colson stays kind of an unrepentant pro-Nixon person. He regrets the Nixon tapes he told me that he is embarrassed when I read to him transcripts of White House tapes about Walter Cronkite. So Colson rejected that. But he was the pit-bull of Richard Nixon and Colson was on to this idea that they had to bring down the power of the Big Three.
They liked Cronkite Nixon personally liked Walter Cronkite socially when he saw him, but recognized that Cronkite would to their surprise somewhat, really spoke for the entire Fourth Estate. If you could dent Walter Cronkite, you dented what was in the Nixon White House’s view, the liberal media. And there became quite a square off between Cronkite and the Nixon administration, and particularly Chuck Colson. It’s like a quote in the book from the Nixon takes on Nixon’s interest in bringing Cronkite down a notch or two.
LAMB: Here’s a little piece of video from a 1997 book notes with Walter Cronkite here.
CRONKITE: ”In the middle of an explanation of what the real difficult maneuvering was that was going on from the podium and on the floor. My producer would come in and say, ”Go to Mike Wallace. Go to Mike Wallace. He’s got the Carolina delegation.” Well, heck, the Carolina delegation didn’t have anything to do with that story right at the moment, and Mike might have a very good story, but it didn’t fit with the flow of what we were doing. So I would say, ”Later. Later,” you know, not on air, of course, but through one of those communicators sitting beside me; ”Later. Later. Later,” you know?
And as a consequence, the poor guys on the floor are standing there with some senator or governor that they’re not going to be able to hold onto very long. They think they’ve got a really hot story, and they may have had. But I’m trying to keep the flow going. As a consequence, I became known as a lens hog, properly as I say.
LAMB: A lens hog.
BRINKLEY: He was. Walter Cronkite liked camera time. You know, we have to realize, maybe put in context, Brian, he became well-known. Yes, he was an amazing UP reporter covering the air war in World War II, wrote great articles. So and then he became with the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, write about that. He was in Moscow in the early Cold War years. But he came eventually to 1950 Washington DC, Truman in the White House and he didn’t get the gig to go to Korea to be that’s where you made your name as a foreign correspondent. He was shoved in a WTOP camera filming him for doing local news. It’s in it was the B-list. The A-list people were still in radio in 1950, and Cronkite started breaking through in this new medium of television.
And what he recognized is if he walked to let’s just say here in Washington DC people wouldn’t remember what he said. They would recognize you. They’d say, oh we love seeing you. You could have been on a game show, the morning show, the nightly news show, the intellectual substance, went away, what people recognize is a visual. You’re a celebrity. You’re well known. And Cronkite recognized always claim the airtime. And that’s gets back to the top dog of Tom Brokaw that he and so sometimes he would kind of filibuster through on live events. But he also learned how to be quiet. And if you watched Cronkite’s broadcast during, say John Glenn and Alan Shepard or Neil Armstrong you know, Apollo 11 the space the space program, he would pause.
And also he had a theatrical sense. He would suddenly say, oh golly golly gee or something no serious person would say. Everybody was trying to be intellectual. When Cronkite started talking to what he thought the hearts and minds of the American people, the average American were thinking. And he kept that great bond with people. And even when you run that clip there, Brian, I don’t tire of seeing him. His voice is very soothing. He made a bit of a self-deprecating joke. He admitted his own flaw in life that he was an air hog and so he comes off as a very geniable likable character. And it was very hard to find people that didn’t personally like Walter Cronkite.
LAMB: Well, let’s back this up then with Dan Rather. Here’s a clip from his book notes appearance.
RATHER: ”When my contract was up, and I had an offer to go elsewhere and talked about it with my superiors, they asked me, ”Well, if you were to be one of the two successors to Walter Cronkite, how would you feel about it?” They asked me if I was prepared to double anchor with Roger Mudd, and I said instantly, ”You bet I’ll do that.”
Their vision is the late Bill Leonard and others thought the succession to Walter Cronkite might be Dan Rather in New York and Roger Mudd in Washington. Now I was told pretty quickly I a day or two after that that they had talked to Roger about it, and he had declined to do that, not with any hostility, but just said, ”No, I don’t want to do that.” And it was said to me, whether it was true or not, that his belief was that he was entitled to be the successor and expected to be the successor, and he wanted to do it as Walter had done it, alone.
LAMB: What do you learn from Roger Mudd?
BRINKLEY: Roger Mudd, you know, one of the interesting things is, the big question was who was going to replace Walter Cronkite in ’81. And remember Cronkite was beloved. And he also was 64. And back then it was retirement age at 65, and Cronkite decided to go out at the top of his game and then do the science specials and things which were really his personal interest and sail and spend some time and enjoy life.
But he had there was a big fight going on within CBS, do you pick Roger Mudd or do you pick Dan Rather? Cronkite after a lot of thinking sided with picking Rather because of his foreign experience. Walter Cronkite believed in the foreign correspondents because he was one as a youth. Roger Mudd had a family and did not go to Vietnam. He rejected serving in Vietnam as a reporter because he didn’t want to be away from his family. And he made his name Roger Mudd, largely doing civil rights, but Capitol Hill Congressional reports, a Washington reporter.
And so Cronkite went to Rather, as I mentioned, he regretted it later. And right kind of moving after talking to Roger Mudd in the book, about Mudd and Cronkite’s up and down relationship because since 1964, Bill Paley head honcho at CBS. After Cronkite did a lackluster performance in San Francisco Republican Convention at the Cow Palace, pulled Cronkite from doing the Atlantic City Democratic Convention of Lyndon Johnson and put in what was called Mudd Trout, a duo to kind of compete with Huntley-Brinkley. Well that...
LAMB: Bob Trout.
BRINKLEY: Bob Trout and Roger Mudd. But Cronkite thought that Mudd was trying to take his spot back in ’64. So their relationship had a lot of ups and downs, but it was very moving at the very end of their life. Mudd was working for the History Channel and did just like you did a book note sort of interview with Walter Cronkite. And his hearing was off and Roger Mudd had devised a special system for it and Roger was a good interviewing at the end. Cronkite had almost tearfully said ”Roger, you are a good man,” and you know, and went on with telling him how much he respected him. So they healed that relationship. Rather and Cronkite never healed.
LAMB: Quick background bio on Walter Cronkite. Born and raised where? And where did he go to school?
BRINKLEY: Born and raised in Saint Joseph, Missouri, which is just outside of Kansas City, and was the hub of the Pony Express. His father was a dentist. He came from a family of dentists. German and Dutch ancestry. Moved to Kansas City. The most interesting thing about his early years from 1916 to 1927 in Missouri is Cronkite’s love with the Trolley system and the trains. And it becomes a hallmark of his life because he is obsessed with transportation a lot, Cronkite. That’s one of his many interests. Why Cronkite was a great reporter, was his curiosity about how things worked.
But he delivered papers and that kind of things, sold Liberty magazine. His father served as a dental surgeon in World War I out of Missouri. And then they loaded up in a car in 1927, and the Cronkite’s moved to Houston to what’s known as the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. And in 1927, Texas was a boom, particularly Houston. Dust bowl would have hit Western Texas. But Houston because of Spindletop and the oil and the Port of Houston. There’re no banks foreclosed in Houston during the Great Depression.
So it was a pretty good move by the Cronkites; Helen and Walter Cronkite Senior, his father, to move to Houston, but it was a Jim Crow City, they encountered a lot of racism. His father’s dental practice did not work out. He was at a dental college. He had some personnel problems with other people. And he started drinking heavily, his father. And eventually, they got a divorce. And Walter is the only child raised by his mother in Houston, and his father moved back to Missouri.
Cronkite had got a very early interest in journalism in high school because both at Lanier Middle School and at San Jacinto High in Houston, they started having journalism classes. Now today that doesn’t shock people; but journalism classes in 1930-31 in high schools was unusual. And a man named Fred Burney became his teacher and Cronkite started competing. And it was all about the five Ws of journalism, and Walter Cronkite believed in those till he died; just who, what, where, when and why, basic reporting.
And he did a great job working, writing for his campus school newspapers and eventually largely due to a girlfriend staying in first girlfriend staying in Houston, he enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin, got deeply involved with the school paper, wanted for while to be an engineer mineral engineering, hoping he could get rich. He realized he did not have the acumen really for serious engineering work. And so he drifted into journalism because it paid. And he got jobs working with the wire services, the INS and of course famously later the UP. And he gets to move back to Kansas City and really begins his journalism career in earnest back in his hometown, Kansas City, Missouri. But in Texas now, all of his papers were at the UT and he kind of claimed it as his alma mater even though he only was two years at UT and was a dropout.
LAMB: But when did he go to the United Press? When did he go to CBS? And frankly when did he die?
BRINKLEY: Well with the United Press he started doing UP stories, write in, you know, once he left in the mid-30s back to Missouri. But he would they would the UP would have him go around. He helped open a station in like El Paso when he was in Oklahoma City for a while. He did sports announcing where he would just read like Ronald Reagan, exactly like Reagan in the cubs. He would just get what happened in the game and then he’d have to ad lib doing a little radio, lot of odd kind of work.
But in Overton, Texas, it was actually the town of New London School fire of 1937, Cronkite had his first bit of national noteriety. Because over like 230 over 230 students were blown up in a huge American tragedy and Cronkite was on the scene and saw all those charred bodies of children and he ran to a pay phone and called in to CBS radio and he got his voice heard for the first time, and he wrote a lot of the United Press clippings.
He tries other jobs. He even works for an airlines band of airlines for a while, but he gets drawn back to be in the Unit presser at UP. And then famously, after getting all these clippings and working for United Press, he goes to New York after World War I begins, he couldn’t he was 4 F I mean I mean he could not he was color blind. So he couldn’t go in the military. He couldn’t fly planes, he tried to. His wife Betsy got an airplane license, he didn’t. He goes to New York, trains to become a foreign correspondent, and he used to have a uniform he would wear in World War II. And was then put on assignment in Europe, and he embedded. And that’s the right way to think of it, embedded with the 8th Air Force with our pilots, our bomber pilots that would do the B24 and B17 missions. And he goes all the way, Brian, from that World War II, he comes in and starts working with CBS after the war. And he stays with CBS from you know, the all the way up until his death, he was getting at least some kind of check from CBS.
LAMB: Like earlier when I read the Tom Brokaw, he is not bitter and then later you said he was bitter. There’s another on the one hand and on the other hand, you wrote Cronkite exaggerated his pacifism to emphasize his Quaker-like aversion to war.
LAMB: And then later you write the book Cronkite now hope to join the Army Air Core if the Unites States enter the European war to help the Dutch people.
LAMB: Those are two different messages?
BRINKLEY: No it isn’t because the foreign correspondents had no gun. They weren’t allowed to carry a weapon. And so Cronkite was everywhere open-handed with that uniform. So he could go into even enemy territory and never carried a weapon in the entire time he’s on the war. However, he was in an airplane in a bombing mission over Germany, and suddenly had to take over the gun and fired it around. But Cronkite is not somebody who ever glamorized his World War II heroics. He downplayed it. He’d often say, I was a coward. I would stand at the periphery of action. But his love of liberation I mean Cronkite started understanding that Dutch people were starving. Hitler’s totalitarianism was beyond evil and World War II after all was the good war. But he was never somebody who glamorized war or thought he was going to be an Ernie Pyle.
Incidentally his best friend of all of his life develops during this period in Europe, and that’s Andy Rooney, who they worked together for a long time and their personalities were complete odd couples. I mean Rooney was acerbic and curt and Walter was always very humorous and generous with people. They were completely different.
LAMB: When did your idea to do this book start?
BRINKLEY: I used to you know, I am interested in Cronkite since I was a kid. My mom in Ohio gave me, made sure I was doing this my drawings. In 1967, I drew of the Vietnam war and I was watching it on television where Cronkite family in a Bowling Green, Ohio newspaper, there’s a picture of me anchoring News Six in sixth grade where I am saying my favorite person is Walter Cronkite.
So I was very interested in him. But I thought of it in earnest I was with the journalist David Halberstam, at a book festival. I had a drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and I had read his book, the Powers That Be. I have read all of Halberstam. He is really one of my favorite writers at history mixing with journalism. I just like what he did, hero to me. And he mentioned to my surprise that we were kind on journalism, he said of his journalists, most influential was Walter Cronkite. And I never thought of that. I always think of print journalism. And of course Edward R. Murrow was considered in radio the best. But I realized TV has taken over print, there’s something to that. And then I checked with my agent in New York, Lisa Bankoff if there is anybody doing a big Cronkite book. There wasn’t.
And then all of his papers were just been donated. Cronkite didn’t sell them. He just gave them to the University of Texas. It’s called the Briscoe Center. And he was a Great Depression, pack rat and frugality saved everything. And he it was so it’s a great archive for me. And I started seeing, you know, when I go around Brain, as you know, I talk to people, and everybody, oh Kennedy assassination, I remember that. I was as if they were in Dallas or Vietnam war, ”Oh Gosh, it consumed us.” But what we did we were consumers of watching Walter Cronkite tell us about the Kennedy assassination, Cronkite. So he was in the Cold War period, he was our eye witness to history. So I thought as a historian, it would be interesting to look at how people got their their information back in that time when the Big Three NBC, CBS and ABC reigned supreme.
And keep in mind, there were many areas in America, I know you know that only got one network, like only CBS. So people grew up with Walter Cronkite. And the reason he was sustainable was because people didn’t get tired of him. If you are going to go to box office with a Hollywood star, you pay your ticket, you see one movie, soon over the actor/actress. You go home, you might catch another movie a year later. Cronkite was every day after you’d work, you’d see him. So you had to be comfortable. And his cadence, and his ability he had a genius in not irritating people. And also he slowed his word count down. So he would talk clearly to people and decisively. And in the 60s and 70s, when everybody lost trust with systems of government, when there was anger at Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and everybody in between, there was a lot of chaos. People trusted Cronkite, as if he were a family member.
LAMB: Most of your interviews were conducted in 2011, according to the notes in the back, although you had them as late as March, the 5th of this year.
LAMB: How what was the total amount of time you spent on the book and how did you how were you able to keep this book open until March the 5th, at least?
BRINKLEY: Well, I have my ways with HarperCollins. I it’s a faster, and you know, because it’s easier to print a book now than ever before. And I kept wanting to add to it. I mean what’s just when I get into a book and my curiosity goes, I was trying to get interviews with a lot of big people, had busy schedules and I was successful early with some others, we had to keep you know, peppering.
LAMB: Who wouldn’t talk to you?
BRINKLEY: I got to talk to everybody that I went after I never got to Diane Sawyer although I wanted to. But I was able to talk to again I think just conflict reasons, but Barbara Walters and Ted Turner I interviewed. And John Glenn, whose grew up in Ohio and Glenn is the gold standard as far as I am concerned. You could see in the back I’ve put a lot of time talking to people, collecting Cronkite stories. My challenge is to keep it pared down because the anecdotal everybody had a couple of great Cronkite stories. And I kind of keep it down. I mean he had a long career. He lived into his 90s.
And he knew everybody. And it was with all presidents I mean I am writing about the presidential elections, he was at 1928, he was an usher at both the Democratic and Republican conventions up to ’28. And he defined convention coverage. It was, you know, Walter Cronkite was the political maestros, there were so many people to talk to. I wanted to get all the people. I got it just in the nick of time some people that helped me a lot. You mentioned Colson. I mentioned Rooney. But there were others who’ve died since I started interviewing them, because they were all in their 80s and 90s, the seminal group of his friends. But you know, getting to people like Jimmy Buffett, the musician or Mickey Hart of the Greatful Dead, who are great personal friends of Cronkite. So I I really wanted to get his interview as many people as I could including the family friends but also adversaries.
LAMB: What year did he die?
BRINKLEY: He died in in 2009.
LAMB: When you began your book tour, the first review that I saw, I am going to read the headline and I am going to read the first paragraph. ”New Biography of CBS Newsman Walter Cronkite Dents His Halo.” ”Junkets. A liberal bias. And unconscionable shading of a major story. A new biography reveals how much has changed in America’s news culture.” This is not by a conservative. This is by a man named Howard Kurtz. He does reliable sources on CNN, and writes for the Daily Beast. Let me read the first paragraph. This is from May 21.
”Unbeknownst to the millions who tuned in religiously to the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite cut a deal with Pan Am to fly his family to vacation spots around the world. Together with a handful of friends, they roamed from the South Pacific to Haiti, with Cronkite snorkeling, swimming, and drinking, thanks to a friend at the airline. According to Douglas Brinkley’s sweeping and masterful biography Cronkite, the news division president, Dick Salant, was upset at what he deemed a blatant conflict of interest, but took no action against his star anchor.”
What did you think of the headline and the first paragraph?
BRINKLEY: Well when people call your book sweeping and masterful, you say, thank you Howard Kurtz. That was my first feeling. Secondly what he what Kurtz did was take and tell you some of these how the news standards changed. I mean, keep in mind, Cronkite could pretty much do what he wanted. It was also a boy’s club, old journalism. It took a while to break that all boys club up. I mean, when Cronkite was in World War II, we it was all a propaganda machine for the United States; politicians, military. We are going to win the war together. Cronkite was kind of slow to change to that. He stayed with whatever the boys club was. In front of the boys club, he was friends with Pan Am, with you know, top executive there. And he figured I can do I deserve a little R&R. It was a mistake.
All the points Howard Kurtz mentioned are in the book, and there are I’ve considered the mistakes. But I am not writing a hagiography of Cronkite. I am trying to write a real biography of him. And I think the key line was he had a halo. How many people in life have a halo? But when you do a full biography, you are going to see the high and low moments. Proportionately, Cronkite was very judicial, and was not mean spirited to people. So he he endures as a great journalism hero. However, you know, some of the news standards back then, you know, Cronkite could kind of do what he wanted and it wouldn’t cut mustard what Kurtz is saying in today’s glance.
But look at look how with John. F. Kennedy. Because he has done things that he did in his personal life. You know, it was blurred a little more. You had a little group of people controlling Washington and New York. It wasn’t this Internet era.
LAMB: More from Howard Kurtz. ”In reading this first major biography of Cronkite, I came to realize that the man who once dominated television journalism was more complicated and occasionally more unethical than the legend that surrounds him.”
BRINKLEY: I wouldn’t use the word unethical, but I would tell you this. Walter Cronkite was a man of the left. He was from a childhood on a great admirer of Franklin Roosevelt. I would even call him, if you like, a Henry Wallace, George McGovern, progressive Democrat. He camouflaged that because he was, as many people in the depression, and you know, the TV industry was always worried about losing his job. And he needed box office from both right and left. So he tried to be center. He viewed how neutral he was getting the news, on how much mail he got. He liked getting, you know, from both right and left.
What’s remarkable is he was able to stay so long as Mr. Center, Mr. Objectivity. But as I write about in the book, he always had a bit of a liberal agenda and it came through in different ways; not necessarily in what I would headline news, the first 15 minutes. But in 1962, when the CBS news went from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, the back-end of CBS news started covering civil rights. You know, Morley Safer in’65, on a problematic story about Vietnam. You can look at it and see the 60s and 70s revolution progressive revolution, great society. Kennedy’s vision was given given play on the evening news broadcast. And Cronkite wasn’t just the anchor, Brian. He was a managing editor. And in fact, his greatest gift was like Duke Ellington as an orchestra, he had all those famous reporters at CBS, you know. And he knew how to manage them all. And he always backed deep investigative journalism; I think what Howard Kurtz called muscular journalism. That was Cronkite’s forte. However, people are going to say CBS in that period had a kind of a was tilted towards being pro-great society, pro-neo-frontier I’d say, it was.
LAMB: Here’s your quote from the book. The honor the horror of Nixon’s continuation of the Vietnam War obliged Cronkite to become a left leaning CBS radio editorializer which raises the question, how did he get away with such an over-the-top commentary full of pro-Democratic partnerships? And I I must attach that to Chuck Colson and whether or not you talked to him about that because Colson’s regime at the White House went after CBS and Cronkite.
BRINKLEY: What people don’t realize is Cronkite did CBS radio sometimes people forget because of his nightly news was such a you know, ritual at America to watch. Cronkite CBS evening News, but he also did radio reports. And CBS radio during Vietnam, the reports, the scriptwriting which people wrote for Cronkite. But the reports that Cronkite would do a much more left tilting. And one of the things Colson and others in the Nixon Administration noticed was that Cronkite on the Evening News had this sort of Mr. Center feel. But if you listen to Cronkite’s in the afternoon, his radio reports, and even Lyndon Johnson said, My Gosh, if the people really listened Johnson listened to Cronkite radio broadcast. He said they would see that this guy is on our side. You know, he is a man of that’s four with Johnson’s trying to do with Medicaid/Medicare civil rights on and on.
So Colson honed in on that. He was not a fool. He was able to get but he never could sell that story to the American people because the public had decided they like Walter Cronkite. They really didn’t want to hear about it. They liked him. He gave them the news. They didn’t feel like picking on him. And so he couldn’t get traction of the Nixon White House when they were aiming at Cronkite. And Cronkite started basking in a bit of Murrow-like glory. He would go to the Waldorf Astoria and give a speech I’m the defender of the Fourth Estate against the Nixon White House and all the reporters would cheer.
And one of the great things where Cronkite was successful, he never thought of himself as a celebrity. He would work with the print reporters all the time. So if he went to a convention, he’d go to the bar and hang out with the print reporters, the wire service guys. And then so all other reporters liked Walter Cronkite. He became almost the saint in the journalism profession.
LAMB: In 2009, and you write about this in your book, here is Frank Mankiewicz.
Mankiewicz: He had come back from Vietnam and immediately called me and asked to see Robert Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy. And the two of them met. I was there.
And he began by saying, ”Senator, you’ve got to run for president because this war has got to end,” and went on to say how unwinnable it was. He said we’d win a village in the daytime, and then we’d have to give it back at night. He said the Vietnamese in the south may not like the north but they like us less. So I knew and Kennedy said to him he said, ”Walter, I’ll run for president if you’ll run for the senate in New York.” And Cronkite laughed and said, ”Well, I can’t because, in the first place, I don’t live in New York, I live in Connecticut. And secondly, I’m not a Democrat. I’m registered as an Independent.”
But I knew he had those feelings about the war.”
LAMB: What would happen today if Brian Williams went to Marco Rubio and said, ”You have to run for president because this country is in such a mess, and we found out about it?”
BRINKLEY: He wouldn’t survive, because of the Blogosphere. People would go crazy. He would be then seen as not any more as an anchor but as a complete and udder partisan figure. The reason that happened was Vietnam tore our country apart in a way Afghanistan isn’t or Iraq almost did but didn’t. And Cronkite was very pro-war in ’65, ’66, ’67. He was with you know, he liked Morley Safer, and thought Morley in love with Morley Safer. And personally, I thought that was the hell of piece Morley did about our marines burning.
LAMB: Cam le?
BRINKLEY: Yes. And but Walter wouldn’t change that we can win this thing. He was the head of Cold War lens that our troops can do no wrong. But he went in ’68 in February and toured Vietnam after the tet-offensive and was sickened. He came to believe that that the Johnson administration had been lying and McNamara had been lying. Other reporters had felt that way too at the New York Times et cetera, that there was no quick victory. And Cronkite cashed in his his chit if you like and they didn’t do it on the Evening News when he had been Mr. Center. They did a CBS News Special Report, Walter Cronkite said this reporter, this old reporter says you know, that it’s at best a stalemate. And everything went off.
And what Frank Mankiewicz correctly said on your program, is Cronkite was so obsessed with getting out of Vietnam at all cost that he went and asked Robert Kennedy to run against, at that point, Lyndon Johnson who was the presumed guy running, because Kennedy was against the war in Vietnam. That tells you how passionate Cronkite got against the Vietnam War and it because he was friends with Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon and Lady Bird were friendsable to Cronkite back from Texas days. Cronkite did Johnson did own the CBS affiliate in Austin and all this and lot of properties for CBS and Dr. Frank Stanton, Cronkite’s ostensible boss at CBS was one of one of the closest friends of Lyndon Johnson.
So it’s seen as the turning moment. I call it the Cronkite moment, when he denounces Vietnam. At that point, it could have gone either way for him. But he became started becoming a hero on of Liberals.
LAMB: We had had demonstrations in this town in ’65, ’66, ’67. This came on in ’68. What proof is there that Walter Cronkite had that big of an impact on changing things when the war didn’t end till ’73?
BRINKLEY: I don’t think he had that big of impact, Brian. I think it became a symbolic. What it did, it gave the it gave a boost of adrenaline to the new left or to the anti war movement that they had cherry picked off an establishmentarian who had been pro-war to make them see the light. It encouraged the doves to stay on the attack. I think it’s been over-hyped that influenced Lyndon Johnson’s decision to not seek re-election in March of ’68. Johnson had health problems and he didn’t need Walter Cronkite to tell him that there were problems in Vietnam.
But this quote comes. It was from the press secretary of Lyndon Johnson that LBJ has apparently said, ”If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” In another version, ”If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” That’s not very hard to document that LBJ’s precisely said that, but he recognized that I am losing that I am starting to really lose the mainstream media. I am losing my guy at CBS. He thought of himself as a CBS guy and knew Walter a long time. He didn’t feel like losing a character like that.
So I would call it important but in the in creating the anti-war sentiment that continued, but not supporting on Johnson’s decision to drop out. I think I don’t think Cronkite turned Lyndon Johnson.
LAMB: You’ve a quote in your book from Christiane Amanpour, who did work for ABC, before that CNN, and back to CNN. It’s a little long, but I am going to read it anyway. ”I myself had a deep reverence for him,” meaning Walter Cronkite, ”and for everything he stood for. Anyway after lots of chitchat over a couple of stiff whiskeys on the Rocks, I ask him whether anyone today could do what he did back in Vietnam after Tet. And to my abiding disappointment, he gently told me, no.
He didn’t think so because unlike in his time, there are multitudinous voices and channels out there today. Just parse that sentence right there. He was disappointed that he couldn’t do that today. Why do people in the media do those kinds of things in the first place. Is that your job?
BRINKLEY: However, well, it’s the end full stop. Cronkite liked her a great deal of reporting, because she did foreign she was a foreign correspondent into these pieces from Bosnia and the Middle East. Cronkite susceptible to his beef was when he left CBS they got foreign correspondents. And that was Cronkite’s pride that we covered the world. But he had a huge, I would say, crush on Amanpour. And I think she is suggesting that there used to be a feeling that a journalist Bob Woodward. For example, Woodward and Bernstein or Walter Cronkite could do something a gesture for humanity, for to call out it goes back to Edward R. Murrow, you know, or Howard K. Smith this notion of you know, we have to confront evil. And when we see it at sometimes you have to lose your objectivity in order to talk about a genocide or talk about a thing actually a reporter, good journalism can shift public policy.
In history, Brian, you see like, Uncle Tom’s cabin on abolition or Rachel Carson on the environment. And I think there’s still a hope Edward R. Murrow may be long dead, but his the shadow of Murrow is all over on foreign correspondents. They want to get in there and go after the bad guy.
LAMB: Let’s run a clip of Edward R. Murrow for those people who have never seen him and this is from his program Person-to-Person, which wasn’t exactly tough journalism. Let’s watch it.
MURROW: Good evening. I am Ed Murrow. The name of the program is Person to Person. What sort of fellow is Mike to live with. There’s your answer. Tod, I’ll get even with you.
LIZ TAYLOR: Well I think he’s the nicest person I ever lived with.
HESTON’s WIFE: This little actor is eight months and two days.
MURROW: Is he wearing makeup now? He is retired now probably.
CHUCK HESTON: When Mr. Demille found out that we were going to have a baby, what he said is if it’s a boy he can play the Infant Moses in Ten Commandments. Fraser Clarke Heston is hereby engaged to play the part of the baby Moses in the Ten Commandments. Cecil B Demille Fraser you have to sign it in ink and in his own foot writing.
KIRK DOUGLAS: Hi this is Peter Winston Douglas.
MURROW: Hello Peter.
DOUGLAS: Ed how you like the haircut?
MURROW: That’s that’s something.
LAMB: Peter Douglas son of Michael Douglas and Charlton Heston anyway. But why is it so many and you mentioned earlier Dan Rather wanted to be the new Ed Murrow. What’s the romance with Ed Murrow?
BRINKLEY: The romance was you know, he’s the boy from Polecat, North Carolina. Didn’t come from much Murrow and then he lived up in Washington state and he got his degree up there at Washington state at Pullman, and going to early on radio, went in by the time with Mr. Paley, CBS had Murrow in Europe. The Murrow boys started doing live radio broadcast from Europe, from Vienna or in London. And it was quite dramatic. Just imagine you being in your farmhouse in Iowa and something you are hearing Murrow not a delay but you are hearing Murrow saying you know, we are you know, here we are the fire trucks are going, bombers overhead. So it was the beginning of mass communications going right into the living room.
And Edward R. Murrow became gigantic with his World War II coverage. Many Americans lived the war through Edward R. Murrow. And he was a good talent Murrow if you could become one of Murrow’s boys then you are on the top of the heap of radio journalism. So they all strove for that. Murrow had a almost a messianic appeal to reporters that that they were part of a sacred tribe that was going to right the world Murrow at Buchenwald, seeing the bodies of a holocaust and then of course in the 50s he went after Joe McCarthy on his program, and became disdained by the right Edward R. Murrow and beloved by the left. The Murrow ”Person to Person” however you are showing is his uncomfortableness with television. He never really his hay day was in radio. He did do great documentary specials. But by the 19 late 50s and 60s in these kinds of shows, Murrow just wasn’t made for TV song with a cigarette there and it wasn’t his form. And Cronkite’s you know, form was. But even there it’s interesting how early you are seeing newsmen doing celebrity journalism and Cronkite was susceptible to that too. However once he became the anchor man of CBS, he spent a lot of life denouncing what he called entertainment as news.
LAMB: Go back to one of Christiane Amanpour quote where she says there and to my abiding disappointment he generally tell me, no, he didn’t think so. Couldn’t we do what they did he did in Vietnam because unlike in his time there are multitudinous voices and channels out today sounding like that that’s a bad thing.
BRINKLEY: Well, that’s what’s her quote is. I think it’s there’s this cult of reporters that want to believe, let’s say there’s a genocide in Rwanda, that their megaphone will become big enough that they could do a story. And you see it, I mean look at Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the BP spill for example or Cooper in Haiti, they go down their he could change the news by just focus getting people to focus on, and I think that’s what she meant.
But Brian, the breakup came in 1962 with Telestar, we all focused on the NASA program, and Cronkite incidentally it’s a very important point when Murrow went after Joe McCarthy in the 50s. steady eddie Walter Cronkite not wanting to make waves or lose his job wanting to be Mr. Center focused on military aviation; Air Force and pro-missiles. Pro meaning the missile gap with the Soviet Unions. He was for America, America, America, and so he became really the voice of space which everybody like. That was a collective thing. Everybody was pulling for John Glenn and Alan Shepard in Apollo 11.
So even if Cronkite’s Vietnam or civil rights irritated people, this how the space program unified Americans was was very key to what he was able to do.
LAMB: But you quote Les Midgely who was with CBS News quote ”Any Kennedy ten story generated excellent ratings for the network. Walter wanted to ride on the Kennedy curtails. How much of all this was just a ratings ploy?
BRINKLEY: A lot. What happen though is and what I documented in this book is the birth of TV news. And how it affects all of our lives. Eisenhower wasn’t great ratings. He may have been in my view, one of our best presidents. But he didn’t do great ratings, even his famous farewell address, he’s talking in a monotone. He wasn’t telegenic. Kennedy was telegenic. Incidentally, Cronkite talked at course before the 52 convention which John F. Kennedy took on how to be telegenic. It’s a longer story. But I we’d time for now, but Kennedy came in and as you know, the inaugural was fantastic television of Kennedy, and then his press conferences were just dynamite. Then that whole Hyannis Cape Cod, you know, mystique that came up, Don Hewitt a figure we haven’t mentioned really the crucial figure. Hewitt started saying Kennedy’s just do well. And it wasn’t just Kennedy for the nightly news but CBS had all these other news shows. So if you can get on, Eye Witness to History, let’s do the Kennedy’s in fact Cronkite covered America’s cup up there, very interested in yachting and sailing from hanging around the Kennedy thing. But Kennedy’s era brought television in to our lives has been the main way people got started getting news and famously Cronkite does this a miraculous job of broadcasting the Kennedy assassination to the American people.
So history connects Cronkite with the Kennedy’s a lot and he ended up living in Martha’s Vineyard, buying his house there in Edgartown and in many ways was part of that set of Cape Cod.
LAMB: And at last count, I think Barack Obama, the President has appeared on 60 minutes 11 times. No other I don’t think anybody else has ever appeared that many times. And their ratings are good. So should we say that 60-minutes is giving him his platform for the rating?
BRINKLEY: 60-minutes is about ratings. All television, Brain, is about ratings.
LAMB: So what do you advise somebody watching television? How much of this is news judgment and how much of it is ratings-driven?
BRINKLEY: Let’s give Cronkite credit for an idea I’ve never heard articulated elsewhere. And he did it when he said it in his 80s. He thought that this was good. Because Walter Cronkite also did great work with Discovery Channel later and worked with PBS. And he liked he ended up liking the diversification, loved C-SPAN, Cronkite. He liked the cable world. But he was worried about consumers. And that he thought there should be a class on how they teach not just writing journalism but how do you navigate the new world journalism of the Internet, cable. So you are dealing with, fine, how do you find factual information from bogus information. A novel idea.
LAMB: You write about Sig Mickelson who was the CBS news boss years and years go back in the 50s. He came here in 1994 at book notes, and he talks about a changing moment in the television news business.
Sig Mickelson: ”Between the two conventions, we were taking a walk up Michigan Avenue one night to go to dinner up on the near North Side somewhere, and Walter said to me, ”I’ve just been approached by a couple of agents, Jeff Gude and Tom Stix, and they want me to sign up with them. What do you think?”
And my answer to that was, ”I think you better sign up with them because we’re going to want you for a lot of other engagements of this sort, and I would rather not negotiate with you directly. I’d rather have your agents negotiate with my agent, then we’ll have a much better relationship.” He signed up with Gude & Stix. Now, I didn’t know that he’s going to be in a $2 million, $3 million, $4 million category. I had no idea of that. But I knew that he was going to become a famous public hero.”
LAMB: I think he quote some Richard Leibner in your book who is an agent. Dan Rathers if my memory is right.
BRINKLEY: Yes and he worked for Cronkite too.
LAMB: What impacted the agent thing have on television?
BRINKLEY: Oh, it was gigantic. There’s a scene after Cronkite did great coverage of the conventions in the 50s, in 52 and 56, that he now was recognized as one of the most recognizable people in the United States. And they started negotiating big and tough contracts. Walter Cronkites’ big fit of anger was when Barbara Walters got the first became the million dollar a year lady, and he was getting paid I believe something some $600,000 a year. But when Cronkite left CBS, he got paid $1 million just for being on retainer.
LAMB: For how many years.
BRINKLEY: All through. He continued to re-negotiate his contracts. So he was stayed with CBS, now $1 million today sounds small compared to what, you know, star anchor people and all get. I mean look at what Katie Couric’s contract was, although that might be coming down a little bit. That made a lot of that was before the bust of ’08.
Nevertheless, TV journalism is people get paid hefty salaries. Cronkite was one of the most well paid. Although I have to say money wasn’t always what was Walter’s motivation. It was more, he got so used to being on TV, he didn’t feel complete if he wasn’t on.
LAMB: What was the story of Mike Wallace and Dan Rather in the bathroom?
BRINKLEY: Well Mike Wallace is a whole other case. And you know, Mike Wallace was the toughest interviewer CBS ever had. Chris Wallace is awful good. I mean it’s a style of how you interview people, but Wallace and Cronkite had their differences over the year, but they became close in later years. But it’s called the battle of the bathroom you are referring to at CBS. When Wallace moved at CBS, well there’s a it’s a long story, but bottom line is when Rather did what’s put on his memogate about George W. Bush in the National Guard. That whole brouhaha. There were some sentiment particularly by expressed by Mike Wallace and Morley Safer that Rather should just quit and taken the knife. Because Edward R. Murrow always said, in journalism be ready to clean your desk out in about half an hour. You make one big mistake, you are going to be gone.
And that’s just a a part of it, while Rather kept fighting for his job, and then eventually suing and keeping the sort of open wound, and so other producers got unfortunately fired in it. And Wallace thought Rather should have taken total blame, leave these career people that were behind the scenes alone, and just being in his view was man enough to quit, and just take the blame, and that people would have looked up to Rather. So he confronted Rather in a bathroom at CBS over this, and Mike Wallace was, you know, he can have there’s was fury in his voice.
LAMB: But you also saying that same area of your book Cronkite didn’t call Rather for lunch? Instead he remained hateful till his death.
LAMB: What surprised you in this book? What did what did you find that surprised you and you’d say your two or three most important new things that you learned?
BRINKLEY: One I was starting to touch on, I didn’t finish the thought. That would Glenn the connection between John Glenn and Walter Cronkite, Douglas Edwards was the head of CBS news since ’62. And it was because Cronkite just did a great job with Glenn’s three sub-orbits at early ’62, that by April ’62, he becomes the anchorman.
And that the connection between Cronkite’ kite flying high and John Glenn in NASA in general. Second, the power of that 30 minutes of news, 15 minute broadcast you couldn’t do those back end feature stories. The power that the 30-minute news did...
LAMB: Who went first?
BRINKLEY: Walter Cronkite was the first 30 minute news broadcast, but Huntley-Brinkley quickly tried to catch up with them. But that changed a lot of things. And then it became, this culture of the anchor getting the big interview. There used to be White House correspondent, Bob Pierpoint, who died, told me that you know, he was livid that Cronkite’s first news broadcast he got Cronkite big-footed him. He got to do the big Kennedy interview. When he was covering Kennedy as the correspondent all the time, but there became a kind of celebrity status accorded to to these journalists. But the part of the Cronkite that interests me the most is I knew it, but just how he liked talking to everybody that his real genius was even when he lived in New York and operated in social circles, he loved talking to cab drivers, gardeners, somebody the man on the street. He never said no to anybody. In some ways, many people use to laugh at that side of him, but that was where his genius was. He never lost touch with the average American people.
LAMB: We only have a couple of minutes. So how did you do this? Give us some insight into how you write 800 pages in a in a very short time and do all the research. Some people work for 12 years to have that.
BRINKLEY: 660 but when you add it, I put a lot of back material in, because I wanted to have a cast of characters for people and voluminous notes. I am an academic. So notes are part of my training.
LAMB: Where do you find time to write this?
BRINKLEY: That’s all I do. I teach at Rice
conservation, and nine months in Austin to work. My pretty little kids, they go to school. My wife comes back. I have a big library. I’ve all my books and I focus. This book was easy for me because all the Cronkite’s papers were just down the road. The hard part is traveling to do research. Interviewing people, I’ve been around, Brian, the business a while. And I am able to when I talk to people, I know how to reach people, so I am able to maybe get some of those interviews quicker. And then it’s just intense curiosity, great hard work, you know, editorial help. I am not a good natural writer. A recent book I wrote, I was worried that I got you know, left my own devices, I can be repetitive. I go tend to be long winded. On this book we really tried to pare it down. It was much longer than this. We really wanted this book to be a kind of book that could read. So I am I think when you live to be 90 years old, and be as famous as Walter Cronkite, 600 pages is you know, not that much considering how much all the material I have on Cronkite including letters galore, particularly he wrote to his wife from Europe during the entire World War II, some writing about D-day, the Bulge, Nuremberg trials and all that. It could have just then Cronkite and World War II as a book.
LAMB: And you wrote about his romance after his wife died.
LAMB: Anyway last question. Sandy Socolow. We don’t have time to talk about him. But on 12 different days, you talked to him, and you suggest in the back, 100 conversations you had with him. Why was he so important to the book?
BRINKLEY: Walter I mentioned Rooney as close his friend, but Sandy Socolow was the official kind of friend. He was an executive producer who ran the CBS Evening News a lot. Cronkite had great relationships with producers, Gordon Manning, Bud Benjamin, Ernie Leiser. But Socolow was last of this group and it was as a Cronkite, fierce Cronkite loyalist and was able to not only tell me great stories, but point me in directions of a former script writer, a cameraman, you know, tell what did the camera people think when they went to Cronkite to Vietnam or you know what was it like on the bicentennial? And he he knew all of the inside dirt at CBS and also knew Walter well and had amazing capacity not to put Cronkite on a pedestal.
He even told me that he wasn’t sure, he wasn’t there when the Kennedy assassination, but the fidgeting of the glasses when Kennedy got shot, and Cronkite did a Dallas broadcast It may seemed like an actor’s move almost. That it was almost like sturdy move, you know. So Socolow does not you know, he was a wonderful source for me because he dealt with Cronkite as the real guy. And I want the people to know the man, not just the icon in this book.
LAMB: The name of the book is just one word Cronkite. Our author, Douglas Brinkley, we thank you very much.
BRINKLEY: Thank you Brian.