Posts Tagged ‘Walter Cronkite’

The Way It Was

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

By Jeffrey Page

Walter Cronkite took a lot of heat over the years for what amounted to his 10 seconds of dead air. It was, of course, in the Kennedy story.

Did you tune in to CBS on Channel 2 in New York 50 years ago today? There was Cronkite in shirtsleeves, a dark tie in his button-down collar, and a pair of heavy black eyeglasses. CBS, like the other networks, had taken over the airwaves to announce that someone had fired on President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas and that the president was thought to have been hit.

For a few wretched minutes Cronkite could only report rumor and unconfirmed accounts of what had happened. He switched to a local reporter who was supposed to cover a luncheon where Kennedy would have spoken. Cronkite repeated several times that reports of the president’s death were rumors and that there was no official word yet. Then he said that Dan Rather, CBS’s White House correspondent at the time, was reporting that Kennedy was dead. But Cronkite was loath to report this as fact until officially confirmed.

And then it came. Someone handed Cronkite a sheet of paper. On went the glasses. Down went the voice. “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time….

Glasses off.

“ … 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

Thus began about 10 seconds of dead air as Cronkite seemed to gasp for breath. Once or twice he pursed his lips tightly, perhaps trying to establish control over his mien. He looked away from the camera for a moment, then inhaled deeply, and finally continued his report, noting that Vice President Johnson would be taking the oath of office as the 36th president. As he spoke these words, his voice thickened and he sounded like a man speaking underwater.

Critics have railed for 50 years that Cronkite lost his objectivity in that report. But I think this has been just a bunch of words spoken by people who have no idea in the world how they would have reacted if they were at a news desk when the story broke.

In watching tapes of Cronkite’s report on You Tube this week, I saw an American shaken to his very core by the loss of his nation’s president – his president. You didn’t have to be a Democrat to feel the loss of John Kennedy. You didn’t even have to like him. You just had to have a soul and a concern about your country.

I remember the waiting in 1963, hoping Kennedy would be all right and somehow knowing that we had lost him, just as I remember the waiting in 1981, hoping Reagan would be all right after he was shot, and being relieved when word came that he was alive.

Are you supposed to be objective when some 35-cent Marxist like Oswald kills your president? Or when some lovelorn loser like Hinckley tries to prove his devotion to a movie actress and nearly kills another president?

I watched that footage of Cronkite again and saw him as a reporter in a flawed news medium I would never be part of. And I saw him as E.E. Cummings might have described him: a “human merely being.”