Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr. was Anchor and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. Famous for closing each newscast with a sentence that began “And that’s the way it is,” Cronkite was widely known as “the most trusted man in America.”
Born in November 1916 in Saint Joseph, Missouri and raised in Houston, Texas, Cronkite attended the University of Texas in Austin and then took a job as a radio announcer in Oklahoma City.
In 1937 Cronkite was hired by the wire service United Press. During the World War II era, wrote media historian Albert Auster, Cronkite “as part of what some reporters fondly called the ‘Writing 69th’ … went ashore on D-Day, parachuted with the 101st Airborne, flew a bombing mission over Germany, covered the Nuremburg trials, and opened the UP’s first post-war Moscow bureau.” Cronkite was a UP reporter in the Soviet Union from 1946 to 1948.
In 1950 Cronkite began working for CBS, where he hosted the documentary series The Twentieth Century and the historical re-creation series You Are There, and he briefly co-hosted the CBS Morning Show. Starting in 1952 he also anchored CBS coverage of the national political conventions in presidential election years.
In April 1962 Cronkite succeeded veteran Douglas Edwards as Anchor and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News, a position Cronkite would keep until his retirement in 1981.
From the outset, critics accused Cronkite of politically slanting the news to the left. This bias, they said, was evidenced not so much by Cronkite’s words as by his choice of what stories CBS covered, and by his habit of raising his eyebrows and scowling to show his disapproval of statements made by conservatives and Republicans. In 1964, amid accusations of such bias, CBS replaced Cronkite as anchor at the political conventions with Robert Trout and Roger Mudd.
Cronkite strongly influenced the politics and outcome of the Vietnam War. In 1968 the Communist forces in South Vietnam, facing defeat, staged massive kamikaze attacks on U.S. positions in Saigon and elsewhere during the Chinese New Year celebration called Tet. This suicidal “Tet Offensive” was a military disaster that cost the lives of 100 Communist fighters for every American killed. But as a top Communist general said years later on the Public Broadcasting Service documentary series Vietnam, those on the left in the American press turned this Marxist military defeat into a political victory for the Communist side.
“It seems now more certain than ever,” Walter Cronkite told his audience in a de facto editorial, “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate” and that the war was “unwinnable.” Cronkite’s statement and call for U.S. withdrawal helped turn public opinion against the war. It also demoralized American troops and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who was said to have declared that losing Cronkite’s support meant he had lost the backing of Middle America.
When Republican President Richard Nixon refused to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam, the Democrats used the Watergate scandal to topple his presidency. Cronkite played a key role in the political process that ousted Nixon — chiefly by broadcasting a news story every night on the CBS Evening News under the banner “Watergate.” At the time, Cronkite insisted that he was non-partisan, objective and fair. After his retirement, however, he acknowledged his liberal political views.
“Everybody knows that there’s a liberal, that there’s a heavy liberal persuasion among correspondents,” said Cronkite in 1996, speaking to his colleagues at the Radio and TV Correspondents Association dinner.
In 1988 Cronkite was a guest speaker at a People For the American Way event, where he praised that organization as one that stood for “all of those rights and privileges and responsibilities encompassed in our Bill of Rights.” In that same speech, he offered a passionate “defense of liberalism”:
“Liberalism isn’t dead in this country. It isn’t even comatose. It simply is suffering a severe case of acute laryngitis. It simply has temporarily, we hope, lost its voice. And about that Democratic loss in the [1988 presidential] election…. It was not just an [Republican] opposition that conducted one of the most sophisticated and cynical campaigns ever…. It was the fault of too many who found their voices stilled by not-so-subtle ideological intimidation.
“For instance, we know that unilateral military action in Grenada and Tripoli was wrong. We know that ‘Star Wars’ means uncontrollable escalation of the arms race. We know that the real threat to democracy is [to have] half of that nation in poverty. We know Thomas Jefferson was right when he said a democracy cannot be both ignorant and free. We know that no one should tell a woman she has to bear an unwanted child…. [W]e’ve got to shout these truths in which we believe from the rooftops.”
In a 1996 interview, Cronkite said that America should try “to find some marvelous middle ground between capitalism and communism.” “[T]he first priority of the new order,” he added, “must be a revision of the [American] educational system to … guarantee that each of our citizens will have equal resources to share in the decisions of the democracy, and a fair share of the economic pie.”
In October 1999, Cronkite was given the Norman Cousins Global Governance Award by the World Federalist Association, which advocates for a one-world government. In his acceptance speech, he said “we must strengthen the United Nations as a first step toward a world government,” adding that “Americans will have to yield up some of our sovereignty.”
In that same speech, Cronkite said: “For many years, I did my best to report on the issues of the day in as objective a manner as possible. When I had my own strong opinions, as I often did, I tried not to communicate them to my audience. Now, however, my circumstances are different. I am in a position to speak my mind. And that is what I propose to do.”
“We must change the basic structure of our global community,” Cronkite continued, “… to a new system governed by a democratic UN federation.… Today the notion of unlimited national sovereignty means international anarchy. We must replace the anarchic law of force with a civilized force of law.” Cronkite specifically called for ratification of the “Treaty for a Permanent International Criminal Court” that would allow Americans to be convicted of actions deemed crimes by judges from other nations. He also called for a “revision of the [U.S. power of] Veto in the Security Council” and cited international billionaire financier George Soros as one of the best thinkers on this topic.
In 2004 Cronkite criticized Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry for not confidently embracing the label “liberal,” which the newsman equated with being “progressive,” “broad-minded,” “unprejudiced,” and “beneficent.”
In a Cable News Network interview with Larry King just days before the 2004 presidential election, Cronkite stated, “I have a feeling that [Osama bin Laden‘s newly released videotape] could tilt the election a bit. In fact, I’m a little inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, that he probably set up bin Laden to this thing.”
In January 2006 Cronkite stated that he felt the war in Iraq was unwinnable. “It’s my belief that we should get out now,” he told a group of reporters. He said that the Bush administration should have cited, as a pretext for announcing a troop withdrawal, the costs entailed in responding to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which had struck New Orleans and the surrounding area in August 2005. Said Cronkite, “We had an opportunity to say to the world and Iraqis after the hurricane disaster that Mother Nature has not treated us well and we find ourselves missing the amount of money it takes to help these poor people out of their homeless situation and rebuild some of our most important cities in the United States. Therefore, we are going to have to bring our troops home.” Cronkite maintained that Americans were not any safer as a result of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Cronkite died in New York on July 17, 2009, after a long illness.