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'Cronkite' by Douglas Brinkley: Book Review

"Cronkite"

The Bottom Line

The life of the famed CBS newsman in front of and behind the camera.

Cronkite
by Douglas Brinkley (Harper, 832 pages, $34.99)

This informative and engaging bio explores the life of the famed CBS newsman in front of and behind the camera - his career, politics, influence and quirky friendships.

This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On March 6, 1981, ABC News and NBC News did the unprecedented: They picked up the end of CBS' broadcast to catch Walter Cronkite saying, "And that's the way it is," one final time before he retired after 19 years headlining the CBS Evening News. Such was the pull of the anchor known as the "most trusted man in America" that even his competitors wanted to bask in his glory.

Written with the cooperation of his family and using personal papers and interviews (including every major living network newscaster), Douglas Brinkley transforms that two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional person in his sterling new biography. The Cronkite who emerges is ambitious -- a true news hound -- mindful of the responsibility that came with being a network anchor, politically engaged but careful not to appear partisan, quick to grasp that TV required an emotional connection with the audience. But he was no saint, capable of astonishing journalistic lapses -- bugging hotel rooms at the 1952 Republican convention or retaping his side of an interview with Lyndon Johnson to enhance his responses -- and more caught up in the ratings chase than is acknowledged. Cronkite is the model anchor and a reminder that the golden age of network news was not so different from our era.

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Brinkley shows that Cronkite really became "Walter Cronkite" with his coverage of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, getting on air first and famously choking up as he announced the president's death. The minute-by-minute recounting displays Cronkite at the height of his powers, mixing a beat reporter's eye for breaking news with a keen understanding of the emotional element of live TV. He invented the modern news anchor at that moment.

Cronkite also was a space junkie and became the go-to anchor during the moon race. His1968 special report on Vietnam is widely credited with turning public opinion against the war. For Brinkley, Cronkite succeeded because he embodied the conflicted national consciousness of the '60s, professing to being "disappointed by the optimism" of politicians about victory in Vietnam in '68 while celebrating the '69 moon landing as the "golden age of American greatness."

During the '70s, Cronkite, fiercely competitive about ratings, was challenged by ABC's brash Barbara Walters. The book entertainingly chronicles their rivalry, like when Walters chartered a flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo in 1977 (the first since Israel's independence in 1948) to scoop Cronkite and her trying to barge in on his interview with President Ford at the 1980 Republican convention. Walters had him asking, "Did Barbara get anything I didn't?"

By the late '70s, talk of Cronkite's retirement was widespread. The network had an informal age 65 retirement policy, and there was a sense the newscast needed to be jazzed up to stay competitive. Succumbing to the implicit pressure, he retired at 64 in 1981, with Evening News first in the ratings -- as it had been since 1967.

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Brinkley argues that though Dan Rather, Cronkite's successor, participated only tangentially in his departure, he wasted no time putting his own stamp on the program, providing some of the book's best comedy. Rather banished Cronkite's chair to the basement, but between Cronkite's last newscast and Rather's first, weekend anchor Bob Schieffer had it retrieved. When Rather discovered the switch, he refused to sit, even though the program was seconds from starting. Instead, he opened his tenure as anchor perched awkwardly on a typewriter table. Recalled Schieffer, "Dan looked like he was going to the crapper."

Without Evening News, Cronkite mostly disappeared from public view. Brinkley points the finger at CBS for its shabby treatment that kept the icon out of Election Night coverage, most breaking news and generally off Evening News (evidently under pressure from an insecure Rather) as a major reason for his low profile and an ongoing source of frustration for Cronkite. (Although Brinkley interviewed Rather, their feud is told from Cronkite's perspective.)

Only in retirement does Brinkley flesh out the private Cronkite, especially his growing political activism on everything from the environment to marijuana. Most marvelously, he reveals the anchor's unexpected friendships with people like Andy Warhol, Hunter S. Thompson and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.

At Cronkite's 2009 funeral, his friend, astronaut Neil Armstrong, captured the essence of his success: "For a news analyst to be successful, he or she needs three things: accuracy, timeliness and the trust of the audience."