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Cronkite, the first full-life biography of the legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite produced with the cooperation of his family, arrives in bookstores May 29.
Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, author of books on Gerald Ford, Teddy Roosevelt and Hunter S. Thompson, now turns his attention to the most influential news anchor in television history.
Cronkite’s career spanned the heart of the American Century. Born in 1916, he grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and Houston and dropped out of the University of Texas during the Great Depression to take the first in a series of radio jobs in Oklahoma and Missouri.
He joined United Press International in 1937, and when World War II broke out, he covered battles in Africa and Europe, parachuted with the 101st Airborne into Holland and witnessed the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he covered the Nuremberg Trials.
Cronkite joined CBS news in 1950, hosting the Sunday night news, the 1952 presidential conventions and You Are There, a show that re-enacted historical events.
He became the anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1962. The 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy thrust him into the national consciousness.
Other notable moments in his broadcast career include his 1968 turn away from support of the Vietnam War, which President Lyndon Johnson thought moved national opinion, and his coverage of the moon landings.
When he retired as anchor in 1981 at age 64, Cronkite was widely hailed as “most trusted man in America.”
Publisher HarperCollins has big hopes for the book, with a first printing of 250,000 copies.
Here are five surprising revelations from the book:
1. He secretly bugged a committee room at the 1952 Republican National Convention.
Cronkite had the Credentials Committee’s room secretly wired with a microphone so he could learn more about the fight between Ohio Sen. Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower for the Republican presidential nomination. Ike eventually won the nod, but the fight was much closer than people remember, and Cronkite was desperate for any scrap of information that might give him an advantage over his competitors.
2. He pulled a Broadcast News stunt in an interview with Johnson right before the former president’s 1969 death.
In the 1987 film Broadcast News, anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) reshoots his side of an interview so he can cry for added emotional impact. Cronkite did something similar, reshooting his questions so he could nod along in agreement at certain parts and raise his eyebrow in disgust at other times. LBJ’s staffers criticized the move when they saw a rough cut, and CBS undid the edit before it aired so the public never knew.
3. He had unusual friendships.
He was friends with people you’d expect — Kennedy, for example — and many you wouldn’t. Later in life, he became close to Jimmy Buffett and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. After his wife Betsy died in 2005, he dated Carly Simon’s sister Joanna, who was 24 years younger than he.
4. He reneged on a job offer from Edward R. Murrow.
Murrow caught a broadcast Cronkite did for UPI from London and invited the young newsman to dinner. He offered Cronkite a job as a CBS news correspondent on the Eastern Front, covering the war in Russia. Cronkite accepted on the spot, but when UPI raised his salary, he told Murrow he had changed his mind. Even when they became colleagues, Murrow never trusted Cronkite.
5. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace (son of CBS news legend Mike Wallace) got his first job working for the famously liberal Cronkite.
Wallace was 16 when Cronkite hired him to be his gofer during the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco that saw staunch conservative Barry Goldwater grab the nomination. Wallace also was dating Cronkite’s daughter Emily at the time. “Those were the days when everyone used to bring their families to these events,” Wallace recalled. “So I got my first convention job with Walter while dating his daughter.”
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