Book Review: Douglas Brinkley's Biography of Walter Cronkite

Cronkite

By Douglas Brinkley (Harper, 2012)

 

Judging from the reviews of this book, a lot of people have a fixed idea of Walter Cronkite, one that seems seriously at odds with what the famous newscaster actually represented to millions of people.

You see him in that tie, suit and gray mustache and think conservative, not the often-unapologetic mostly liberal down-home personality he was widely known to be.

You hear “avuncular” and think gentle or dotty, but Walter Cronkite was the kind of uncle who took an interest and explained things to you carefully and didn't want you to get in trouble. His famous on-air comments on the Viet Nam were the mild exasperations of a dutiful parent who didn't want to yell and rant but wanted to make his feelings clear.

Douglas Brinkley does all he can to frame his biography with elements that prove how Cronkite was a monitor of changing times. But it’s hard for anyone to recreate what it felt like to get your news nightly from Walter Cronkite when there were only a handful of news anchors period, only three national TV networks, the nightly news was limited to half an hour a night, and there was no real gleaning yet that news could be commercially viable entertainment or an aspect of reality TV.

Brinkley could hardly provide a more well-rounded attempt at getting to what Walter Cronkite meant in the mid-20th century. Brinkley acknowledges the changing times and the counterculture right off the bat, opening the book with a long quote from Tom Wolfe and then mentioning Kurt Vonnegut in the very first sentence. Later, he elucidates an exchange between Cronkite and Abbie Hoffman in which the radical leader suggested that the newscaster “abandon horn-rimmed glasses in favor of contact lenses. Hoffman thought the glasses made Cronkite seem Goldwater-square when he really wasn’t. Cronkite accepted Hoffman’s suggestion. ‘I took your advice, you know,’ Cronkite told him over the phone. The odd couple liked each other.”

Brinkley also appreciates that “square” had many facets at the time, and that to many hippies Cronkite was the epitome of the Establishment. He spends much of this book’s 800 pages trying to put Cronkite and his legacy of warm, direct information-sharing in a greater cultural context.

I think he succeeds, but I suspect that many readers have formed their own judgments of news reporting in that era, opinions which are hard to penetrate. Given his extraordinary position as the most well-known anchorman probably in the history of television, beloved and respected and trusted by a much wider variety of viewers than Ed Murrow or Dan Rather or other contenders for that crown, what’s most important about this grand biography is Brinkley’s ability to humanize him. It takes countless anecdotes and many candid photos, but he pretty much does it. The real achievement here is restoring the reputation of the old-school world of newsgathering in an era when scoops come via Twitter. Brinkley shows the value of a long journalistic career, and how it builds other values in turn. He personalizes those who worked in monolithic broadcast corporations and gives them their own voice, starting with the most famous of them all, taking Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is” sign-off as a personal challenge.