Monday, June 4, 2012

The Way It Was: Douglas Brinkley's new Walter Cronkite bio brings the newsman home.

Biographer Douglas Brinkley delves into Walter Cronkite's life at the Plaza Library tonight.

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2012 at 1:46 PM

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  • PBS

When Walter Cronkite declared, "That's the way it is," almost every weeknight from 1962 to 1981 on the CBS Evening News, it was easy to believe him. After all, the man was from Missouri. And it was here that the man who had covered stories all over the world - he worked up until died, in 2009, at age 92 - learned much of his journalistic trade.

According to Douglas Brinkley's new biography, Cronkite, the St. Joseph-born "Most Trusted Man in America" never really left "Kaycee" behind, even when the memories weren't that pleasant. (Brinkley speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 5, at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.)

Cronkite covered World War II, President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Vietnam, Watergate and the Reagan administration. But before all of that, the 20-year-old reporter lost his job at KCMO-AM in late 1936 simply for double-checking a story.

"His boss [Jim Simmons, KCMO program director] told him one day that people were jumping from City Hall in a fire, and Cronkite wanted backup sources for it," Brinkley tells The Pitch by phone from New York. "The manager of the station said, 'I'm telling you it is. I'll do it myself. My wife says it's true.' They got into a bit of an argument, and it turns out that Cronkite was correct about it." The fire turned out to be minor, and there were no fatalities. The station fired Cronkite, Brinkley says, "because he stood up to his boss, and the story was bogus.

"There's a sweet irony that Walter Cronkite was fired for actually sticking to the old-school way of sticking to at least two or three sources before going with the story, no matter how much you wanted to make breaking news," Brinkley continues. "There were no real standards for radio news. Cronkite himself would do Oklahoma football games and make up the plays. It shows the Wild West of radio's early years, but it also shows Cronkite's common sense as a reporter. Very seldom did he have to make a retraction."

Douglas Brinkley
  • Douglas Brinkley
According to Brinkley, Cronkite didn't plan to leave his hometown. While at KCMO, he met Mary Elizabeth "Betsy" Maxwell, the journalist and advertising copywriter who became his wife.

But three months after his dismissal from KCMO, Cronkite landed a job at the United Press wire service. In March 1937, he covered the story that helped launch him onto a bigger stage, a gas explosion near a school in New London, Texas. The catastrophe killed 295 people, most of them children.

"It was the first time he'd really got on radio nationally," Brinkley says. "He ambulance-chased to the scene and wrote about the school disaster. From a pay phone in Overton, Texas, he called NewYork and reported on the carnage that he saw. The image of all that carnage stayed with him, haunted him all of his life."

Cronkite ended a stint as a UP reporter in 1938 and briefly went to work at at the now-defunct Braniff Airlines. Betsy had a gig at Hallmark. But he found reporting more interesting and returned to UP in 1939.

A national scoop of his that year originated in Missouri: On October 28, 1939, Larry Pletch kidnapped a woman and forced her to marry him in midflight on a private plane. He later let the woman go but killed the flight instructor who owned the plane. Cronkite, an aviation enthusiast himself, calculated the plane's fuel consumption rate and correctly determined the airport where Pletch landed.

"Cronkite did his detective work," Brinkley says. "He tried to get his pilot's license in World War II, but he was colorblind."

Cronkite covered WWII and the Nuremberg war-crimes trials afterward, then went to Moscow until he left UP in 1948 and returned to KC, where their daughter Nancy was born. He left KC for good in 1950 when he signed on with CBS News, but he frequently returned from New York - he was a connoisseur of jazz and barbecue. And the newsman is buried here.

"Wherever he went in life, he kept his clock on Central Time, Kansas City time," Brinkley says.

Brinkley assembled Cronkite by interviewing all three of Cronkite's children and by digging through the newsman's papers at the University of Texas (which Cronkite attended without graduating). He also read letters that Cronkite sent to Betsy during the war.

Brinkley also did research in Kansas City, looking at dozens of photos to determine what the town looked like when "Walter Wilcox" (Cronkite's on-air name) was broadcasting here. "For the book tour, one of the places I wanted to come was Kansas City because it's ground zero for Walter Cronkite," he says.

Cronkite's stubbornness at KCMO wasn't an isolated incident. In 1960, when Kennedy botched an unscripted interview with Cronkite, the senator running for president wanted a do-over so he wouldn't look weak against his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon (who had aced a similar interview with tough questions). Cronkite angrily refused.

"Cronkite threatened to expose Kennedy for trying to manipulate the press," Brinkley says. "During the presidency, John F. Kennedy thought of Walter Cronkite as being a Republican or somebody who was hostile toward him."

With his deep, warm voice and paternal manner, Cronkite was a natural for TV, and he went on to become an omnipresent network fixture. Many small towns carried only CBS, giving Cronkite an influence that few journalists since have been able to claim.

"We're no longer in the Cronkite era," Brinkley says of his subject's reach. "From 1950 to 1981, he was a Paul Bunyan-like figure in American life. The advantage of it was that, like a good federal judge, Cronkite was good at it. On the other hand, in a democracy, you want to have a lot of voices from different kinds of media."

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From reading the Cronkite biography, though, it's easy to spot dents and scratches in his halo. When Sen. Robert Taft, a presidential candidate in 1952, didn't want to allow TV cameras at the Republican National Convention in Chicago (he wasn't as telegenic as his opponent, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower), Cronkite took part in a secret taping of a GOP rules committee meeting, which Taft headed. Cronkite's cohorts listened to discussions through a hidden wire and sent notes back to him. With that information, CBS was able to embarrass the rules committee into allowing the same "gavel to gavel" coverage that the Democrats had permitted.

"It's a mini-mini - and I saw it with some humor - mini-Watergate. It comes off as a folk story now, as a kind of chuckle, but in cold reality, somebody could have gotten arrested for doing such a stunt," says Brinkley.

But Brinkley remains a fan. "Walter Cronkite is the most beloved journalist America has ever produced," he says. "His very name brings smiles to people's faces, and everybody admires him. I did a biography of him that's very admiring of him. Are there moments where people can cherry-pick out where there's an indiscretion or a mistake? Of course. He had a very, very long career. On the whole, he was as trustworthy a person as you could have had to have that amount of power and influence. It never got to his head."

Brinkley edited The Reagan Diaries and he has assembled collections of writings by Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. He has written biographies of Rosa Parks and Sen. John Kerry. All of his work, dating back to a sixth-grade class project, he says, shows Cronkite's influence.

"I did all these drawings of Cronkite on TV," he says. "But most amazing to me were the pictures of violence I was drawing at 7 years old - of airplanes dropping bombs, soldiers dying - in crayon. My mom would save them all. Like TV viewers, I never really got tired of Walter Cronkite. I still enjoy talking about him."

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