The Man with America’s Trust: Walter Cronkite (1916-2009)

The Man with Americas Trust: Walter Cronkite (1916-2009)

Newsman Walter Cronkite, who died at the age of 92, was so thoroughly and uniquely linked with the word “trust” that it is tempting to say that the word should be buried with him. In the generation since he left the anchor desk at the CBS Evening News, there have been other public figures who inspire passion, devotion, confidence, intensity and personal identification. But trust, that milder but deeper sentiment — Cronkite owned it.

Middle America’s favorite anchor was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, and as he recalled in his memoir A Reporter’s Life, he developed a taste for reporting and news analysis early. While living in Kansas City at age six, he ran to a friend’s house with a newspaper story about the death of President Warren Harding. “Look carefully at that picture,” he told his friend. “It’s the last picture you will ever see of Warren Harding.” With typical self-deprecation, the elder Cronkite wrote: “I record it here today to establish my early predisposition to editorial work — to be both pontifical and wrong.”

The Cronkite Americans came to know, though, was not a pontificator but an even-keeled news reporter and reader. After serving as a war correspondent in World War Two and working for United Press in Europe after the war , he returned to the States and joined CBS’ fledgling TV news operation. Following an ill-fated stint as a morning-show host, he became a fixture of CBS political coverage and began hosting the evening news in 1962.

For nearly two eventful and fitful decades — Kennedy, King and Kennedy were shot, Vietnam was fought and lost, Nixon resigned, hostages were taken in Iran — he was America’s rock. In an era of big-news giants like Huntley, Brinkley and Chancellor, he had a special bond with his audience, born of an on-air demeanor that was both folksy and knowing, calming but not disinterested.

But those who worked with him said that behind his controlled on-air persona was an intense determination to be the best. “Walter has an almost messianic turn of mind. He feels so much responsibility; he feels that if he doesn’t get it right, nobody else is going to get it right,” one of his writers told the Washington Post on Cronkite’s retirement in 1981. “And that is the reason he is number one. It comes across. People know that Walter Cronkite would never lie to them. Never. Because it is his religion.”

Cronkite was TV’s patron saint of objectivity, in an era when audiences still believed in it . And yet ironically his most famous act as a news anchor was a rare occasion when he ventured an opinion. After reporting in Vietnam in 1968, Cronkite commented on the air that “it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked that if he had lost Walter Cronkite, he had lost Middle America; soon after he announced that he would not seek re-election.

Despite his comments on the war — or because of them — Cronkite cemented a reputation as a straight shooter. His successors, at CBS and elsewhere, would later be denounced as biased hacks for far less opinionated statements. Maybe Cronkite benefited from working in a time when Americans simply had more trust in authority. But it may also be that he earned that trust — that by calling a quagmire what it was, he showed that a false even-handedness that flies in the face of reality is not the same as honesty.

And more important, he had faith that his viewers, even in a painfully divided period in history, were sophisticated enough to understand this. What finally distinguished Walter Cronkite, perhaps, was not the trust his audience placed in him. It was that he was a good and wise enough newsman to place his trust in his audience.

Read TIME’s 2003 interview with Walter Cronkite.Read a TIME article on Cronkite’s retirement.