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Cronkite casts off his anchor

By Melvin Maddocks / February 25, 1980



Most public personalities are like public buildings. We forget where they stood almost as soon as they are razed. Not Walter Cronkite. Clearly Walter Cronkite is destined to become an object of nostalgia in his own time. His retirement next year promises to be our problem more than his. We ask ourselves only half mockingly: What will become of us now that this living landmark of stability in an unstable world is about to be taken from the familiar place at the familiar time, like a lighthouse deactivated?

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The CBS Evening News desk may tremble. The world may tremble. Nothing could ever wobble old Walter. It is the conviction of every Cronkite-watcher that their man would have made even that winter at Valley Forge sound tolerable: one more tunnel with light at the end of it.

Walter would never have lied to us about Valley Forge, you understand. By his concerned eyes, by his deepened voice we would have perceived the situation was grave. Zero temperatures, scant food, ragged uniforms, the remorseless Hessians -- all the harsh facts would have been manfully faced in three minutes or less.

But in the end something would have crept into the Cronkite eyes, the Cronkite voice. What? Hope might be too strong a word. The troops at Valley Forge would never come out of a Cronkite report like the troops at Agincourt -- the "happy few," delighted to be there. That would be editorializing.

Still, the subliminal idea might just steal across that character was building, a just cause was surviving, and, if only we could all be as steady as Walter, the world would be a better place for you and me, and even the Hessians. Tune in tomorrow night, same time, same station.

Where did it come from, this odd, almost superstitious feeling that Walter Cronkite not only reports the news but somehow manages it -- keeps it within bounds of civilized respectability? Terrible events can occur. Cronkite-watchers know that. But history simply would not dare to commit certain atrocities twice as long as Walter Cronkite is on camera to level his stare. The center must hold; he gives it no alternative. rightly is he called anchor man.

On the other hand, Roger Mudd and Dan Rather look as worried as we feel whenever things go wrong. There are people who can't sleep when Walter goes on vacation.

Much has been made of Walter Cronkite as a father figure. Maybe.but maybe not. To some viewers he has the face of a kindly pharmacist who really knows his toothpaste. In either case, the effect is the same -- a sense of qualified reassurance at the end of a long and trying day.

Like Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, and others of the old school, Walter Cronkite seems to have crossbred american-heartland roots with English-gentleman sophistication, like a farmboy gone to Oxford. One puts a patina on one's homespun without quite going fancy. What these merged personalities express is a faith that, somewhere, a decent, rational solution exists for every night's crisis -- that what is truly deplorable is also truly unnecessary. How else could we endure the news, evening after evening?

Does our Walter Cronkite have much to do with the actual Walter Conkite? Probably not. There are stories that he is less patient off camera than on. We cannot imagine our Walter Cronkite hopping mad. We can barely imagine him hopping. Anchored behind his desk, our Walter Cronkite does not square with the Walter Cronkite described in the pages of Cornelius Ryan's "A Bridge Too Far," parachuting with the troops onto the battlefields of Europe.

Our Walter Cronkite evidently wants to become that Walter Cronkite again before retiring completely. Can a media star find happiness, casting off his anchor chain and hitting the silk, so to speak, one more time? We'll check back in about a year to see if that's the way it is.