Washington — Walter Cronkite, described as everybody's favorite uncle and the "most trusted man in America" is going into semi-retirement and leaving a couple of continuing problems behind him. After all, he can't solve everything in life: That's the way it is.
One problem: Who gets the audience of 17 million people who watch him nightly? He leaves behind what is probably the greatest scramble for viewers in television history, with all three major commercial networks competing.
The other problem: Most Americans, according to polls, now get most of their news from television, and it puts on the medium, according to departing anchorman Cronkite, an almost greater responsibility than it can handle.
It is the fact that Cronkite is calm and responsible-thinking about these things that has given him the extraordinary power of influencing events merely by describing them. He rejects the idea of being in the front trenches: He's a questioner, not a crusader.
In his March 3 special departing interview with President Reagan, he asked friendly but unremittingly searching questions -- and got answers that sent quivers around the world. But he did not relax his objectivity. And Mr. Reagan , an old hand from hollywood and the television medium, accepted the low-keyed conversational manner. Both men are pros.
This is the new world and the new means of carrying on government, the art of which is being larger-than-life at the same time one looks like ordinary folks.
Harrison Salisbury, in World War II the head of the United Press bureau in London (and later with the New York Times), once described the unflappable quality of Walter Cronkite, who was then also working for the UP. Cronkite was in his 20s and accompanying bombing missions over Germany. He went over in planes unaccompanied by fighter escort that were sometimes attacked going and coming by German Luftwaffe with flak so thick, as the phrase was at the time, that you could walk on it.
Said Salisbury, telling about Cronkite's return on one occasion (where another reporter was lost):
"He used to come in every afternoon after covering the 8th Air Force out at the base and just sit down and write his story bing-bing-bing.
"And he did the same thing on this story, even though he had been through one of the worst bombing missions and the worst flak. it was the coolest kind of operation that I ever saw. And it was not unusual for him; just his professionalism and courage that carried him right through."
"And," added Salisbury, with a glint in his eye, "he wrote an utterly beautiful story. And if I do say so, he beat his opposition, took all the play. He really did. There was nobody better than Walter on that assignment or anything else."
You forget that kind of thing as you see an amiable figure who looks a bit like a shaven Father Christmas sitting in the television studio and reciting the world's woes. It is the secret of his approach to his job that he still thinks of himself as a print newspaperman, getting the news out, trying to present it with all its irony and tragedy and victory, and with as much objectivity as possible -- except perhaps for the intonation of the voice, or a shake of the head, or maybe a grin at the end. He is, somebody has said, everybody's security blanket.
Cronkite worries about all the young people who want to be star television performers and national figures and do not see themselves as he sees himself, a kind of editor and rewrite man for the nation, using his judgment and background to select the important events and show where they fit in.
"Enthusiasm?" He is quoted as saying in an article in the current Washington Journalism Review. "Well, I've never had enthusiasm because I try to avoid that. I don't have enthusiasm for Reagan now, and I haven't had for any president who's come into power. I look at them all somewhat warily, but also with anticipation because I look forward to seeing how they get a grip on the government, what they can make come alive of their stated programs."
That feeling came out in Cronkite's interview with Reagan in the Oval Office, prior to semi-retirement March 6 after 19 years of presiding over the CBS Evening News.
"I know you must be having a little nostalgia," the President said with a wave of his hands as though he were telling a fellow performer that he knew the feeling that comes from leaving behind a familiar studio.(As a matter of fact, the two men have a good deal in common: Cronkite at one time had the job of reconstructing and broadcasting play-by-play accounts of sports events, and sportcaster Reagan's name once was famous for the same thing.)
"Indeed so, sir," Cronkite replied, sitting before the fireplace. "It's been a long time now. I was counting back. It's eight presidents. It's been a remarkable period in our history."
"Well, may I express appreciation," the President said. "You've always been a pro."
"I only regret that I'm stepping down from the Evening News at the time when you're bringing such drama to our government again in your efforts to turn it around," Cronkite added. "Thank you, sir."
This was all polite enough, but actually Cronkite in an amiably disarming voice was boring in with questions that the nation and much of the world is asking. Could the President possibly believe that he would get Congress to approve all of his far-reaching economic programs -- reduced taxes and reduced budget expenditures? And was this operation in El Salvador likely to mean another like Vietnam, where the initial observers became a fighting army?
In low key, the two men discussed the problem: the President refused to admit that he would have less than a perfect score in Congress, although he smiled a little as he made the disclaimer. As to El Salvador:
"I certainly don't see any likelihood of us going in with fighting forces. I do see our continued work in the field of diplomacy with neighboring countries that are interested in Central America -- South America --make sure that we do not just sit passively by and let this hemisphere be invaded by outside forces."
How could anyone with such a friendly voice be so upsetting to presidents as Cronkite sometimes has been (the most celebrated instance being about halfway through the Vietnam war)?
Cronkite went over, absorbed the situation and came back to give a first-person account -- not to put on the air what he repudiates as "editorializing" but what he acknowledges was "heavy commentary." He voiced the disenchantment that came as the enemy massed the Tet offensive -- the feeling that there wasn't light at the end of the tunnel. White House press officer Bill Moyers reported the reaction of Lyndon Johnson: "Well, if I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
Thinking over it now, Cronkite says Lyndon Johnson had no reason to believe he ever "had" him in the first place: He had just moved over from the middle to the opposition.
Cronkite intervened in history, too, when he got Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat on a two-way interview to say that he would meet Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at any time. Quietly and persistently Cronkite bored in. Yes, said Sadat , he would go to Jerusalem. No, there were no conditions. So Cronkite, in this example of television diplomacy, called Mr. Begin and added, "I believe he is waiting for an invitation." The resulting meeting shook the Middle East.
After Cronkite's war and United Press experiences, Edward R. Murrow hired him to come to Washington on TV for the CBS station, WTOP. He started work here July 1, 1950, and was a hit. In 1952 he was anchorman for the political conventions. He was an instant national star.
What happens now? The three major commercial networks are bursting into advertising in the face of a possibly monumental shake-up. CBS notes that Cronkite isn't really going to retire: He will continue to handle special interviews and broadcasts. ABC, with full-page newspaper advertisements, is saying "Thank you, Walter" --giving the subliminal reminder that it is there, waiting to its own stars, Roger Mudd, John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw.
Old things give way to new. And that's the way it is.