Walter Cronkite reflects on sailing, news, history

When Walter Cronkite retired in 1981 from 19 years of anchoring the CBS Evening News, he commented that he'd had little time for contemplation over the years. He thought he might sit out on his boat and think for a bit.

But he's had sparse time for it. ''The Great Nuclear Arms Debate,'' ''I, Leonardo: A Journey of the Mind,'' and the short-lived science series ''Universe'' are only a few of his recent television projects. This past summer was the first since leaving his anchor post that Mr. Cronkite hasn't had a TV documentary on the burner.

Even with these continuing commitments, however, Cronkite's 42-foot yacht, Wyntje, hasn't been wanting for a skipper. Sailing - grabbed in one- or two-week snatches - has been part of his life for better than 20 years. It has now provided the inspiration for his latest project - this one in print.

''South by Southwest'' (Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, $39.95; $50 after Jan. 1) fits into the category of coffeetable books. It blends Cronkite's narrative of a cruise down the Atlantic's Intracoastal Waterway with artist Ray Ellis's masterful watercolors, drawings, and oils. The blend works. Fishermen's shanties and colonial towns, places like the Great Dismal Swamp and Daufuskie Island, S.C., take on tangibility and life.

Why is a man who still fervently complains about the intrusion of feature stories into the evening news writing what he calls a ''travel book of sorts''?

In a leisurely interview at his Martha's Vineyard home, Cronkite was quick to say that he doesn't consider the book a very serious endeavor. But he made it clear that this book, like most Cronkite undertakings, has its weightier aspect. And he offered a few thoughts about his ''old'' line of work as well.

When I arrived at the weathered shingle dwelling on the shore of Katama Bay, Cronkite was upstairs on the phone. Even in this placid setting, the bustling world of deadlines and production schedules is never far away. The next day Barbara Walters and her crew would be here to film a segment for ABC. But today's interview was to be on the water; and as Wyntje's engine pushed us gently toward the narrow passage between Martha's Vineyard and Chappaquiddick Island, I asked what he hoped to accomplish with ''South by Southwest.''

''I wanted to show, primarily, how important the water is to us,'' he said. Not just the commerce and the fisheries, he explains, but the attitudes that go with coastal living. It's his conviction that ''people who live on the edge of the water are pretty much alike'' - that they share a common culture based on the activities associated with the sea and, beyond that, an outlook. Cronkite speaks of the ''fierce independence of people on water'' and their ''territoriality, which brands as a foreigner anyone who comes from more than 50 miles away.'' You can see this in Maine, he says, or on the coast of Georgia. Region doesn't matter.

He also describes the spirit of cooperation that marks those who dwell near the shore, where rich and poor have a common involvement with the ocean. He recalls a scene from the Carolina coast - Mercedes backing huge power boats into the water alongside beat-up Fords towing handmade dinghies, and everyone lending a hand. They were all ''brothers on the water,'' he says.

This scene, and others from his cruise, bring to mind something dear to Cronkite as a journalist: ''It's very important to get out into the country and see what people's concerns really are, the concerns of the little guy.'' He says he rediscovered a different concept of America as he sailed the 1,245 miles of the Intracoastal Waterway from Baltimore to Key West - a concept, in his words, both ''homely and homey.''

Contact with the average man and woman is why he always liked politics, he continues. Covering it gave him a chance to get out and gauge what people are thinking. It takes a while to break through the ''taciturnity'' of small-town America, he says, but get to the right subject and ''you're home free.''

Along the Southern coast, he found, one right subject is local history. ''You may never have heard of Civil War hero Jeb Jones, but boy they have! And they're anxious to show you where he was born.'' This awareness of history is part of the thread tying coastal life together. That, along with independence and a sense of place, form an outlook that helped shape us as a nation, he says.

And therein lies the serious side of Cronkite's and Ellis's collaboration. The text is packed with historical anecdotes - about George Washington's slaves digging the first portions of what would become today's lengthy waterway, about the infamous Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard), about the battles, fabled and forgotten, fought up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

History, you find, is something Walter Cronkite feels strongly about. Americans generally are losing their sense of history, he says. He quotes Santayana's famous line: ''Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.''

''It's unfortunate that history is not well taught in our schools,'' he says. ''The teaching of history ought to be done in such a way that kids can't wait to get the lesson done each day. It's the story of people, problems, and compromises, of winning and losing, the courage of combat in daily living.''

The perspective of history was crucial to his work as a television journalist , he says. ''If I brought anything to the job, that's what it was - an effort to put things in their proper place.''

And how is TV journalism doing these days, in the view of one of its deans? Are the networks heeding Cronkite's longstanding call for serious reporting undiluted by material that ''panders'' to popular tastes?

''I don't see any inclination to take the gamble to do it,'' he says. The ready-made audience for serious news coverage is ''tremendously smaller'' than what the network executives aim for, he recognizes. But to Cronkite, ever the committed newsman, that's irrelevant.

''TV has this monkey on its back of making sure the people are being adequately informed,'' he says. After all, he notes, it is the medium through which most Americans get their news.

His ideal is an hour-long newscast concentrated on stories of import, with the items ''that don't illuminate our times'' weeded out. But, he adds, he's had too many opportunities to compare what's left on the cutting-room floor with what actually appears to harbor hopes of quick improvements. He says PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour may be a step in the right direction. But the problem there, in his view, is that public TV is limited in the resources it can bring to a news operation.

CBS's failure to move to the hour-long format was ''the major disappointment'' of his years there, he says. He pauses a moment to comment on how a distant boat is doing a good job of ''sailing close to the wind.''

As Cronkite turns Wyntje toward home, the conversation switches to sailing. What part has it played in his busy life? In the late '50s, he begins, he started looking for some kind of recreation his growing family could do together. He'd been racing cars, he says, but realized that ''was not much of a family sport.'' Then he happened on sailing one summer in upstate New York. ''I loved it from the start,'' he recalls.

As it developed, the family togetherness didn't quite pan out. His two daughters were entering their teens, and their interests were definitely shoreside. ''We'd barely leave the dock and head into the Atlantic,'' he remembers, ''before the girls would be asking when we'd be going home.''

His younger son, Chip, however, grew up with the sport and became ''quite adept'' at it. But Chip's career as a film editor precludes much sailing now, Cronkite adds with a note of regret.

What about racing - had he ever tried that form of sailing? A few times, he said, but it had some of the same drawbacks as auto racing. The commitment of time and energy involved in organizing a crew and its gear was hardly worth it, he explained, when you might have to rush off to cover a breaking news story. But he still follows racing, and had recently sailed down the coast to view some of the preliminary America's Cup races.

Far from a contemplative pastime, Cronkite finds that ''most of the time aboard I'm thinking about sailing. It's the kind of avocation or sport that requires concentration - thinking about the set of the sails, navigation, a change in the weather. I don't get a lot of contemplation done and no reading at all.

''I would imagine that in a long ocean passage you could settle down to a routine in which you'd have more time to yourself,'' he muses. But it seems unlikely that his schedule will allow for such an excursion any time soon. He mentions an upcoming trip to France to attend a conference on freedom of the press. He also notes that his respite from production schedules will end this fall as another documentary special gets under way. The subject? He's not at liberty to divulge that yet, he says. ''You try to keep it from the opposition, you know.''

As we come about to tie up Wyntje again, Cronkite peers back at Edgartown, now silhouetted against a luminous evening sky. ''A beautiful village,'' he comments. Clearly, this town and the sailing it affords have a cherished spot in his life - a life largely spent before cameras and in the presence of heads of state and lesser dignitaries. You get the distinct feeling that Walter Cronkite, apart from all that, may himself be one of those ''people of the water'' he chronicles in ''South by Southwest'' - the same independence of mind, the strong sense of place, made more expansive, perhaps, but not lost through a career tied to the wider world.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.