Saturday, July 18, 2009

Remembering My Friend Walter Cronkite

Drop Cap Letter: To most Americans, he was the most trusted man in America. To me, Walter Cronkite was a good friend, a prized mentor, and a man to whom I owe much of my professional broadcast journalism career.

Our connection was we both worked in Moscow for the United Press International (UPI) news agency. It was called United Press when Walter worked there in the late 1940s. It was UPI when I followed in his footsteps three decades later.

There was no doubt that the Moscow wire service connection solidified my journalistic credentials in Walter’s mind--something that became evident after CBS hired me in 1975 while in Moscow for UPI.

At CBS News, I began on the radio side, initially writing newscasts and occasional commentaries for Walter, as well as Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Ed Bradley, Roger Mudd, Charles Osgood, Douglas Edwards, and others.

Soon after, I moved to the television side and continued writing for them as well as other CBS luminaries. I was also given expanded duties of editing scripts of other writers and correspondents.

It would be an understatement to say that it was a thrill on the days that I sat a few feet away from Walter in the newsroom studio as the announcer intoned, “Direct from our newsroom in New York, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite...”

I’d even appear occasionally on screen as the camera took a wide shot of the newsroom, much to the delight of my family and friends.

Like many other aspiring journalists, I grew up watching Walter and idolizing him. I was watching when he told us John Kennedy had died, when he said the conflict in Vietnam could no longer be won, and when man walked on the moon.

Walter was not only anchor but managing editor of his broadcast, a dual title of which he was very proud. It gave him more control of what went on the broadcast, for which he demanded the best of everyone.

Unlike Roger Mudd, who sporadically would let a ruler fly across the studio during a commercial after something went wrong, I don’t recall ever seeing Walter get angry.

If there was an urgent wire service story that came in while he was on the air and I or another writer didn’t inform him about it during a taped piece or commercial break, he would clearly be upset. And he certainly was not happy when a competing broadcast had something we didn’t. But he rarely showed it.

He taught gently. Like the old wire service veteran that he was, he demanded a story be sourced accurately—and often would ask if I or other writers had double and triple checked a source’s veracity.

If he was not happy with a writer’s copy, he’d often swing around and pound out his own version on his typewriter. He’d tell you it was faster that way. You learned by his example.

It was at the Cronkites’ annual Christmas party at his New York town house in 1978 that my short CBS life changed.

We were all having a good time--and Walter and his wife Betsy certainly knew how to have a good time--when a CBS executive pulled me aside. He asked whether I’d be interested in returning to Moscow as the CBS correspondent.  It clearly was an offer made with Walter’s blessing.

I said I did not have any on-camera television experience—something they knew, of course. But to Walter and others in the CBS hierarchy, that was less important than my journalistic experience and abilities. (Times unfortunately have changed in this regard.)

“Don’t worry,” Walter told me. “We’ll teach you what you need to know.” He even had his personal makeup artist teach me the basics of applying make up and sending me off to Moscow with a supply kit..

I had been doing reports from Moscow for almost two years when Walter signed off on his final broadcast on March 6, 1981. A little more than three weeks later, he was in my Moscow apartment as my dinner guest. He was in Moscow doing a CBS News documentary.

Suddenly, someone rushed in from the Reuters news agency bureau next door. “Reagan’s been shot,” he yelled. I’ll never forget Walter’s reaction as he heard those words. He sat bolt upright, his face got red, he got to his feet, and asked me to lead him to the Reuters office.

A throng had already gathered around the incoming news wire. Walter pushed his way in. A couple of correspondents did double takes as they turned around to see that the older man breathing down their necks was none other than Walter Cronkite. They had no idea he was in Moscow.

CBS was on the phone immediately demanding that I get Walter before a television camera. The nation needed to hear from the most trusted man in America at this perilous time. No matter that he was no longer the CBS Evening News anchor or that he was in Moscow where it was approaching midnight.

This was a time when satellite transmissions were difficult and expensive to do and had to be booked well in advance through the Soviet state television network. Just to get someone on the phone at that late hour was a huge task, not to mention ordering up a satellite on such short notice.

But much to their credit, the folks at Soviet TV quickly grasped the importance of getting Walter Cronkite on the air from Moscow. Studio technicians were called at home and ordered back.

After a harrowing ride to the station on Moscow’s outskirts, we managed to get Walter on the air during the CBS News assassination attempt coverage. America once again had Walter to watch at a time of national trauma.

I had only sporadic contact with Walter after I moved on to Tokyo in 1981, where I remained until moving back to Westport in 1989. I left CBS News in 1991 at a time of downsizing and generous buyout packages. Walter and Dan Rather sent nice notes.

When I ran for first selectman in 2005, I thought a letter of support from Walter might get some notice among all the letters to the editor. So I sent off a note to Walter asking if he would be willing to write a few words for me.

A couple of days later I got a call from his secretary. She said Walter wanted to talk to me and she would put him on, but she wanted me to know he had serious hearing issues and I’d have to speak up and maybe he’d miss a word or two.

He came on and we chatted about old times. “I can’t hear a lick,” he said, and it was clear his phone had some sort of audio booster.

He asked why I was running for first selectman of Westport, where he had some friends and occasionally had visited. I explained my reasons and causally mentioned that I also was a volunteer firefighter and EMT.

“You’re a firefighter?” Walter asked excitedly. I had forgotten that Walter always had a fascination and love for fire stories and for the fire service. He was an old fire horse. “That must be something,” he said.

He agreed to write letters of support to the newspapers and asked me to call him to have lunch next time I was in the city.

The next time I spoke to Walter was shortly after my election. He called to congratulate me, saying, “Well, Mr. Mayor, can you get me any sewer contracts?”

I responded, “Walter, it’s Mr. First Selectman, and I don’t do sewer contracts. But if you want a temporary boat slip at the Compo Beach Marina, I might be able to get you one.”

He chuckled and said goodbye. That was the last time we talked, though he asked a mutual friend some time afterward how I was doing. I will miss him.