Remembering Walter Cronkite

July 20, 2009 2:11:45 PM PDT
What amazing tributes to Walter Cronkite. He didn't want to be a "star" - he wanted just to be a reporter. But he was clearly a proud enough man who have been moved by all the high praise he received after his death on Friday at the age of 92.

We had heard weeks ago that he wasn't doing well, that the dementia that had been apparent recently was taking its toll.

At 92, he was hard cut down in his prime. But there's an incredible sadness to Cronkite's death. Not just the end of an era sentimentality; it's more that the man who informed us and helped guide us - no other word, really - through so much upheaval and uncertainty and brave-new-world kind of events - is gone.

So we grieve partly for ourselves, not just Cronkite himself, or the family that now misses him.

There are so many fascinating Cronkite stories. Last night's tribute by CBS News was well-crafted, and contained something I hadn't heard before - and I don't think a lot of people had.

In late 1963, Cronkite, as managing editor of the CBS Evening News, asked for a story by the London correspondent on this new group that was taking England by storm. Maybe you heard of them. The Beatles.

The story was shot and written and ready for air.

On Nov. 22.

Turns out it was a fairly busy news day.

And so President Kennedy's assassination pushed America's introduction to The Beatles off the rundown that night, no surprise.

Weeks later, Cronkite, as aware as anyone of the emotional toll the murder had taken on the nation, asked that the postponed Beatles story run - the first American news story on the soon-to-be famous group.

And one of the people who was watching Cronkite's news was Ed Sullivan. He called the newsman and wanted to know the name of this group he had just watched? The bugs, or something like that he said.

And then Sullivan booked The Beatles on his variety show - their first U.S. performance, in 1964. Beatlemania was full throttle after that. And I'm sure until folks saw the Cronkite tribute on CBS, most believed it was Ed Sullivan who introduced The Beatles to the U.S.

But it wasn't. It was Walter Cronkite.

I have one Cronkite story. I was reporting a story for Good Morning America about "checkbook journalism" - the practice of paying a source to be interviewed. It was a raging debate back in the spring of 1994, because some TV "news" shows were paying people for an interview.

"Inside Edition" was one of those shows. The anchor at the time was Bill O'Reilly. So we decided to produce a mini debate between O'Reilly and Cronkite, who was dead-set against checkbook journalism. They wouldn't meet face to face; rather I'd interview both men and then edit their responses to my questions, in debate-style.

I set up the interview dates, back to back. It went smoothly; the arguments were fairly predictable on both sides.

But that's not the story I'm here to tell about Walter Cronkite.

When we got back to the GMA offices, our cameraman came up to us, sheepishly and angry, and said his camera had malfunctioned. We got nothing, from either guy.

I was angry, but I couldn't focus on what went wrong; the story was slotted to air later in the week and we had to get it done. So I called Cronkite and O'Reilly, hat in hand, to re-book the interviews.

Walter was amazing. He was retired from CBS News, but he was busy producing documentaries. Despite his busy schedule, he said no problem, he understood these things happen (who better than Walter Cronkite would know that sometimes things in the field don't work out?) and that, sure, let's do it again tomorrow.

I had worried about getting Cronkite to schedule a second interview. After all, he's Walter Cronkite - he's not going to have time for me to conduct two interviews.

What a mensch.

O'Reilly, I figured, would be a piece of cake. GMA reached millions of people - folks who may not have ever heard of his syndicated tabloid show. I didn't count on what was in store.

O'Reilly launched into an angry screed about what a pain this was for him and he's so busy and geez can't you guys from ABC News get it right?

Uh, well, I'm sorry Mr. O'Reilly, I said. But it's just one of those technical screw ups, and we'd really like to do this interview again. Walter Cronkite has agreed.

The next day we re-interviewed both men. Cronkite - stately and understanding. O'Reilly - well, O'Reilly.

You can see our Cronkite obit by CLICKING HERE.

You can hear Barbara Walters remember him by CLICKING HERE.

Listen to Charlie Gibson talk about Walter Cronkite by CLICKING HERE.

We'll have the latest on the funeral arrangements for Cronkite, tonight at 11.

Also at 11, we're following the shootout in Jersey City last week, because tonight it appears that the officer who was most seriously wounded is likely to die.

This is also the 40th anniversary of the moon walk, not the Michael Jackson one, the real one. I remember watching the event with several friends - watching in amazement. What else was beyond the moon? And when would "we" get there? Turns out there's a lot, but "we" still aren't there. The interest in the space program has waned since then ? so many other and expensive priorities. It's sad. But it's understandable. Today, the three members of the Apollo 11 crew were honored at the White House.

And under the random observation category: I love flip flops, the shoes, not the political behavior. I especially like the thick-soled flip flops, with boot-like bottoms. I have, as my family will attest, way too many of them.

So of course I went shopping for more today. And I was stunned by what's happened. Maybe it's the recession, but my favorite flip flop makers have gone flimsy. They are thinner in the soles than they were in the past years. Not good.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast, and Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.

BILL RITTER


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