by Douglas Brinkley

Hardcover, 2012




New York : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2012]


Douglas Brinkley presents the definitive, revealing biography of an American legend: renowned news anchor Walter Cronkite.

User reviews

LibraryThing member davevanl
Anybody who lived through the 1960s and 1970s needs to read this book to reacquaint themselves with Walter Cronkite as well as the history of the era. Everyone else should just read it. Period.
LibraryThing member wb4ever1
I have read a lot of biographies, and have come to believe that the lives of nice guys often make for dull reading, but CRONKITE, a bio of the iconic anchor of the CBS Evening News, by Douglas Brinkley, made me rethink that assertion. This is one fascinating account of a great American life, and an excellent mini history of American culture from the Depression era to the Internet Age, and how the country got their daily news in a time of tremendous technological change, and more importantly, how Americans reacted to it all, in short, how we made the news, and how the news made us. If like me, you are a fan of THE POWERS THAT BE, David Halberstam’s epic account of the rise the mainstream media in the 20th Century, then much of CRONKITE will read like a sequel to that book, especially Halberstam’s sections on William S. Paley’s CBS.

If ever there was an icon, it was Walter Cronkite, “Uncle Walter” as was known to millions during his more than 20 years on the air as “the most trusted man in America.” Brinkley does a masterful job of telling us how this came about, while also giving us a portrait of a fully human man, and a great journalist from his early roots in Missouri and Texas to his rise as a network anchorman – a job he virtually invented – to his years at the top of his game and beyond. Cronkite found his calling early, and it was a love of journalism, of being the first to get a story, to get the facts, and get them before the public. Cronkite was a natural at the job of reporter, and covering World War II from Great Britain for UPI gave him an invaluable opportunity to hone his skills. It was more than being just a good print reporter, Cronkite had a smooth voice and the ability to ad-lib, skills that served him well on radio, and when the chance came, even better on TV. After the war, he went to work at CBS, where he would go on to supplant the legendary Edward R. Murrow as the face of the Tiffany Network’s news division. But as Brinkley tells it, success was hard work and long hours, as it took more than a few years for Cronkite to surpass Huntley-Brinkley over at NBC, who were for years the evening news ratings champions. The Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the space program (one of Cronkite’s many passions), the landing on the moon, Watergate, and all the other massive stories of the 60’s and 70’s get plenty of print, but what I enjoyed was getting the behind the scenes newsman’s view of those stories, as how they were covered would often become as controversial as the story itself. That Walter Cronkite always strove for objectivity is something Brinkley makes clear, but he also implies that many of the big stories of the 60’s, especially the Vietnam War and the crusade for equal rights, often pitted one set of values cherished by Americans against another set of equally cherished values. On any given day, nightly news viewers would see something that would deeply anger and offend them, and in time, many of them would turn against the messenger, but through most of it, Cronkite retained his dignity, stayed cool on the air, and managed to retain cordial relations with Presidents and those in power, the exception being Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, but they hated everybody.

For me, the most interesting parts concerned the big stories many consider Cronkite’s finest hours, starting with the Kennedy assassination, the event where network news came of age, which gave us the iconic sound bite where Cronkite pauses, takes off his glasses and then announces the President’s death after getting it confirmed by the hospital – a piece of film that has turned up on every single retrospective on that terrible day in Dallas ever since. I couldn’t help but have respect for Cronkite after reading how he went to Vietnam during the 1968 Tet offensive and covered that battle up close, going into harm’s way countless times – despite being the most well paid newsman in America, he still went into a war zone to get the real story. This set the stage for him to go on TV and tell the American public that after years of fighting, there was no light at the end of the tunnel in South Vietnam, and that the stalemate would only end in a negotiated settlement. It says something that Lyndon Johnson, who could hold a grudge, remained on good terms with Cronkite afterward. His relationship with NASA is detailed, an organization for which he was often accused of being a cheerleader, though there is no denying his genuine enthusiasm for the space program and the lunar landing in 1969. There is no getting away from the issue of bias, which was festering even back in the glory days of the 60’s, and though Walter Cronkite strove hard to be objective on air, there is no denying CBS was less than fair to Barry Goldwater in 1964, but it was hardly the bastion of social liberalism conservative critics would later claim, as Brinkley makes it plain that Cronkite took his time when it came to feminism and gay rights. Long after he left the anchor’s chair, Cronkite became a vocal supporter of left wing causes, opposing the Gulf War, and later, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and supporting the legalization of marijuana, and right wingers would push back, claiming it was only Uncle Walter showing his true colors.

I liked Brinkley’s writing style, the chapters are well laid out, covering a specific period of time and a series of events, working in personal details, like Cronkite’s love of sailing, good drink, a bawdy joke, his home life, where he was a loving, but a far too absent husband and father, though his marriage would be a strong one to the end. In one part, the author does not mince words when dispensing with Bill Moyers’s criticism of CBS’s Vietnam coverage, while laying out a damning case that Dan Rather was one insecure jerk. The book came out a few years ago, and in some places it is telling, as when the now gone and forgotten FOX news host, Bill O’Reilly, is quoted. We also get the picture that there is little loyalty at CBS, no matter who is in charge, Murrow was pushed toward the door in the last years of his career, and Cronkite was often given a cold shoulder in his retirement.

I think Brinkley’s book does a good job of proving that Walter Cronkite is still relevant decades after he gave up the anchor’s chair and nearly a decade since his death; he stood for an objective standard, and for a pact with his viewers that implied that he would not lie, nor knowingly miss lead them. Today, people get their news from social media; or a cable channel that that totally supports their world view in every way; it’s a world where you can pick your facts and choose your truth, and live a life without anyone challenging your beliefs. That this is a disaster waiting to happen, if it not already, is clear to anyone who can take a step back and see things for what they are; once upon a time, men like Walter Cronkite came into homes each evening at dinner time, and told us just that. Journalists who had earned our trust and it was returned in kind. Those days are gone, and their absence is a gaping hole only a few seem notice. There is no Walter Cronkite now to tell us, “That’s the way it is.” What a shame.
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LibraryThing member yukon92
Very fascinating look at the long life of "the most trusted man in America". Having grown up in another country I only knew that he was the man who announced the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination. This look at his life was quite the read, but the author had access to many of Cronkite's private files and papers and it showed in the thoroughness of the writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member EricCostello
A pretty thorough look at the life of the famous CBS broadcaster; what's more, I think the biography is pretty fair, in that while Brinkley obviously likes his subject a great deal, he (Brinkley) doesn't shy away from noting where Cronkite "bigfooted" his colleagues at CBS or made errors in judgement. As for accuracy, while there are a few editorial glitches here and there, in general, from my perspective, it seemed to be pretty good; Brinkley had access to a lot of Cronkite material at the University of Texas. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member erwinkennythomas
Douglas Brinkley’s Cronkite is a well-researched biography about one of journalism’s most admired anchormen. Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph Missouri as an only child on November 4, 1916. As a young man he attended the University of Texas, Austin. In the 1930’s he broadcast sports at KCMO, a Kansas City radio station where he met his wife Betsy Maxwell. Cronkite worked as a broadcaster for eleven years at WKY, Oklahoma City, and was married in the 1940’s.
During World War Ⅱ he was with the United Press, stationed in Europe, and was bureau chief in Moscow. He covered the Nuremberg Trials. It was Edward R. Murrow who was instrumental for him being hired at CBS. And Cronkite was assigned to WTOP-TV in Washington DC. He worked on CBS’ The Morning Show. In the 1950’s he did a TV series “You Are There” and he interviewed famous people. Cronkite became anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 until his retirement in 1981.
In the 1960’s he interviewed John F. Kennedy on the CBS Evening News. On November 23, 1963 Cronkite announced Kennedy’s death on CBS News. In his career he covered Dwight D. Eisenhower Return to Normandy –“D-Day Plus 20 Years” a program aired in 1964. As an anchorman Cronkite covered Apollos 11 and 13, visited the Great Wall with President Richard Nixon in 1972, reported on Watergate, the Vietnam War as a war correspondent, and the Iran hostage crisis. In retirement Cronkite became a special correspondent who did cultural affairs programs and documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel, and other networks.
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LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
Historian Douglas Brinkley presents a comprehensive look at the life of the famous CBS anchorman who shaped television news in this extensive biography. Drawing heavily upon archival sources and personal interviews, Brinkley finds a passionate journalist whose personality, and whose integrity, can be summed up in his famous closing line, “And that’s the way it is.”

Like many of his generation, Cronkite’s experiences during World War II, where he served overseas as a war correspondent for United Press. The nuts and bolts of tracking down news and interest items, conducting interviews, and then sharing those stories in compelling ways shaped his entire career, providing the backbone of his approach as a television anchorman.

Beyond that, Brinkley details some of Cronkite’s insatiable curiosity, especially about space, the natural world, and sailing. In later years, his also allowed his progressive views to shape some of his public statements; even so, people from across the political spectrum tended to admire him as “the most trusted man in America.”

He was not without faults, though. Brinkley details some of these, including some of his own touchiness about perceived professional slights over the years, especially after his retirement in 1981. Overall, though, this is a fond look at a beloved cultural icon, written by someone who is both a trained biographer and who shares that his own admiration for Cronkite dates to a pictures he drew of the newsman as a 7-year-old boy.
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