STEPHEN SMITH: Tribute to Walter Cronkite: He Brought History Into Our Homes
Dear Walter Cronkite,
I'm writing to you because I've heard you're ailing, and I know that at 92 even the most trivial of illnesses can have the gravest of consequences.
What with all the dead celebrities receiving tributes after departing this earthly coil, I thought it might be appropriate to convey my thanks before the inevitable.
First, I'm appreciative of your faithful service as CBS anchorman for 19 of the most trying and triumphant years in American history (1962-1981). Every night you ended your broadcast by saying, "And that's the way it is" followed by the day and year.
You were there to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. I was watching the TV in Mr. Urbansky's Algebra II class when you said, "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time."
You looked up at a clock--and all these years later, I recall clearly how you took off your glasses, rested them on the desk and continued, "2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago." And your eyes misted over.
The CBS Evening News for Feb. 27, 1968, was one of the most memorable. You reported on your recent visit to Vietnam and concluded the broadcast by saying, " it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
I was a college senior and agreed wholeheartedly with your conclusion -- so much so that I wrote you a letter applauding your forthrightness. And you wrote me back on CBS letterhead to say that you appreciated my support. Your words were typed on an old misaligned portable typewriter, and your signature was as genuine as your observations.
I spent July 20, 1969, watching on my first TV set -- a little portable Panasonic I paid $75 for -- as the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander touched down on the moon. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the dusty surface, you and I were both at a loss for words. Such a moment!
And so it went through all the events of those times -- the Watergate scandal, the Nixon resignation, South Vietnam's fall, the Ford administration, Jimmy Carter, the revolution in Iran, Solidarity, Afghanistan, etc. -- until your retirement on March 6, 1981, when I gathered with like-minded friends to watch your final CBS Nightly News broadcast.
"For almost two decades, after all, we've been meeting like this in the evenings, and I'll miss that," you said. "But those who have made anything of this departure, I'm afraid have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton."
Unfortunately, the baton wasn't passed into hands as capable as yours. We never trusted your successors as much as we trusted you.
But what I remember best about you is the TV program I began watching when I was a child of eight. It was called "You Are There" and was based on the premise that contemporary reporters could interview history's participants as events were transpiring. The trial of Joan of Arc, the death of Socrates, the Magna Carta, the Salem Witch Trials, etc. -- those programs were wonderful history lessons for a kid growing up in the '50s.
My favorite episode was the firing of the first shot of the Civil War. As the Confederates discharged a cannon on the Charleston shore, the story shifted to Fort Sumter just as the shot landed. That was the coolest, ever!
And you ended each "You Are There" with a startling modulation of your voice that lives in my ear even now: "What kind of day was it? A day like all days filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. And you were there."
We surely were. Thank you, Walter Cronkite.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com.
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