Monday, July 20, 2009

Our Ultimate Stage Manager

On Saturday I had a call from that wonderful friend Tracy: “I know you are on vacation from the blog—but Walter Cronkite died. Isn’t he blog-worthy? I’ll be expecting a blog entry in the next few days.”

Here you go Tracy!

When I think of my childhood, there is one non-family voice that dominates the sound track of my life, and that is the stentorian voice of Walter Cronkite delivering the evening news. As a child my father was a firefighter, and so that meant that he worked a 24 hour shift for the Cincinnati Fire Department, and then was off for 48 hours. Now on the days my father worked my mother usually said, “Let’s go out to eat—but let’s not tell Daddy!” But on those other 48 hours off, my father was at home, doing the million things around the house that fathers know how to do. We would sit down to a family dinner, and like clockwork, Walter Cronkite joined us. That unmistakable voice—one of unassailable authority—underscored all those family dinners of my childhood.

The many tributes and testimonials in the last few days have touched on many of the same things, but like all icons, it is really how a famous person affects our lives personally that touches us the most. Walter Cronkite really is a staple from my childhood. He began the CBS broadcasts around the time my parents got married, and continued to do the broadcasts until I was securely in high school. Of course it was inconceivable he would ever retire, but that day came as well, just like saying good-bye to the Cincinnati Public Schools came just a year or two later.

I can trace very clearly how Miss Wilson cultivated my love of history and drama in our 5th grade class. But I hadn’t thought about how Walter Cronkite probably stirred that pot as well. I remember in Miss Sanford’s 8th grade class that from time-to-time she played old black-and-white episodes of Walter Cronkite’s 1950s series, You Are There, in which Mr. Cronkite played a reporter to such breaking news as the Salem Witch Trials, or the Lincoln Assassination. Those episodes enthralled me. Here was someone making history alive and crackling with excitement. One of my stated goals of my history classes now is that I hope my students can imagine standing in another historical era. Walter Cronkite really did set me up for my current mission!

Of course as a historian Mr. Cronkite has been invaluable. I gobbled up the memoir he wrote in the 1990s wherein he spoke so movingly of being at the right hand of most historical events for over half of the 20th century. And then he put together a documentary series weaving the events of his life with the narrative of the history of the United States from his birth in 1916 up to the 1990s, reminding us that history is all about the combination of the personal and the public.

As so many have recently said, as managing editor of the CBS Evening News, Mr. Cronkite essayed a key role in our national consciousness. As the anchorman of this broadcast he demonstrated such dignity and composure in relaying the news. Perhaps his greatest attribute was a plain-speaking quality as he told Americans what had happened that day. In all of the replays of clips in the last few days, two moments stand out for when he revealed traces of emotion. Of course there is the moment in November, 1963, when Mr. Cronkite broke the news to Americans that President Kennedy had just died after the gunshot wounds in Dallas. Mr. Cronkite took off those thick black glasses and choked back tears, and for just a flicker of a moment, betrayed the sadness and shock Americans felt. That moment of live television, of real and not "reality" television, is embedded into that national tragedy.

Then in July, 1969, forty years ago today, Mr. Cronkite removed his glasses again for a flash of emotion—but this time one of joy and not calamity. Mr. Cronkite shed his famed neutrality to express boyish enthusiasm for what he called “the conquest of space.” His first words when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, were “Oh, boy.”

Far from being merely a first-rate reporter, it seems obvious that Mr. Cronkite held the power to change history as well. No account of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency leaves out the night in February, 1968 when Mr. Cronkite concluded, on the air, that the Vietnam War could not be won.

On this last July 4th, I was in New York City, and Christy and I went to see an acclaimed production of Our Town—a play I know very well having directed it three different times in the last 20 years. It continues to be revelatory and shattering. Thornton Wilder created a part he called the “Stage Manager,” who breaks the fourth wall with the audience, speaking directly to us, and explains how life and marriage and death affect us all. He offered few traces of emotion, but maintained a dignity and composure throughout Wilder’s meditation on the quotidian wonders of life.

In the summer of 1952 for the National Republican Convention, a CBS executive coined the term “anchorman” for Walter Cronkite. This executive said that someone should be “the fella at the desk pulling it all together and holding everything in place for the American viewers.” Mr. Cronkite, who would preside over hours and hours of coverage for the American people, was named to be that “anchor” and so the phrase anchorman was created.

Isn’t Walter Cronkite the ultimate Stage Manager who has presided over Our Town, “Our America” for the last several generations??? At least for me in my childhood, he seemed to be there for us, relaying the triumphant news, breaking to us the bad news, pulling it together, and holding us in place.

There are two other memories of my childhood that Walter Cronkite also is a part of—and they have to do with chronicling “numbers.” At the end of every broadcast (at least in my childhood treasure chest of memories) Mr. Cronkite provided the current number of soldiers who had died in Vietnam. Of course I had no idea what this conflict was about, but in my memory is the mounting number of casualties and a somber tone in this voice telling us what the number had become for that day in a faraway place called Vietnam. Similarly, when the American hostages were held in Iran from 1979 to 1981, Mr. Cronkite provided the number of days these souls had been kept in captivity. Strangely, I never heard any of the commentators mention these tallying of numbers. But these are key moments of my childhood memories of Walter Cronkite.

A couple of years ago when Katie Couric assumed the directorship of the CBS Evening News, it was very telling that the voice introducing the news every night is that of the one and only Walter Cronkite. There is instant credibility and authority in that voice.

I am not na├»ve enough to announce that with the death of Walter Cronkite comes the death of my childhood. Not when my father is just out to breakfast now and I am just several feet away from the annual markings on the wall of my height from ages six to 18. But Walter Cronkite’s death at age 92 does allow for reflections of my childhood and also to reflect on how we get our news today. In the multiple choice mayhem of today’s news, no one is the wise, paternal figure. From the early 1960s to 1981, Mr. Cronkite was a reassuring presence in American homes guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike, from moonwalks to war, with the daily benediction: “And that’s the way it is.” And we believed him. Maybe it is just through the filter of my childhood presence, but here was a person who could speak for our nation. Do we have anyone like that today?