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Thursday, May 31, 2012

'Cronkite' biographer Brinkley anchors the man in his moment

NEW YORK – In a small studio at CBS News headquarters, historian Douglas Brinkley is watching a piece of history, a black-and-white tape of his latest subject, Walter Cronkite, who's about to tell the nation that President Kennedy has been killed.

And that's the way it is: Historian Douglas Brinkley in front of an image of Walter Cronkite at CBS studios in New York. His biography, 'Cronkite,' arrives Tuesday. By Todd Plitt, USA TODAY

And that's the way it is: Historian Douglas Brinkley in front of an image of Walter Cronkite at CBS studios in New York. His biography, 'Cronkite,' arrives Tuesday.

By Todd Plitt, USA TODAY

And that's the way it is: Historian Douglas Brinkley in front of an image of Walter Cronkite at CBS studios in New York. His biography, 'Cronkite,' arrives Tuesday.

As the author of the biography Cronkite (Harper, $34.99, on sale Tuesday), Brinkley has logged countless hours viewing such tapes. But he says he never tires of watching "the most trusted man in America," as Cronkite was crowned in a poll.

On the screen, it's Nov. 22, 1963. Cronkite is 46, in his second year as anchor. He's in shirtsleeves. His hair is slightly tousled. CBS Radio already has broadcast an unconfirmed report from Dallas that the president is dead.

Cronkite, however, holds off until he's handed a note. "We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas," Cronkite tells viewers. "He has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead."

But in that distinctive and deliberate voice — "flue-cured Southern with the drawl trimmed off," as Tom Wolfe described it — Cronkite adds, "We still have no official confirmation of this."

Brinkley says Cronkite's "punctuated delivery was bracing," but he also was "covering his own back," using Rather "as his potential fall guy if the report proved false."

Moments later, Cronkite is handed another note. He slowly removes his black horn-rimmed glasses, "as though," Brinkley says, "to warn people to prepare themselves."

After putting his glasses back on, Cronkite sighs and says: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 o'clock p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago."

He glances at the wall clock behind him. "It's as if he's recording the time for history," Brinkley observes.

There's a hint of a tear in the anchorman's eyes.

"There's a whole literature on whether Walter cried or not," Brinkley says. "But he was certainly misty-eyed, which was better than crying. He showed emotion, but not too much. The nation was beginning to process its emotions through Walter's emotions."

In addition to Cronkite, the biography by Douglas Brinkley, there are three other new books that deal with Cronkite and CBS News:

--Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News by Dan Rather with Digby Diehl (Grand Central, $27.99) offers Rather’s version of his rise and fall at CBS — he was forced out in 2006 after 44 years — but ignores his feud with Cronkite. Rather does write that Cronkite’s support mattered during the Watergate scandal when the Nixon White House tried to get Rather fired.

--Mike Wallace: A Life by Peter Rader (Thomas Dunne, $25.99) describes Wallace of 60 Minutes, who died last month at 93, as “both a journalist and entertainer” who walked “this tightrope with brilliance and finesse.”

--Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay (New American Library, $26.95) borrows its title from Cronkite’s 1943 dispatch for United Press about a bombing raid over Germany as “an assignment from hell, a hell at 26,000 feet above the earth, a hell of burning tracer bullets and bursting gunfire.”

Raised on the radio

Brinkley's book traces Cronkite's roots as a radio sports announcer in Kansas City and World War II wire service reporter who went on bombing missions over Germany. He joined CBS in 1950. On The Morning Show, he discussed current events with a puppet, a lion named Charlemane, but preferred reporting on the fledgling space race. He was anchor from 1962 until 1981, when he was pushed into retirement at 65 to make way for Rather.

Brinkley devotes seven of his 819 pages to the bitter and well-documented feud that developed between Cronkite and Rather. (Basically, Cronkite thought Rather was grandstanding as anchor; Rather dismissed Cronkite's public criticism as jealousy.) That's attracted pre-publication headlines, which doesn't surprise Brinkley.

"People are interested in feuds," he says, adding that he tried to see both sides of the rivalry and spoke at length to Rather. "Both sides behaved badly," he adds.

Rather (who declined to comment on the book to USA TODAY) told Brinkley that Cronkite "was competitive down to his marrow. It was like he woke up in 1987 and saw me in his old job with successful ratings, making more money than he ever did. … He wanted to destroy me. … I didn't want to fight him.

"So I hunkered down in the fetal position and just took it."

But veteran CBS reporter Morley Safer told Brinkley: "Rather was determined to wipe out every vestige of Cronkite. … Rather was nasty toward Walter."

Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw told Brinkley that Cronkite "never grew bitter or unapproachable. Walter got up every morning knowing who he was. Dan Rather woke up every morning trying to decide who he'd be that day. As a result, Rather didn't have a clue."

Reams have been written about Cronkite, who died in 2009 at age 92. Brinkley, 51, a history professor at Rice University in Houston and on-air analyst for CBS, says the idea for a definitive biography was triggered about nine years ago by David Halberstam, the reporter turned historian.

Halberstam, who died in 2007, and Brinkley were driving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to speak at the Louisiana Book Festival. "Somewhere around Gonzales," Brinkley recalls, Halberstam said "Cronkite was the most significant journalist of the second half of the 20th century," but no author had adequately tackled his life and times.

That inspired Brinkley, the son of two teachers whose family never had dinner without first watching The Evening News With Walter Cronkite. Cronkite appears in drawings Brinkley did at 7, illustrated news reports that his mother saved.

Long after the car ride with Halberstam, Brinkley has borrowed a CBS studio, down the hall from Cronkite's old newsroom (now used by CBS Radio) to discuss his book and Cronkite's "exquisite timing."

Had he been born a decade earlier (rather than in 1916), he "probably would have become a B-list radio voice," Brinkley says. Had had he been born a decade or two later, "he'd probably be just another broadcaster, one of many."

'American royalty'

For better or worse, no one in today's fractured media has Cronkite's power, influence or popularity.

Reading Cronkite is "like revisiting another world," says Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN, who says of Brinkley: "He's full of ideas, enthusiasm and stories. There's no one quite like him."

The same was said for Cronkite, despite his shortcomings. "He was NASA's great promoter, but it came from his heart," Brinkley says. "He had an intense curiosity about how machines worked.

"But in Vietnam in 1965, he was so taken by the weapons, he missed the political perspective. He didn't see that until 1968."

At heart, Cronkite was an "FDR liberal," Brinkley says, but he "obfuscated that on the nightly news." In retirement, Cronkite criticized the Gulf War, the war in Iraq and the religious right.

Brinkley, who has written books on Theodore Roosevelt (The Wilderness Warrior) and Hurricane Katrina (The Great Deluge) and edited Jack Kerouac's journals and Ronald Reagan's diary, met Cronkite several times but never formally interviewed him. Off-camera, he says, Cronkite was "a mensch," although notoriously tight-fisted. Like Brinkley, who's the literary executor for Hunter Thompson and friends with Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, Cronkite had unlikely friendships.

After Betsy, his wife of 65 years, died in 2005, Cronkite met two friends, singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. As Brinkley describes it, Buffett told Cronkite: "Mickey and I know what hell you're going through right now having lost Betsy. I've never known a marriage that worked so well, that was so close. We — "

Cronkite interrupted. "Boys," he said, "Stop! Stop! Stop! There's something you should know. I've got a new girlfriend."

Just weeks after his wife died, Cronkite starting dating Joanna Simon, a widowed Manhattan real estate broker and sister of singer Carly Simon. She was 24 years his junior.

One night, after they moved in together, they were walking to a restaurant, and as Brinkley describes it, "People kept coming up to Cronkite to shake the great man's hand."

" 'You know, Walter,' Simon said, 'you really are American royalty.' He looked at her lovingly and said, 'As long as I'm your King of Hearts,' " to which Brinkley adds, "Simon swooned."

And what did Brinkley learn from all his research?

"Cronkite wasn't like ordinary TV narcissists and braggarts. He didn't broadcast what the folks wanted. Cronkite instead wanted what the people wanted to be considered serious news.

"The difference was subtle, but sharp."

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