Saturday, July 18, 2009

Shaking Walter Cronkite's hand

One of the first things I read this morning after Walter Cronkite’s obit was an aggravating little piece that was passing as MSNBC’s lead “analysis” piece devoted to the legendary newsman’s life and times. The writer grabbed ahold of the “America’s favorite uncle” theme and didn’t let loose of that sucker until he’d shaken it to death.

But I think he missed the point. We didn’t trust Cronkite because he reminded us of our uncles but because we knew he was reporter first, trusted his skill, curiosity, broad knowledge base and integrity and appreciated the fact he managed to sound and look a lot like the rest of use when he sat down with us every evening to talk about the news. He wasn’t pretty, and pretty seems to be a factor in the news these days, but knew what he was doing.

About the only negative thing that could be said about his career is that after that famous reporting trip to Vietnam he started us down the slippery slope toward news anchors who feel obligated to share their opinions. I guess that was OK for Walter, who generally knew what he was talking about, but that’s not necessarily the case these days.

One of my few brushes with fame is the fact I managed to shake the great man’s hand and exchange a few tongue-tied (my tongue, not his) words with him during a trip to New York just before the 1968 election.

The occasion was a convention of college and university journalists held in those headier days at the Waldorf-Astoria. I had enrolled in graduate school while waiting for the draft and landed a job as advisor to the University of Iowa “Hawkeye” yearbook. Therefore, I got to tag along in an advisory capacity with the delegation representing University of Iowa student publications.

Two memorable events, one sublime and the other ridiculous, came out of that trip.

Ridiculous first. One member of our delegation, coming back to the Waldorf after we’d been out for supper at Mama Leone’s, decided she couldn’t make it through the night without a bottle of sloe gin, awful red stuff, and so took a detour through a liquor store.

As we walked through the grand main lobby of the Waldorf, chandeliers and marble floors glittering as grandly-clad bigshots mades their way to a Nixon campaign event in the Empire Room, the bottom went out of the sloe gin sack, the bottle crashed to the floor and its contents spattered everywhere and over everyone within range.

The rest of us averted our eyes and walked away as if we didn’t know the young lady holding what was left of the bag. Poor Debby.

The sublime --- for budding journalists at least. A buddy of a few of us, who had gotten his bachelor’s degree in journalism at Iowa a couple of years earlier, had landed a job at The Associated Press in New York. He’d had time to develop enough contacts at CBS News to get us into the fort and up to the newsroom.

So we toured the set that a few days later would become Election Central for the Nixon-Humphrey race and then stopped at Cronkite’s desk (this was late afternoon and he was getting ready for the evening news) to say hello. None of the fame rubbed off on any of us, I’m sorry to say, but it surely was memorable --- almost as memorable as washing the Waldorf-Astoria’s marble floors in sloe gin.

Walter Cronkite, although 92 and long retired, was one of those people you like to think about as still present and accounted for. And now he’s gone. God rest ….

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