The Secret World of Walter Cronkite

A day in the life of the most trusted man in America: a day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our time.
The Secret World of Walter Cronkite

Five minutes away from 6:30 p.m., eastern standard time, three of the four seats in the CBS News control room are still empty. In the occupied seat, a tall, gaunt quiet man of about 50—the chief engineer, formerly known as the technical director—confronts a flashing yard-square panel of buttons, switches, and erratic meters. There seem to be over a hundred pulsing, mysterious buttons between his outstretched arms, and he appears very intent upon them.

The engineer and his panel sit to the far left of the short, curved control booth, where he peers out over a bank of knobs through the darkness toward a seemingly distant and highly unlikely vista. The distance is illusion, caused by the myriad shimmering, key-lights illumining the booth. Actually only five feet away, the vista is a massed wall of television screens—twenty-two in all—clustered around an imposing clock with a sweep second-hand. The whole place might have been designed by Stanley Kubrick. According to the clock, there are now four minutes until 6:30, yet the three seats remain empty.

A hundred feet, two corridors, and half-a-dozen doors away, the most trusted man in America sits at another desk, also curved but much less impressively ornamented. On its front it carries the familiar logo of the CBS Evening News . Mounted behind him is a wall-sized Mercator projection of the globe. As he sits there, shuffling his papers, and drinking tea with honey from a Styrofoam cup, he is visible on four of the control room screens, two in color and two in black-and-white.

The other men arrive at the three-minute mark, from different directions, to claim their seats in the booth. All three are young—the oldest might be 35—and they all move with quick, deliberate assurance, talking in soft, rapid bursts that seem equally assured. They are the director, his associate, and a senior producer. Each of them dons a headset and places in front of himself identical scripts of large type on yellow paper.

“Two minutes to air,” calls the engineer.

The man in the other room takes a swallow from his tea and conceals the cup behind the ledge of his desk. A makeup expert approaches to dab his face with powder and brush his hair while he asks a question of one of his writers. The question is unheard in the control room.

“Gimme tight,” barks the director into his headset.

On one of the small corner screens, the man at the desk looms suddenly large as the camera focuses down on him. There are two cameras trained on him, one near and straight-on, the other farther back and at a three-quarter angle. The cameraman sets his focus on the man’s brow—revealing large, expressive blue eyes—then pulls back to frame a conventional close-up.

The man wraps the cord for a small lavaliere microphone around his neck, snaps it, and tucks it beneath his tie.

“Sixty seconds,” warns the engineer.

On the largest of the screens, the one in the middle labeled MASTER, a detergent commercial is running soundlessly. There are no sounds from any of the screens—there is only the hurried but confident chatter of whispers and orders from the men watching them.

“Cue tape,” demands the director.

“Thirty seconds,” says the engineer.

The man at the desk sneaks a last furtive sip of tea and stands to put on his coat.

“Where’s Schieffer?” asks the director, glancing over his script.

“Seven,” answers the assistant.

On the screen marked 7, White House correspondent Bob Schieffer noiselessly addresses his microphone.

The clock glares back malevolently from five feet away, its quickest hand sweeping briskly, relentlessly.

“Twenty seconds,” the engineer signals.

“Ready to mat,” says the director.

From screen 4, the CBS Evening News logo is superimposed on the small screen showing the man at his desk. He calmly buttons his coat, checks his French cuffs, pulls a small comb from his pocket and slips it through his recently brushed hair.

A woman is holding a box of soap on the MASTER screen.

“Ten seconds.”

“Ready to roll.”

The man sits down, leafs through his script.

“…seven, six…”

“Hit it.”

The man appears instantly on the MASTER screen, still perusing his papers as the Number Two Camera tightens slowly and dollies across.

“Tape. Mike.”

From the CBS Newsroom in New York . . .” intones an invisible, metallic baritone, backed pretentiously with strings and faint piccolos.

“…two, one…”

The man looks up.

“Cue him.”

“Good evening,” says Walter Cronkite.

We bought our first TV set, I recall, at my adamant insistence and barely in time to see Don Larsen throw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. I suppose that’s when Walter Cronkite first came into my life, though in retrospect he seems always to have been there, some part of the blood’s inheritance, like left-handed genes or original sin.

In 1956 he was hosting the You Are There show, a weekly series of re-enactments wherein CBS correspondents would track down and interview people like Louis Pasteur, Benedict Arnold, General Sherman, and so on. Walter would narrate as these people performed surgery, committed treason, plundered towns, whatever they did when they weren’t being interviewed. He was very good at this, and I began to regard it as perfectly natural for Walter to be There, whenever and wherever There was.

As I grew older, I came to realize that, sure enough, Walter always was There: assassinations, investigations, coronations, launches, landings, you name it. Past all the benchmarks and the tombstones of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Walter was faithfully on hand to counsel or commiserate or, sometimes, to cry and cheer, even as all of us cried and cheered.

I remember that windy afternoon when a rifle bullet ended innocence forever. They told us in study hall that the President had been shot and critically wounded, and that we could all go home. I fled directly to our TV set, hoping desperately that it wasn’t true; it couldn’t be true, I

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