Speaker Did people ask me where I met Walter Cronkite and. I oddly enough, I remember I wrote an editorial. On how the free press should respond.

Speaker To the threat of a union.

Speaker Which asked us to decline to do our duty on the grounds that the union was annoyed about something. So I. I said that that had to be face down. Pretty outspokenly and loud, as I've suggested forever. And there was a phone call from. This is Walter Cronkite. I will tell you that I think that your solutions are not good, but your analysis of the business situation is good anyway.

Speaker So we became. Sort of phone me for a while, and then he he joined the same little club in the Bohemian Grove, which I had been a member. And I saw a lot of them on that, the special weekend every year. And.

Speaker He loved to sail and we've had a lot of conversations about that. Something interesting about Cronkite is that I didn't know he was a left winger. For quite a while, he gave this startling speech somewhere, which I read neither my guys that my Walter good with it was. It reminded me of two things.

Speaker Number one, how. Derange, right? People can be in their parties.

Speaker And secondly, how remarkably successful he was in keeping those attitudes to himself. I think this has been widely commented on since then, but at that at the time that I discovered it, it was it was pretty late in the game. But really a great tribute to him. We we walked a lot in California on those outings in the. Is is a marvelous walking tease and mimic, makes fun of things. He would you know, I would always be the arch fascist. You'd be the arch communist. And that kind of drollery where I am. But he was a. He showed remarkable skill as a sort of improvised mischief. Was not not at all consistent with the general impression that one has of him. Mr. Alltime sobriety. So that's that's a very short.

Speaker Portrait of a relationship which which which I which I treasure.

Speaker And. The part are different politics, and I have gotten the word.

Speaker Now, do you think you feel that when will you come out of print and you were there when when your news came from print into radio and then it it appeared on the box. When were you conscious of Cronkite and his reports at CBS?

Speaker Well, I guess it's it's it's sad to say that sort of grew up with him. I can't remember when Cronkite was not. And know he had he had competition, but there was a general inclination. To turn the switch on that featured him and then if memory serves. Every generation to the present. If you're bombed and you want to know whether this man giving you advice is the authentic voice of America. Listen to the sound and Cronkite, if my memory serves, was named as the authentic sound. I forget who. Who was his predecessor, somebody who's on radio for five hours every week and had a sort of avuncular relationship with Merle was sort of the.

Speaker This person at CBS, who's Myrl, Edward R. Murrow.

Speaker Oh, yeah. This is a guy who had a three or four hours program for a lot of the kids and was considered just sort of uncle sandwich. In any event, that. That seemed such a natural thing.

Speaker His voice was distinctive, his mind was a distinctive. And there was a sense of serenity when he when he spoke, combined with a sense of intelligence. And that that I think that the combination of those two qualities made him, I think, especially appealing and extended his franchise.

Speaker Because it's unusual in the sense that Wolter lasted for so many years at CBS, where people are constantly you get to a certain age and you're sort of taken out of the picture and brought in the young person's brother. And Walter really had quite a long haul at CBS. And I wondered, what about his? His presence that that made people feel that he was so trustworthy.

Speaker Do you have any sense of what about him? What about his quality that that gave those people that kind of confidence?

Speaker What it is that. It is that. Triggers. That sense of. Reliance and acquiescence, authority. I don't know, but it's unmistakable, it just plain happens. And when when Cronkite spoke. There was simply.

Speaker No, no urge to question the celebrity or the property of what he said he was speaking now. It's like having said that, it's remarkable. Having learned how heavily he leaned to the left that he was able to project the kind of dispassion which can't have been genuine.

Speaker Given given his.

Speaker Is stored feelings on on certain subjects? I wish I could give one example, but there has to have been examples. When he recited what Senator Taft was saying or the National Association of Manufacturers. So I had a communist organizations who had left him saddened and skeptical electorally. But this does not communicate, at least not to me.

Speaker Maybe I'm slow, but I don't think I am because.

Speaker If if it had been if.

Speaker It is skepticism has been communicated. It would have been been picked up by somebody in my group and relayed to me.

Speaker Now. Get a little chinaware on the nose, okay?

Speaker So just in this line of work is as much as one could be as objective as possible, that would work. Yes.

Speaker But yet, in a sense, he he when he came back from the Tet Offensive, when he went to view it at first in 64, when he went to Vietnam, he was pretty much a hawk and was came back and was reporting the news very straight. But then when he went. For the Tet Offensive, he came back and he made that report to the general public saying. We've reached a stalemate. Can you talk about that and what effect that had? And were you surprised by water crossing that line?

Speaker Well, the question of was I surprised by his crossing the line?

Speaker The answer is no, because I have you check the water because I want that. I want this question. So I want to get it clearly.

Speaker The name of a prominent journalist, which is slipped my memory.

Speaker He wrote the big book on the.

Speaker New York Times. Big, big bestseller has me is who?

Speaker McCollough, though.

Speaker He is in Nantucket. She was.

Speaker Sorry. I'm sorry, I have to change a battery.

Speaker When Cronkite made his broadcast about the stalemate, he felt the stalemate in Vietnam and that we should think about withdrawal.

Speaker Well, we were talking about David. Yeah. OK, we back up, up.

Speaker David Halberstam, who was a very prominent journalistic voice in Vietnam, was a passionate on the subject of the need to win that war. And he had he had lunch with the editors of National Review after he began to have doubts, not not on whether we should have been there, but whether we had a prospect of winning.

Speaker It was clear to me that Walter Cronkite had those doubts at the beginning. I've heard it said that there used to be asked a participant in the early engagement and was disillusioned after the Tet Offensive in particular. That may be, but my my memory of him during the years of listening was he reported on what he saw. He didn't draw conclusions which or in any sense ideological. Now, of course, when the Tet Offensive happened, we got to the great ideological bleeding grounds of nineteen hundred sixty eight. And then everyone had to sort of declare themselves. It was about that time, I suppose, that one generally acknowledged Walter Cronkite was. In favor of ending that war. Amazing to see what you've done on Iraq.

Speaker Now, do you? Were you surprised when Walter came out with that statement?

Speaker I mean, I was very surprised by the speech that I read in which he recited his his his background and recited his political inclinations and then did so rather full throated. It is one thing with is that OK? I have been to Vietnam and I discovered it's a terrible experience that isn't working out. And therefore I'm changing my position on it. But it's something completely different. Come forward with an autobiographical exercise that has you hitting the left note on a number of points, reaching back over the ages. And that's what I did in this piece I read.

Speaker Now, some people say that he lost the war in Vietnam. The press lost the war in Vietnam. I wonder whether you. What is your opinion about that?

Speaker The question of whether the left, whether the press lost the war in Vietnam is interesting because one has to acknowledge that a war of that kind, which requires sustained engagement, continued losses, had to generate the support of the American people. Now, the for the very people was there. Right through the 68 convention. When Humphrey was nominated, he was nominated after declaring that he would consummate the war.

Speaker Though if public acquiescence is required.

Speaker How is that? Is public acquiescence solicited? With the president, of course, can appeal for done with support, but inevitably, if you have a. The press access accentuating day after day, that which is a pessimistic. I don't see how it's reasonable to suppose that that influence felt.

Speaker So although one would have been decisive answer to the question, was the press sorry?

Speaker When would that be indecisive? The nose of government was the price. Well, Martin, really influential one would have to acknowledge.

Speaker It had to have had enjoyed.

Speaker The.

Speaker No, I don't think there was ever a situation with Walter Cronkite. Was considered. Is egging on. Capitulate. Capitulation aside. He wasn't to be compared with the. The commentator these days on the. On the immigration issue, two terms is daily broadcast into. Tirade on the water was not not that ever. He was. He had become a partisan, but it was a partisanship that. That deferred to what he understood to be his professional obligations.

Speaker What do you think when LBJ made the statement, when he saw this report, Cronkite? He said, well, if I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.

Speaker But it was a captain's way of saying it. And it's a nice metaphor for that.

Speaker Walter Cronkite equals middle America. It's not wild because this one had to. If one had to improvise the features and the character of somebody who could be identified as this. America, we come up with Walter Cronkite. So it was a it was a poetic truth, even if it wasn't a solid demographic truth.

Speaker Now, Cronkite was actually quite fair, fierce about press duties and freedoms.

Speaker And he said that the Vietnam War belonged in people's living rooms. He said that people had a duty to know what was going on in the world. He said that journalists should never consider the effect of what they report, only whether it is true or not.

Speaker You have the notion that journalists have only the single obligation to report the truth is in my judgment. Childish. There are other observations. If one knew that at dawn the next morning the American Marines were going to invade Grenada. You wouldn't, in my judgment, responsibly relate. That was going to happen on the Southern Bloc is. So I think that. I think that Walter Cronkite's devotion to the free press. Exceeds his judgment in matters of this kind. He had done a few people had a discussion on this point a few years ago under. Fred Friendly's to live with a program. Lasted for forever, three hours and got everybody there.

Speaker But the video, the point was explored. And most people will see that there were certain situations in which a press could responsibly withhold news. But very few. And somebody was advised to say. It's the press that exposed the Bay of Pigs and it had been aborted. It would have been a good thing. And that which is interesting.

Speaker On the other hand, the people who made those decisions have been elected. With the authority to make.

Speaker That's excellent. Now. Let's go to JFK, the assassination.

Speaker Were you were you here when when Walter announced. Were you what were you by any chance watching when Walter announced the assassination attempt and finally the death of JFK?

Speaker Well, I was not. But I feel I might as well have been because what he didn't said was. We've repeated about 100 times in the next few days. So with that that famous gesture, he took off his glasses.

Speaker And had a sense of the consummation of the new age. Was that done with sense of communication, poetry written in it? And I think that he succeeded in doing that in an unmistakable way, as witnessed the frequency with which we continue to see. Those few seconds of him on screen.

Speaker Do you feel that in a way he helped us through that period? He helped the American the American public? It was the first time that news was covered for four days straight. It was nonstop news. Do you feel that in some ways Cronkite sort of helped the American public through that terrible period?

Speaker Do I think that Walter Cronkite helped America through the terrible period after the assassination? I suppose he did, in the sense that his serota. Was uninterrupted. He could acknowledge tragedy without succumbing. To tragedy in the operatic sense in which you do sort itself out the window, take poison or stretches of. He didn't. He didn't encourage that. Which was an aspect of his.

Speaker Philosophical. Optimism about self government.

Speaker And an attachment to the prospects of a successful republic.

Speaker I think those those factors continue to fortify. The impression he made as a reliable witness.

Speaker In 1970, the White House made a concerted effort to go after television, Agnew gave a speech in which he referred to the nattering nabobs of negativism. The administration talked about how the media elite, just a few people, was determining what's in the news. And they particularly went after CBS News and Cronkite. I wonder whether you have any comment about that.

Speaker I remember the conflict. And it goes as one of the ironic that he asked you to put the conflict.

Speaker Of course, I don't know what you're talking about. Know Nixon. I knew.

Speaker You know, there's probably the. The name of the New York Times columnist. Retired years ago. Who wrote those words? Bill? Bill. Bill, what? The column for 25 years.

Speaker Roger, good man. So what is so good?

Speaker See if you can give me the context of the Agnese speech where he referred to the nattering nabobs of negativism and why they particularly went after CBS and Walter Cronkite.

Speaker And at a certain point, Agnew, Vice President Agnew specifically charged that the press and I think he singled out CBS was responsible for whipping up.

Speaker The capitulations fever's. The.

Speaker If a four foot four to three weeks, the CBS question. What is the most prominent in all public discussions having to do with that, is the press responsible? He is the. Odd language, the nattering nabobs of negativism was the phrase. It came out sometime after the speechmakers for that ticker speech was no less than Bill Safire, who a couple of years later became a. A almost a daily feature of The New York Times and sort of the voice of reason and conservatism.

Speaker I wish you were here to discuss that episode. In any event, it is true that the. That Agnes. Brought the issue up sharply and would only have done so with the acquiescence of the White House.

Speaker But do you think that's true? Do you think what he was saying there was a valid reason?

Speaker I do, I do, I think it was a valid reason for what he said.

Speaker I'd have to examine read of the language that he used, but I think he was absolutely correct that that he singled out the press as a prominently partisan. I belong to a committee with the head of CBS, which he met. Every month I remember having a pin made say it again. To tease Frank Stanton along and he. He was a realist. He would not have denied that CBS was prominent and galvanizing. A position of disquietude. And the American people much sure that he would have said that the press was responsible for it rather than objective events which had been reported by the press.

Speaker How are we doing?

Speaker This is a big question, and I don't know if you can help us with this. Just to kind of overview what happened in American journalism between 1951 and 1981, the years that Cronkite was at CBS.

Speaker I'm not suggesting that Cronkite made an earth shattering difference. But is it reasonable to say that he was an a person, important passenger in a period of change?

Speaker Well, the person is what happened in American journalism between 51 and 81 years when Walter Cronkite held held sway.

Speaker Well, what happened? I think. Can be demonstrated.

Speaker By examining where were people getting their news, it was a.

Speaker I have graduate that particularly a year from university, and I'm not even sure I'd ever seen television, except isn't that quaint, that article. But to go from that to seeing it every day. Seems an age in terms of a change of habit. But it happens very rapidly. And one brand, Walter Cronkite, is sort of the leading man, the leading presence in that particular medium. So that I think it is fair to say that the. The devil luciane of the hurricane, the view from the newspaper to the television. Was a coterminous with Walter Cronkite's ascendancy in that medium. So you can draw a perfect, responsible conclusions about his problems.

Speaker If you feel that he became that Walter, in a sense, because at that time you only had three networks, you didn't have all the splintering up. Do you feel that that time Cronkite became a powerful, powerful figure in American public affairs? Was that was that Cronkite himself or the power and importance of the new medium of television?

Speaker What was it, Cronkite himself or was it the new medium that got accountant?

Speaker The promise of the U.S. I would say we accomplished the two. There were a lot of important voices. The people at ABC.

Speaker I'm not good at names. They were private, but water was what was he was singular without being exclusive. He had he had his own style.

Speaker Which became the star that most people associated.

Speaker With that with that, we are getting the news. But there are other people doing the same thing, as I say, on to other television networks, there being only three at the time and. They work to be the to be ignored. I'm sure he would make the same concession.

Speaker Now, histories of corruption begin with the growing power of television news and put in at the political conventions of the 1950s.

Speaker These events transformed the events they covered. They transformed the way we all understood the political process. Do you feel that Cronkite had a role in changing process?

Speaker I did. I think that Cronkite had a role in changing the process of. The total absorption. I think he did have a role. In part, I was extremely influenced, as I suppose others were, by his willingness to drop everything and devote himself to the pursuit of a particular story. There he is walking around in Madison Square Garden or wherever.

Speaker With the mike and stuff on as he is going on poking it at various delegates from odd parts of the world as though what did they have to say was was. Of sovereign importance. In doing that, I think he transmitted the notion of what was said by over the air was the equivalent of front page treatment in The New York Times. And in a sense, he made it that important simply by by giving it that kind of attention.

Speaker I remember I was giving a talk in. Rhizome.

Speaker And the misfire channel, the misfire of the missile that was going around the moon was the number 13. In any case, a.

Speaker There was certainly inattention towards the last minute amount talk because word got around that this missile. They may have been maybe engaged in a suicidal mission, so I cooperated by sort of cutting down the question. And we all rushed to our room and I was they're watching Cronkite until twelve thirty when I simply had to go to sleep.

Speaker I turned on at six thirty and there was Cronkite, who had been treating the subject all night long. And is the apparent, in fact, in fact, ability of him? Was both a horrific biological achievement, but it also conferred kind of a sacramental importance.

Speaker What is that he was covering? I remember he told me that I congratulated him that. Maybe he was on Medicaid and he was on about 28 hours. What did you do then? He said I was so exhausted.

Speaker A little airplane and flew.

Speaker To the Bahamas, where I met up with my sailboat and I got relax with Betty in the boat and all of a sudden this little.

Speaker From robot, put it the.

Speaker Compromise of whatever boat is being Christmasy, would you come over and have a drink? So you said, well, sure. One of our solemn turns out his invitation. And he said, so we will take you there. It was Roy Cohn's both the diplomatic straining admitted to if that had ever been made public, it would've been the measure.

Speaker Total dedication to his profession.

Speaker Do you have any recollection of any other stories that you remember very vividly that he covered that impressed you or troubled you?

Speaker Memories of other.

Speaker Of his broadcasts, particularly, though I would.

Speaker Identify a bunch of mythical flash in front of me, but I don't I don't recall. Specifically.

Speaker OK. Did you do you think that there a liberal bias to the media? Oh, true. That Cronkite has a hidden kind of liberal bias.

Speaker I think there's a liberal bias in the media. The answer's yes.

Speaker We're getting of.

Speaker A different feel. Let me just.

Speaker The majority of people in the academic world are Democrats. They prove this election after election when a two party vote. Eighty percent of Democrats. Now, there's a sort of a continuum between the press and the academy they feed into each other. And I think it would be almost impossible to contend that there was not a liberal bias. Now, what do these struggle tends to be, whether that liberal bias incapacitates practitioner from reporting the news faithfully? I don't think it necessarily does. So they could be individual reporters who can be shown to have yielded to ideological passions. But that would not have been true. People of the quality of Cuba to suffer.

Speaker I think we've had enough torture. Yeah, well, I had a couple more questions.

Speaker Go ahead. That's fine. Daniel Schorr called the three network news broadcasts years before cable spluttered the market as a national set, as a national sales. That is, everyone was watching more or less the same thing. That was that national sales was created a kind of community that we no longer did that create that kind of community that we no longer have. I miss the first part of that. The Daniel Schorr called the three network news broadcasts in the years before cable splintered the market as a national sales that everyone was watching more or less the same thing.

Speaker What was that? National sales? Did that create a kind of community that we no longer have?

Speaker Well.

Speaker I think I think it is correct to say that three networks dominated the news to the point of indicating what was newsworthy, as the famous reporter from your time said it was newsworthy is what I put on the front page. So because it is worthy, but I don't think it's correct to say.

Speaker That this has been so divisive as to make quickly identifiable the difference between then and now when we also have cable. So I think that. It is correct to say. That the Voice of America was being heard through those three three channels and that. There wasn't all that much suppression going on because when other channels cropped up wasn't there was not all that significant a difference, but they were.

Speaker And my last question is, you both share a passion for sailing. You and Cronkite and I just wondered if you could tell me in times that you've sailed together, I assume you've sailed together. Can you tell me a little bit about the Cronkite that you've seen as a sailor?

Speaker Versus his professional herself.

Speaker I'm not 100 percent sure. I've actually sailed with Cronkite.

Speaker We've been. On his boat together and on my boat together. But I've never seen him acting as skipper. There are there are. Iraq, the reasons for this. But water never posed as an accomplished seaman. He was a devotee of the sea rather than a practitioner of the craft.

Speaker I ran into Wonsan in the Bahamas who said that he did not. I had the week hopefully he'd have asked me to take his boat up. To the states. But he dearly loved his boat, always tortured himself, and so regretted having done so.

Speaker The next day and his.

Speaker It's a truly, truly happy man, but involved with the sea as as a hot.

Speaker Do our people.

Speaker OK. So we were talking about sailing and you were talking about Cronkite and his that he was more a devotee of sailing.

Speaker Oh, yes, I see.

Speaker Yes. Walter Cronkite is a passionate. Sailor, he loves it. He's good at it. He is in no sense and never have sort of as a technician of sail, he would Dr.. I think we have undertaken an ocean passage with himself as skipper.

William Buckley
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"William Buckley, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 03 Apr. 2006,
(2006, April 03). William Buckley, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"William Buckley, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). April 03, 2006. Accessed January 20, 2022


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