Speaker Time. Yeah. What the edge in Walter's life is that the news was always more important than he was. He never let himself dominate the news. He always understood that people were more interested in the message than they were in the messenger, although the messenger had to be appropriate to the story, he could. While he couldn't get in the way of the story, he had to tell the story in a way that kept the news front and center. And that was Walter Sprague. He he was level headed when all around him was falling apart, whether it was covering the war for the United Press in Europe, whether it was covering the Nuremberg trials or whether it was covering the space shots, the civil rights marches, the war in Vietnam. Walter knew that if he got in front of the news, the edge would be off because he's not an edgy guy. He's not he's not a guy who wears opinions on his sleeves or has sharp features to his personality or felt that he was more important than the content of the broadcast. So are a lot of people find it interesting that that that that Walter is was so levelheaded? Because a lot of you compare the anchors of the day at the cable channels and the talk shows and all of that. Everybody's in combat. Walter was never in combat when he was reporting the news. He was always trying to help the reader or the viewer understand what that story was. And so the story was more important than the storyteller.

Speaker But I'm sorry I didn't get any of that.

Speaker Let's go back to something that you just mentioned, which was he was level headed. And yet when it came time to the Vietnam War. In 64, when he went to Vietnam, he was very much. I'm not saying it was for the war, but his reports were very still quite centered and very level. And yet when he came back from after the Tet Offensive and reported, he made the statements cross that line and he said we're in a stalemate situation. What what do you how how do you how do you feel about that? I mean, were you surprised that Walter crossed that line? Do you think that that's something that an anchor should be doing?

Speaker I don't think he crossed a line. I think that a free press means you can state the conclusion to which the evidence leads you. And when Walter left the anchor chair, where he was a disinterested arbiter of what went out to the people and went to the field as a reporter, he saw the evidence. Every experience creates a new reality. And the experience of being in the field reporting led Cronkite to a conclusion that he would have been dishonest not to state. I mean, you can't look at what was happening, reach a conclusion in your mind and not share it with the people to whom you're obliged to tell them what you have seen. And when I look back at that report that he did that is now credited with changing the perception of the country toward the war in Vietnam. It wasn't radical.

Speaker It wasn't ideological. It wasn't opinion. It was the conclusion to which the evidence was leading many people, print, reporters, writers, analysts, military. But Walter was there with a stage on which to state his conclusion. And when he did, it sent ripples far and wide.

Speaker Now, Johnson said that I don't know if this is true and I didn't know whether this is true, that Johnson said that once I lost, I lost Middle America.

Speaker Well, I wasn't in the White House at that time. I had left. I heard that second hand. I later had it confirmed that the president had said to George Christian, his my successor, as I wasn't at the White House at that time. I heard that I was told that I confirmed it later and found that it was true that the president had said to his bench press secretary George Christian, who succeeded me, that when I watch when I lost Cronkite, I lost the country or I lost the war. No one knows precisely what was said, but what he meant was surely that that when Walter reached the conclusion that the war was unwinnable, there was no way the government was going to convince somebody who was so trusted and so disinterested that if he didn't have an interest like the government did in the outcome that it was he knew that he'd lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the American middle class.

Speaker Now, when you were press Secretary Johnson, I understand when he was in the White House, had a room where he had three. The three networks he could watch was what was going on. Is that true, that he had three televisions and was watching? I would really pay attention to what the networks were saying about.

Speaker And what was going on right there in the Oval Office was three cabinets with the AP and UPI tickers and them the news scrolls that were coming across every minute. And there were the three networks with the three evening news on so that he could at any time he wanted to go back and forth between them. Yes, he kept all three networks own, just as today the White House keeps Fox News on.

Speaker So that's not unusual. It wasn't that that Johnson was particularly concerned about his image and how how how Lyndon Johnson was always concerned about his image.

Speaker What president isn't. But Lyndon Johnson had an insatiable curiosity to know what was happening in the world. He always wanted to know ahead of anybody else in administration what the news was. I remember senior many times reading the AP ticker or the yuppy ticker and picking a phone with a long cord on it and calling an assistant secretary of the interior, let's say, who was affected by that story and telling him what's going on. When the assistant secretary of the interior was learning what was going on from the president, the state who was calling him on the phone while listening to the ticker or watching the news, Lyndon Johnson had the tickers there, not because of his image, although he was always concerned about his image, but because he wanted to be ahead of the news. He wanted to be ahead of the government in responding to the news.

Speaker When Bill won was the first time you were conscious of Cronkite. When were you aware of.

Speaker It was when I became press secretary, really, I wasn't an inveterate watcher of the evening news. In the early days of the 60s, when I became press secretary, I was quite aware that that the evening news was sort of a of a mirror of what was happening or filter of what was happening. And I had to watch it for professional reasons.

Speaker How did you feel that the networks use at that time? It's so splintered. Do you feel that they're in a sense. The networks, yes. Wields quite a bit of power.

Speaker Well, in those days when television was new in the mid 60s. In those days when television news was a brand new phenomenon, it was the way most Americans got their news in common. They still read newspapers. They still read magazines. But the but the common the Commons was the evening newscasts, particularly NBC and CBS. ABC wasn't very significant then.

Speaker And so we watched the news because we knew millions of Americans were watching the news. You had to know what is it that they are seeing that you are going to have to deal with?

Speaker Now, when you were there, when JFK was was assassinated and I just was wondering. Then Cronkite was on was the first time, really that that network was on line 24/7 for the next four days. For you to watch in the middle of all that was happening, to be aware of what was going on in terms of Cronkite and how he was.

Speaker Yes, I was right beside LBJ for those four days. We were so busy, so engaged, so overwhelmed, so consumed by events themselves that I don't remember watching television. I watched the feudal Carter Haj, but I don't remember watching the coverage of the assassination, which I didn't watch, or the aftermath except very selectively.

Speaker I figured that. But I just was curious as to why there was so much going on at that time.

Speaker Now, Walter got his start in journalism at the Texas State House in Austin. And I was wondering. What's that place was like, have a sense of what it was like in the thirties? And was that a kind of great apprenticeship time for you?

Speaker Well, you have to remember that Walter Cronkite enroll at the University of Texas in Austin the year before I was born. Take that water. So it had changed. But there were a lot of similarities.

Speaker By the time I enrolled in University Texas and also covered the state legislature in Austin, Minnoch careers were about 20 years apart. He went to work as a student, covered the legislature and the state. I went to work when I was a student and covered the legislature and the city. He was a print reporter. I was a broadcast reporter. But the capital was still the same. The capital was intimate. Politics was personal. You had access to everybody. I remember one state senator. I remember one state senator telling me what Walter and I have joked about because Walter had similarly, I remember 12 states that are telling me something that Walter and I've talked about because we both have joked about about it. He may not have heard the same thing, but he got the point. This old state senator said to me, young man, if you think we're bad, we politicians, you should see our constituents. So there was you learn a lot about human nature, about how politics works in the state legislature. Texas is the laboratory for almost everything that was happening, been in Washington and it is happening now in Washington. So Walter had exposure to really great political reporters, as did I in Moore in Austin. He had exposure to politicians, as did I learn their ways, learned their personal habits and their personal idiosyncrasies and cut his teeth covering a lot of different subjects while he was there. In fact, he became so fascinated with it that, as you know, he he left the University of Texas after two years and went to work in Houston.

Speaker That's great.

Speaker Now, you. Oh, by the way, you know, what most people don't remember is that Walter could have gone the other way. He ran for president of the freshman class of the University of Texas. Lost. You know, politics loss was journalism's gain. I wonder if he had made a good a politician as he made a good a journalist.

Speaker I mean, there was this story that at one point a poll was taken in that direction and that poll was taken in the sense this one over the other politicians.

Speaker All right. Walter always had a very strong sense of of of reality about these polls. They would come along and say Walter could be elected president and he would understand that once he told people what his real opinion was on an issue, that those polls would change radically. He also had been introduced to the possibility of loss win as a freshman at the University of Texas in 1930, for he ran for freshman class president and lost. So I think probably in the back of his mind, there was a reminder that the polls are are not precursors of reality.

Speaker You've been through the same thing yourself.

Speaker Yeah, I actually won my first two races. I was elected president, the freshman class at college and president of the softball class. And so I had a I have a better, higher string of success in politics than Walter Cronkite.

Speaker Too bad you.

Speaker You wouldn't be interviewing me now if I had.

Speaker What role did you see television play during the civil rights period?

Speaker Oh, I think that it drove home in the conscience of America. What would have taken too long for people to realize if they only read about it when you saw the hoses turned on the people in Selma and Birmingham, when you saw the aftermath of the bombing of the church with the little girls dead, you your mind grasp the reality as opposed to the imagination having to create it from reading it. There's no question but that there would have been a civil rights movement, but it wouldn't have so subpoenaed the conscience of the country without the power of television to convey the reality of. Humanity.

Speaker Now, did you have. Having been spent time at CBS at various points in your career, did you have a sense of the difference between Murrow? I know that you're a whole generation younger. I did. You have a sense of the Murrow era vs. the Cronkite era.

Speaker I saw Cronkite and I saw Walter Cronkite as a natural evolution from the Mura era to of radio in particular. Murrow was the pioneer of radio. He did television as well. But he didn't ever cover the news the way Cronkite covered the news. The Murrow era was reporting the big stories. The Cronkite era was covering the news every day. Right. Am I getting that right? There was a transition, but it was primarily a transition of in the nature of the news. The news became a daily sequence of pictures in the Cronkite area. It had been sound and voice in the mirror era. Therefore, mirror was a greater figure in the imagination of people because radio enables the the listener to create his or her own idea of the messenger. And so Cronkite. Walter, I'm so so Ed Murrow became, you know, a formidable figure in the imagination of the country.

Speaker Water could not have done that and succeeded. Water was every man. Walter was was was that you saw him. You saw his mustache. You saw his pipe. You saw his mannerisms. If he had been as theatrical as a mirror, he would not have been as successful as Cronkite. And that was an important transition in the period from radio broadcasting to television broadcasting. Also, there was more news when you went to a daily newscast.

Speaker You had you had you had to put more on that, a five minute radio broadcast or a 15 minute broadcast from the siege of the Blitz of London. But there was a transition between after after Murrow, but it was an evolutionary one toward news more as a professional rather than a personal odyssey.

Speaker And now what do you have any perceptions about the difference between Cronkite era, rather sort of that next generation?

Speaker Well, the were the anchor went from cool to hot, and that was a big difference in how people perceive the news. Remember, Walter was level headed. Walter was us. Walter looked like us and and and and felt like us. He was Uncle Walter. As he became to be known, Dan was got his start to covering hurricanes and. And that's not an accident. I think I mean, it was a coincidence. But but Dan is is is is is fiercely involved in the story. Dan is intense. Walter kept his distance on the story. Most of the time, Walter was had an even temperament. So, yes, the news became hotter under Dan than it was under Walter.

Speaker Do you feel that television changed the events that you've covered? I mean, are there situations where you were. For example, when when Walter was interviewing that? And in that interview situation said, well, are you willing to go to Israel? And I know that a lot of things were happening simultaneously. Do you feel that in some ways that television can actually change, has the power to change the events itself?

Speaker Every experience creates a new reality. And the experience of the camera, the lights, the microphone changes how I think about myself as I'm talking to you. If we're sitting at home on the couch and you're having a drink and I'm having a drink and we're talking, I'm not conscious of of of of of myself, the way the television requires me to think of myself. So, yes, television particularly changes the subject being interviewed. I mean, if you're covering if you're covering a tank movement in the North Half African theater, the camera isn't going to change the action. It will change the perception of the viewer who sees a slice of the action and think that that one take is the center of the scene. But the primary change in television is is in the person who's being interviewed. So if you're having a good conversation and you're thinking then an Anwar Sadat may realize that this experience of this question has changed the life possibilities. So, yes, there is the Heisenberg principle at work in television, which is that the subject being screened or viewed or considered or comprehended is being changed by the act of comprehension perception and and that this experience. So, yes, it changes the reality of some in some circumstance. Not at all circumstance.

Speaker One of the things that would be helpful is if you can answer this question. We really need someone to talk about this. You came of age in the pre television years, so you saw how the public received their news before the box came. And then saw a change. Could you describe that change for us?

Speaker Not at the moment can I really care. I'd have to think about that. That's not a question I've really thought about. I don't know the answer to that question.

Speaker Oh, the conventions.

Speaker You were you participate in the political conventions and the coverage covered by the news and you were commentator with them yourself.

Speaker Notably in 1980. How did the coverage change over time? How did the coverage change the conventions and for that matter, American politics?

Speaker The primaries changed the coverage of the conventions, the primaries took much of the surprise out of the conventions.

Speaker So the conventions became less news making that I'm sorry. Excuse me.

Speaker Well, that's that's that's an interesting question that I have thought about. I don't have the answer to you. But there was always drama. There was always drama at most political conventions. I mean, who could imagine a more dramatic political event in the life of America than the 1948 Philadelphia convention when Hubert Humphrey delivered his famous speech on civil rights? Not really well covered by television, but full of drama. Television came along and and tried to capture the drama of the conventions. But two things were happening. One, the primaries were draining the conventions of their surprise, both because the candidates were being chosen in the primaries, not in the backyard, as the smoke filled rooms of the convention. So as television with this capacity for drama came to cover the conventions, the drama was happening elsewhere. It's happening out in the primaries. Primary races. The second thing is that by coming to the conventions, television made them even more theatrical and the theatricality of the conventions begin finally to two to bore people because you can't stays the same theater over and over again where nothing is really happening. So television had had an odd relationship with the conventions, with the capacity to capture their drama, even as the drama was shifting away from the convention hall. And as television itself was more simulating reality than actually reporting reality.

Speaker Now, you in the 1980s convention, you worked with Cronkite in covering the convention and I was wondering what was it like working with him?

Speaker It was very serious, very sober. He was he loved. He loved the conventions. He loved to talk about them. He was always full of surprising questions. It was it was really I enjoyed it very, very much because he understood he understood so much about politics and knew what was happening often when the camera couldn't report what was happening. So it made it easy for somebody like me who had been in politics, who had been in government to have a really wonderful conversation with him on camera. Well, that's when Walter and I really bonded, I think. And when he became so supportive of my succeeding Eric Sevareid as the as the analyst on the CBS Evening News, there was a kinship between us. Walters is is a gregarious man. He's he's he's a welcoming man.

Speaker You know, you have to be something of a camera hog when you're an anchor. All day anchors were always suspected by by their colleagues of being anchor hogs. I'm not letting go of it. But the fact of the matter is, the anchor is the thread. The anchor is the voice. The anchor is the is the consistency in the broadcast and what some people call a Canberra hall guy. I would just call a storyteller who has to keep the story going even as he takes small detours into the opinions of a more years. Are the reporting of a Schieffer or something like that? I never felt that he he was a camera hog. It was interesting about the camera. You either have it on television or not.

Speaker It is a kind of chemistry tell of the camera. Either either sees you as as as part of the environment or rejects you as an alien body. And Walter, it whatever it was, it is not something you learn in school. It's not something you can pick up from a coach. It's something that is in. It's a chemistry between you, the human being, and the technology of this medium, which creates a new experience itself, a new reality of. Walter was at home in that he made you feel at home it. Nobody could ever explain why Walter felt at home on television because he was so much a print reporter. He was a guy with a pen and pencil when he was parachuting into Europe. He was a guy with a pen and pencil sitting there making his notes of the Nuremberg trials. And all of a sudden he makes this transition to this medium, which is personal and visual and and symphonic. And there he is conducting the orchestra as if it were the New York Philharmonic. But the orchestra is not violins and flutes and percussions and and tubas. It's a lot of reporters with information and how water came to synchronize it and and synthesize it and harmonize it and conduct it is one of the wonderful stories of television. There was nobody has a real explanation.

Speaker Well, it's interesting because he does conduct periodic. Yes. Interesting. Yes, that's right, Jim. It's not hard to understand why he enjoys the marching band at West Point or or, you know, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Speaker Krakow could have become many things. I guess he was many things because, you know, journalism. But Cronkite could have become many things.

Speaker I guess he was many things because journalism is a license to explain things you don't understand and says most of us don't understand most things. We just are constantly you know, life is a continuing course of adult education for those of us who are journalists.

Speaker And it was for Walter, his. Oh, my goodness. Oh, boy. Wow. That was part of the kid who, you know, in the laboratory who see something in the in the petri dish are looking at a telescope up at the sky. Wow. You know, I've got to be an astronomer. I'm going to be a scientist. No, I'm going to be a dancer. When you see a beautiful. That's all I want to conduct. That water could have become anything could have become a politician if he hadn't lost the race for freshman class president. He probably could have become a conductor if he if he had pursued that he became a journalist, which is all things to all people, particularly to yourself. And I think his life has been that of a of of of a kind of a graduate student who who who would love to have been the professor.

Speaker Great. My last question is, since you retired, Cronkite's been very outspoken about U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy economics. And it's very much like you. I think it's Helverson or someone said that there's two people who are really right now causing a lot of heat, being outspoken, you and Walter speaking a lot about. And I was wondering, do you think that deep down journalists are frustrated? By the constraints of objectivity, I mean, why is it that Walter now is just becoming so outspoken about, you know, the lack of foreign news coverage on the on the networks right now?

Speaker What? Why is he being so. I think Walter cares about his craft, cares about this calling. It's more it's more of craft. I think Walter cares about his craft. I think he cares about his calling. In fact, for many of us. Germany is is not just a crack. I think Walter cares about his craft. I think he's worried about what has been his calling. In fact, for many of us, journalism is not just a craft. It is a call. We feel that we work for you. We feel we work for the people who are watching and reading. And we owe them the best account we can of what we see here. And and report that there's an interesting conundrum in this, which is that it's possible. As a professional, to have deep opinions of your own and still apply rules of reporting and and and fair play and objectivity to what you're reporting and reporting, what you really see without your influence warping it. But there comes a time when having covered the world for all of your life, you do want to reach and state the conclusions to which your life experience has led you. I think Cronkite sees in the demise of foreign reporting a loss of one of our craft's great missions. It's a little bit like a surgeon who loses a hand. And when you lose the capacity to report from the world, you're losing part of what makes journalism an important service to democracy. And I think people like Walter Cronkite care not only about journalism.

Speaker They care about democracy. They care about their country. And and sooner or later, having spent a lifetime of seeing what is happening, you want to share with people what you think might avert the worst mistakes that we've made being repeated. I don't know. That's my opinion. I have no idea what what why Walter does except liberated from the honorable restrictions of journalism. As a platform, if you want to use it that way, limited from a report released from the obligations of the journalist to be LEVEL-HEADED and to be objective and to be aware of all sides, you reach a moment when you want to say, yes, there are more than two ways or three ways or four ways to see this. But let me tell you what I really think is going on. The other thing is that you can use whatever it is you want, obviously. But journalism has two fundamental obligations. One is to cover the news and the others to uncover the news. If you cover the news, you you have to report what politicians say and what armies do and what governments enact.

Speaker But you often know that behind the scenes is another story that you would like to uncover.

Speaker To do that requires deep exploration, investigation and making judgments. And there comes a time when you as a.. Step out of the role of covering the news with with this insatiable thirst to uncover the news and tell people what you really know is going on back there. So it's a constant conflict is a constant back and forth for those of us who were journalists. We know that there's more than we can show you. And we will we await the day when we can show you what we're not showing you. But that doesn't make much sense.

Speaker That's good. No, perfect. Is there anything else? No funny anecdote or something. An experience you had with Walter that you I heard the expression that he's very much a Walter Mitty character described by his friends because he's. I didn't know from a personal standpoint, with your experience with Judith and Betsy and the four of you. You've had something so surprised you about him.

Speaker His stories are always surprising. He enjoys every experience. I mean, there we were. There we were.

Speaker How does he know he's 91, going to be 90? Yeah.

Speaker I mean, he's just he he loves life and he loves fellowship and he loves friendship.

Speaker There we were. He was 88 years old. His hearing was failing. His body was aching. But we were in Vienna for the New Year's Eve concert. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

Speaker And the moment he finished filming off, we were for a long dinner with with lubrication and and and libation and laughter and water went into a long story about how after the end of the Second World War, Betsy had taken a ship to come to England to meet him. And he was still laughing at the fact that that when everybody else got off the ship, she was still down waiting for him. Come aboard. I mean, he's full of stories. And as long as you've known and he always comes up with a new story and, you know, they're real stories, it seems to be as he gets older, his memory gets sharper in terms of those things.

Speaker But we were in Vienna and having having lunch on New Year's day of night of 2004, and he was regaling us with stories of about and feeling sort of overwhelmed at the fact that he was he was staying in the suite and the Imperial Hotel overlooking the the great boulevard of Vienna, which was the same suite where adult Hitler had stayed when Hitler had come to Vienna at the time of the Schloss. And you can even see him now on that balcony over Neith overlooking that boulevard. And water took great, great pleasure in being able to be the ultimate vindication on the same spot, the refutation of all that Adolf Hitler stood for. And here was this American journalist, the refutation of the opposite of that regime. Standing on that same veranda, enjoying that same view, but with a wholly different tradition behind him. I mean, he loved that moment. He could tell it was like a little boy as he told you about how he was staying in Hitler's suite in in in in Vienna. And he said, you want a world.

Bill Moyers
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Bill Moyers, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 29 Mar. 2006,
(2006, March 29). Bill Moyers, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Bill Moyers, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). March 29, 2006. Accessed January 20, 2022


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