Transcript:

Speaker Well, when I started, I was a writer at CBS News. It was an entirely different landscape. I mean, there was no job description as producer in those days. There was a director and there were writers and there were editors. And that was that. And I was a writer and I was the junior most writer at CBS News and and available for any sort of overtime work that was. And so, Walter, in those days, did a Sunday night network newscasts called the Sunday News Special, which was seen in New York at 11 p.m. and broadcast over the then CBS network. And they would always pick that had no particular staff attached to it. They always picked people. And I was always available, always willing and always eager to get that sixth day in. And that's how I first got to know.

Speaker I just wanted to let you know one thing. Just talk to me, OK? OK. OK, OK. Sorry. So I will not be on camera here right now. Right. OK. The content of the question. So. So when you first met, do you remember the first time you met Walter Cronkite? First impressions?

Speaker Not precisely that way. But I remember we had a meeting of the minds and the heart, if you will, because we both had a background in wire service journalism. And he he's never forgotten his. His career at United Press. And he's very dedicated to that sort of journalistic technique. And of course, I had just come out of the forest working for a different wire service. And so I had the same sort of discipline and same sort of attitudes. And so we had and we had where I guess you call a meeting of the minds.

Speaker And when you talked about the discipline and the attitudes coming out of the wire service, what was unique about people who came out of lives?

Speaker Well, looking back on it now, you had to be terse.

Speaker I'm sorry. Can you talk about the words?

Speaker Oh, yeah. No. No. OK. OK. Well, at the wire services, certainly in those days you had to be terse in terms of your output. You had to be quick. I mean, there was always a deadline. It wasn't as if you were working for a newspaper or magazine when you knew there was a date certain that you had to get something you won't. You were always on deadline and you always are under pressure. You had to be fast. You had to be quick. You had to be terse. And course you had to be accurate.

Speaker And that's that was the sort of discipline I'm talking about now when I understand that the people take young people, work them really, really hard, and there's this kind of there was kind of this collegiality or quality of that kind of pushing to get this story. And can you talk to me a little bit about what it was like actually to work well in the wire services?

Speaker My experience was in the Far East, but I'm sure it was the same elsewhere around the world. There was a ferocious competition. There were three main wire services. I'm going back to the 40s and 50s coming out of World War two and the competition to be first with a story. And when I say first, I mean, a half hour was was a career, you know, if you could be first that way. And and so within each wire service, I mean, there was a command come a rotary. I mean, there were you were a band of brothers. I mean, and and the other guys were always the bad guys. And so it was. And of course, the technology was much less complicated than it is today. I traveled the Far East with an Olivetti typewriter and a little canvas case and a credit card which allowed me to send without spending cash money allowed me to send dispatches through something called Cable and Wireless, which was a worldwide British Western Union. And that was it. I mean, of course, now, if you go out on a story, there's a small army you have to travel with because of the technology.

Speaker That's great. Now, when you worked with Walter at the beginning, were you already his producer?

Speaker No, no. That's what I'm talking about. All right. And when did you become his producer? OK.

Speaker At the beginning of my relationship with Walter, there was no such thing as a producer. That is, in effect, the news writer and the editor were effectively the producers, OK? And the writer actually became the producer, although there was no such titles in those days. And I mean, the writer was the one who looked at the film with way this is way before videotape and who decided you're subject to second guessing by others, but decided that the way the film, what film would be used in the way it would be used and produced scripts. Walter was always very jealous of command of the scripts. I mean, you know, on the evening news later on in his career, I mean, there were three and sometimes four writers attached to the evening news, but nothing happened unless he either wrote it himself or certified it or changed something that he wasn't. He wasn't one of those people who just picked up a piece of paper and read was what was presented to him. He's always questioning. And so back in the early I'm going back now to the late 50s.

Speaker He was then an emerging star because he'd been at the conventions when when the convention coverage went from Philadelphia to Boston and nowhere else. But it was it was becoming very important because in those days, political conventions really did pick the nominee, unlike today, when when all they do is certify a nominee who's been picked through the primary process outside media and media.

Speaker Oh, are you working out here? OK, as we're filming. And so.

Speaker I wondered if you could start back with the conventions.

Speaker Right. OK. Back in the 50s, Walter was an emerging star in a much smaller universe than we have much on television universe than we have today. He was hired during the Korean War. Heath by CBS News. He thought to go to Korea. But CBS in those days owned the television station in Washington and they decided they made him an anchor man who and he very he's very proud of the fact that he used to do what he, loosely speaking, called chalk talks about the status of the war. And that's how he first came to notice. And then in 52, he was chosen to be the anchor man. I'm not sure the word was invented at that point, but he was he was chosen to be the anchor man at the convention coverage, which in those days, the network went from Washington to Boston, New York and Philadelphia. That was about it. And so he was an emerging star. And he also was was a star. We used to call it the ghetto, the sun ghetto, where the networks I'm talking mainly about CBS and NBC would put a lot of public affairs programming on omnibus, the war at sea on NBC and then CBS reacted with air power. These were all wonderful, wonderful pieces of work. And at CBS, Walter was the anchor man of these. They weren't news news operations, but they they there was a lot of publicity attached. A lot of fame attached to it. And so he was becoming a star in this other area. But he also did because he's such a news freak. He also did this eleven o'clock newscast on Sunday nights, which is no longer on the air. But but in those days was a minor part of the CBS News operation. And that's when I first met him and joined him, was on the Sunday news special.

Speaker You were saying about the conventions, how conventions were very different first.

Speaker Yes. Fifty to fifty two. I was I was still in the Far East doing God's work, covering the Korean War. And Walter. Walter was supposed to go over to cover the Korean War for CBS, was short, stopped and was in Washington and chosen to be the anchor man at the convention.

Speaker And I can't dramatize for you how important these these coverage is were in those days, because the conventions really did pick the candidate, unlike today, when they certify a candidate chosen elsewhere. And and there was a lot of anticipation. There was a lot of excitement to it. And you could see the whole process in smoke filled rooms. I mean, the networks went to great lengths to sneak into smoke filled rooms, to get into closets where they could eavesdrop, to get interviews and to show the excitement on the floor.

Speaker Even even, you know, the the maneuverings were right out there, very old to a great extent, right out there in the open if he knew where to look and who to talk to. And so that was the first, I guess, large scale national exposure, if you can. I use the word national loosely for Walter. And then, of course, at 56, 1956, where the conventions were in Chicago and San Francisco, it was a really big, big deal.

Speaker I mean, it was no kidding around. I was the major effort the networks put into it and they spent scads of money. And these were commercials. I mean, I'm I'm not crying poor for the networks. Westinghouse was the main sponsor for CBS. I don't remember who did the same for NBC. And I wasn't connected with Walter at 56. I wasn't even with CBS in 1952. And I wasn't connected directly with Walter. But I was there as part of the army that that CBS sent to both Chicago and San Francisco for those conventions. And I had a close up look at the operation. By 1960, when the Democratic Convention was in Los Angeles, I was the anchor producer, although I'm not sure that title. I'm not sure that was my title, but that was my function. And Walter's assistant chief sitting next to him mostly, almost entirely off camera, but sitting next to him and doing what I could to help him concentrate on what was going on in the train. And what was what was happening and what we could anticipate was happening and what surprises were coming along.

Speaker What happened in the 64 convention?

Speaker Well, I was, again, anchor producer. I'm not sure in a sick 1964 convention, which was in San Francisco. And the second convention, the Democratic Convention, was in Atlantic City. The incumbent. The incumbent party always had the second convention. The challenging party always went first matter of courtesy. That that still exists. And so the Republican convention, which nominated Barry Goldwater, was in San Francisco, and that was early on. And although I was not. I was not in the middle of those conversations.

Speaker There was a lot of unease. A lot of.

Speaker Well, it was yeah, there were a lot of problems, mainly the ratings as the NBC ratings were much better and the people in command at CBS corporate structure felt that artistically in other ways, that NBC was better. And the word came down in some way. And Walter was effectively fired as anchor man. NBC had a double anchor, Huntley Brinkley, who were dominant in those days in the ratings. And. And so Walter called me. I had after the San Francisco convention, I'd come back to New York waiting to go to. To Chicago, not to Atlantic City. So after after the Chicago homicide, after the San Francisco convention, I'd gone back to New York waiting to go to Atlantic City for the for the Democratic convention. And I received a phone call from Walter telling me that he'd just been fired and that he and his children were going to Disneyland or Disney World, whatever the West Coast version of it was. And coming that he was still he was still on the evening news, but he certainly was not going to anchor the Atlantic City Convention. That assignment went to a fellow named Bob Trout and Roger Mudd. And it was also judged a disaster. And I cannot tell you the specifics of why, because I wasn't involved in that. But. They were, in effect, fired because on election night of 64, Walter was back as the anchor, the overall anchor and the traffic cop and the guy who told you where we were going next and why and what was happening.

Speaker Were you close enough to Walter to know how he felt when he got this news? I mean, did you.

Speaker Well, he did he handle it?

Speaker Well, he he was just as anyone would be.

Speaker Walter was really jolted when the bill, a fellow named Bill Leonard, who was then the vice president of CBS News, in charge of such things as conventions. Bill Leonard was the one who actually delivered the the message to Walter that he was not going to be anchor firmly.

Speaker Actually, I understand Fred Friendly flew to see Walter and tell him that he was sure that Walter and his wife, OK, was very grateful about that.

Speaker But anyway, you could just pick up OK. You know, how did he feel? OK. How did he do?

Speaker Well, he was OK. He there's no question he felt jilted, disappointed. But he decided to take the high road, if that's the way to describe it.

Speaker At a news conference in San Francisco, the news about his his his being fired was big, big news in the day and at a news conference. There he is. Attitude was simply, well, the company has the right to choose whoever they want to do it and I'll do whatever they assigned me to.

Speaker And it was just it was a very praiseworthy by most people. Most people judge it as a very praiseworthy attitude he had. He was not criticizing the company. He was not criticizing the system. He was not criticizing the ratings or or certainly not criticizing his competitors. He simply said it's their candy store and they can run it any way they want.

Speaker And I'm here working for them and I'll do whatever I'm asked to do, which was to go back and do the evening news. And she did. Now, he and a fellow named Don Hewitt, who was producer at the time, went to Atlantic City. And I'm not sure that anybody anticipated his Walter's physical presence in Atlantic City. And there was a certain I wasn't there. I stayed back in New York because the way we did the evening news see, Walter, there would be the convention coverage anchored by Bob Trout and Roger Mudd. And then in the evening, the evening newscast would be anchored by Walter Cronkite coming to you from Atlantic City with the rest of the world news and national news being piped out of New York and integrated that way. And so. I think there was some unease within the company about this, but there wasn't anything that they could do in any kind of graceful way to try to amend this attitude. And so Walter and Hewitt were having a good time because they didn't have any daytime responsibilities as far as coverage goes. And they were just I mean, having a grand time.

Speaker Do you think that was a smart move on? Well, to how Walter handled that situation. Do you think that it served him well?

Speaker Oh, I think it served them extra. I think the way Walter handled that situation was it was extraordinarily beneficial to him in the end, because the people that make these decisions had no qualms about deciding he should be the anchor man election night.

Speaker And there wasn't any question about somebody eating crow or being embarrassed because of his his attitude on being fired. And so I think it worked out very well for all parties. In the end.

Speaker It seems that while one gets the feeling that he was a real. Do you think that's true, Walter?

Speaker Walter was and is a real company man. I mean, he was a real company man when he worked for Yuppy. I mean, he you know, he'll go on and on and on about the glories of UAP. He was in is a company man about CBS. It still is. Yes. I think it's fair to say that Walter Cronkite is a company man without any apologies or any sort of defensiveness about that.

Speaker I want just to finish up on the convention.

Speaker Tell me a little bit about because some people don't know who Huntley and Brinkley were and what the competition. Why did they seem to have become so popular? And what happens if you could give me a little bit?

Speaker Okay.

Speaker No, I don't remember. Do you know did Huntley Brinkley would they appear in 52? I think fifty six is when they first appeared to be the host.

Speaker No, not by your terms. OK, well. Well, the ratings. Right. Right. Just from that context. Right. OK. OK. OK.

Speaker Well, the chief competition for CBS News and Walter Cronkite was NBC News and a team called Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and David Brinkley operated from Washington.

Speaker Chet Huntley operated from New York. Chet Huntley was if I made the door. Serious newsman Chet Huntley was kind of a waspish sarcastic, sometimes funny commentator on what what what was going on in Washington. He was sort of a smart alec, OK? And but this was very attractive and it was a breakthrough for the audiences of the day, whereas at CBS it was kind of a retro usually stayed right down the middle. Tell it the way it is sort of organization anchored first by a fellow named Doug Edwards. And then in the early 60s, Walter took over the job. And one of the reasons they chose Walter to replace Doug Edwards was because Huntley Brinkley was which was hugely successful, talked about written about in newspapers and magazines and watched by a hell of a lot more people than were watching Doug Edwards and then Walter Cronkite at the beginning. This all changed back in the middle or late 60s in my mind. It changed when Huntley retired Chet Huntley, the door straight down, the middle guy retired.

Speaker And we discovered I mean, we working in the halls of CBS, knows that Chet Huntley was the main attraction for the audience in getting their news, not David Brinkley, who was the wise guy, because that's when their ratings took a tumble.

Speaker And to me, it was kind of an eye opener that and that's when Walter Cronkite became number one, ascended to the top top rated newscast. To me, it was a stunning surprise was to very many people to realize that it was Huntley that was the the main attraction over there and not David Brinkley, who, as I said, was was a wise guy, told jokes were sarcastic about the doings of Congress and the and I can't explain it beyond that. But that's what happened.

Speaker That's great. That's perfect. Thank you. Now, let's go back to Walter is the managing editor of The Evening News. You sort of gave me a sense before that he was he looked at the copy check things. Can you. Was he a very tough test taskmaster? I mean, did he. Was he very demanding? Did he lose his temper when he wasn't getting what he wanted? I mean, how. OK.

Speaker When Walter took over the evening news, he demanded and the company accepted his demand to be made managing editor, a title that did not exist in television. Up to that and in Walter's mind and I think in CBS News mind, it gave Walter the ultimate decision making power about what stories the evening news would carry and the way that they were carried. And to Walter, it was. That was very, very important. Of course, now everybody in television, including hundreds of local anchormen, are all called managing editors. And I suspect none of them understand the origin of that title. Of course, it's it's been an honor title in newspapers for many, many years preceding this. Anyway, Walter demanded and got this title.

Speaker And with this with the title went for it was the final arbiter if it came to that. Now, I don't remember that there was any really head to head argument about a particular story or the way it was, because we all grew up in the same same sort of environment we were all trained in. In those days that both CBS and NBC News, you had to have a background in in in writing, reporting, either at a newspaper or or a wire service before you could even get an interview. And so it's culturally there was a homogeneous kind of attitude in both both newsrooms. And so and this went to news judgments. Also, there's kind of a homogeneous attitude towards what was news and what wasn't news and what was worthy of being reported and what wasn't. So there was never, never in my presence and never did I ever hear of any really knock down blood in, you know, in the car or arguments about what stories to carry and how to carry them.

Speaker But Walter did have that power. And when he came in and suggested something, it carried more weight than something I would suggest or, you know, a lot of other people would suggest. It was his subject was Walter's suggestion, for instance, during the height of the Watergate controversy, which was then mostly a story that The Washington Post reported very episodically. And unless you were a student of the situation and a dedicated reader of The Washington Post, the Watergate problem made no sense to most people because The Washington Post would report it in a very episodic way. And today there'd be some development that wasn't related to yesterday or didn't anticipate tomorrow. And Walter came in and we were all frustrated because it was such a complicated story, especially for television. And it was really hard to cope with. And Walter came in one day in October, mid-October and and said.

Speaker Damn it. Let's just sit down and put together a story or a series of story.

Speaker An ABC man remembers his language in an ABC manner with a beginning, a middle and an end as far as we know it. So that makes sense, that Watergate makes sense. And that started the whole CBS effort, which turned into a really award winning super series of stories that Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, was ever thankful that Walter Cronkite and his gang did this because it from her point of view and she said as much, it it it threw it made the story a nationwide story, which heretofore it really hadn't been. It was kind of a Washington Washington insider kind of story. And nobody outside of that little circle quite understood what it was all about. And I must say in the series we did, we didn't have one new original fact, that is what we did was package information that had been out there for months. But did it in a way that made sense to the untutored in this matter.

Speaker That's great. Are they rolling bowling balls upstairs? Keep up here when it happens to you. Is that Amelia's apartment?

Speaker Yeah. Well, what is his wife doing or Amelio doing up there?

Speaker I'd be so I mean, not however. I mean, can you tell?

Speaker I'll tell you a story. Well, yes. I'll tell you I'll tell you one part of it and then we can go on if you want more. OK.

Speaker OK.

Speaker When the first. Chapter of the Watergate story appeared on the Evening News. This was two weeks before election. In late October, and the White House went crazy because they understood what was happening.

Speaker That is that this thing was being trans transfer transferred to a national story from being an insider. And a fellow named Charles Colson, then counselor to the president, called. And I've never gotten this straight call either. The president of CBS corporate president, CBS fellow named Frank Stanton, or the chairman of the board, William S. pay leaves off of the founders CBS and threatened to destroy CBS right after election. This was in 72. Seventy four. And that as soon as they won, it was clearly indicated that Nixon was going to win. And DEEDI did win that election by the greatest plurality to that date in American presidential politics. And Colson said, we're going to go to Wall Street, we're going to yank your television, your station licenses. We've got just going to kill you. Now, at the time, none of us working on the show knew. Knew of these phone calls somehow or other Dixieland. And president of CBS News was informed of this.

Speaker And in part two of the series, which was scheduled the next night, he called a meeting in his office to present CBS News at which within embedded in this in the second chapter was a.

Speaker A little recital of something called CREEP, the committee to Re-Elect the president was called creep in how they laundered money through some Mexican money they shouldn't have had access to. They wanted it through through Mexico. And this was part of part of our Watergate story. It was related to Watergate. Too complicated for me to go in here, but it was related to Watergate. And Dixieland pulls out of his desk the script of a piece that had been done the previous September. Now I'm going. I'm in late October. Previous September. In those days, the networks always did a series of political shows between Labor Day and Election Day, usually on Sunday nights and in what I call the ghetto and CBSA cases was a half hour Sunday night, which dealt which interviewed the primary candidates, presidential candidates and vice president.

Speaker And did did issue it spend a half hour on an issue, something that doesn't exist today in in in television and in September. One of these Sunday afternoon broadcasts had devoted quite a bit to the whole idea of creep in and using identical language and what had happened. The producer of the second chapter simply take him that September piece and just laid it into the second piece. And Dixieland sets that a little group I was part of said, how can I justify this? I mean, are we making a political statement if I use the same piece? Exactly. Verbatim with the visuals at that tonight.

Speaker And this was a crisis for us because, God, we had you know, we had a hell of a hole in the show. If we. So I. Now, this is this is an area of dispute. OK. Walter was not involved in this in this meeting purposely because the vice president in charge of us at the time, a fellow named Gordon Manning, said to me, I don't want Walter this meeting. Walter's our last resort. Walter is when we're up against it, we call Walter in. But let's let's do this up to the point we can't do anymore and then we'll call Walter. And so with with very good motivation. Walter was kept out of this, OK?

Speaker I.

Speaker Jumped up. I was getting hysterical at this point cause the show was just going to pot on us. And I went back into the tape room after telling this group what I was going to do. And I I recut this piece to make it appear different and new. And in the course of it, I shortened it. I. To this day and quite proud of what I did. There's a lot of controversy. People very few people care about it anymore. But in those days, a lot of controversy about we had and had bowed to outside pressure and had distorted the news. And at some points, Walter has said as much that this is the only episode he remembers where management intruded on an editorial judgment. I maintain that the essence of the story was there. OK, I made it appear different so that we could get away with doing it.

Speaker That's great to get that story. That's terrific. Fantastic.

Speaker Now.

Speaker What tell me a little bit about what your day to day dealings with with Walter. When you were his producer?

Speaker Well, on the evening news, there was no real pattern, see?

Speaker And as the anchormen got more important that the networks, they became celebrities to the point where at one point Walter Cronkite and I do believe that David Brinkley had the same attitude, stopped going out during the political season, stopped going out to cover stories themselves or to see what was going on, because they intruded on the process that they showed up and nobody paid attention to the candidates and suddenly they were the center of attention. So so that's and that's just an index of the celebrity quotient that occurred.

Speaker Now, I forgot what my training I was asking about your day to day. Oh, Daddy. Daddy. OK. OK, so. OK, ok.

Speaker OK, so let me. OK. So as anchormen became celebrities, it became impossible for them to do routine reportorial work. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley stopped going out to political rallies because they became the center of attention. Nobody paid attention to the to the candidate. I'm saying this because as they became more and more celebrated, the demands on their time became more and more impossible. And Walter was called on by CBS to makes speeches and statements to different groups. And he had all sorts of other obligations. So his his routine, our routine was pretty steady. We came in every day and we did we we beat ourselves up and we put a broadcast together and got on the air. Walter wasn't there every day. All day, OK? He was there every day, most days. But a lot of days he wouldn't he wouldn't be available until mid-afternoon or later. Which made things very complicated for us because he was a severe taskmaster. And he insisted on the same kind of oversight, whether he was there for two hours before air or or six or eight hours before air. But there was no rhyme or reason to that sort of rhythm. And we we just we would sort of sort of like a railroad train. We just came in and moved ahead until somebody stopped us or told us to change directions or switch tracks.

Speaker Now, did you have did you ever find yourself sort of like a kid with a specific story?

Speaker I mean, how did you work things out?

Speaker See, I don't I don't remember. I don't have a memory. Maybe I'll get back to you on that accident, but I don't have a memory that because as I said earlier, we all came out of the same cultural professional. We were all brought up the same way.

Speaker And because Mustoe and Lawrence talked about how they were, you know, there was a lot of pressure you had to really deliver maybe.

Speaker Well, I was I was I was exerting the pressure. Maybe, you see, I'm not very I guess, you know. Yeah. Walter. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Next year. Right. Right. No, I think that's. I think that's right. I really.

Speaker You did not produce anything.

Speaker That's right. That's right. And I was probably the instrument that they dealt with. Certainly they dealt with me.

Speaker Oh yeah. Yeah.

Speaker OK. As we were putting the broadcast together, the writers and the correspondents, both near and far, dealt mostly with me or perhaps somebody I appointed to take care of a particular project. And so they could assume. That whatever I was telling them or arguing with them about was something that Walter at approved or initiated or was it was coming through that that would be a safe assumption for them to make mostly. But most of the time, because Walter didn't have the time to do all these things. Most of the time correspondents in the field and and writers were dealing with people such as me.

Speaker I think yes. I think.

Speaker OK, so good. All right.

Speaker I just pick up on a few details on Watergate. Do you want to first tell the story? I mean, I guess one of the things is to finish Watergate is.

Speaker And then I'll just make note of Johnson.

Speaker You said you had maybe another thing you can't remember.

Speaker But let me just say one thing about Watergate, because this is very much on my mind. I don't start. I'll do it. WOODWARD declarative statement. The controversy over CBS News Walter Cronkite's coverage of Watergate was huge in its day, mainly generated by the white heat of the White House's anger at what had happened. And the White House threatened to destroy the company. And they were fearful because the election was two or three weeks away. Nevertheless, in spite of our coverage, in spite of our throwing it out there, Mr. Nixon won that election by the greatest plurality in presidential politics.

Speaker Up to that time, which always gives me pause when people accuse television especially of having undue political influence on the political process in this country.

Speaker Very good. Now, did you.

Speaker Were you aware of I mean, were you aware of what when Nixon was in was president when he was his administration of him making calls to the network and wanting.

Speaker No, not Nixon. No. Nixon didn't. Nixon. President Nixon didn't. Personally, to my knowledge, President Nixon didn't personally get involved with the nitty gritty of calling reporters or television people and complaining or suggesting or leaking. The people around him did that sort of work. But unlike Lyndon Johnson, who preceded Nixon as president. Everybody in the Nixon White House sort of separated themselves from the press. There was no camaraderie. Ron Ziegler was the press secretary for Mr. Nixon through through his entire time. And he didn't go out and have drinks and that and wasn't particularly friendly with any particular reporter, a group of reporters. And that whole atmosphere that the reporters were looked on with suspicion. They weren't pals. And there was a separation now in the Lyndon Johnson White House. There was no such separation. I mean, if anything, reporters were smothered with attention. Lyndon Johnson had the networks install a studio in the White House, which never existed. So he could command air instantly anytime he wanted to go on the air. This was a stunning development. Then at networks expense, there was a little sort of a tiny little modest studio built there. And it was Lyndon Johnson who negotiated this arrangement with the networks. I mean, unheard of for President Nixon. And of course, preceding Lyndon Johnson was President Kennedy, who was also a pal of of reporters because reporters loved and adored him. And so there was a great deal of camaraderie there, which all changed when President Nixon took over. And not Lyndon Johnson was not loath to call up. I remember there was some sort of a national strike, I think maybe a railroad strike that was impending. And it was settled before the strike actually occurred. And Lyndon Johnson went to this little studio in the White House and got on the air during the newscast. The network newscasts to announce the settlement of this of this particular strike. Also, Lyndon Johnson was famous for having multiple monitors in his office so he could watch all the newscasts at the same time. I don't know how we heard all three of the same time, but he certainly could watch all three. And so it was the attitude was really radically different in the Lyndon Johnson White House and of course, right up to the end. There's this famous anecdote in which Tom Johnson, one of Lyndon Johnson's chief chief assistants at the time, called Walter Cronkite, and they knew each other quite well. It was not unusual for Tom Johnson to call Walter Cronkite, except this call came when Walter was on the air and Walter's assistant of the day explained to Mr. Johnson that she couldn't put him through because he was on the air. Tom Johnson was various very insistent that he talked to Walter.

Speaker He didn't care whether Walter was on the air or not. And so the assistant came to me and during a commercial break, I had a fast conference with Cronkite and we came out and Cronkite picked up the phone and it was Tom Johnson announcing, if you will, through Walter Cronkite, through the telephone that Lyndon Johnson had just died.

Speaker So you all got we got the scoop.

Speaker We certainly got the scoop.

Speaker Did that happen often? Where because Walter was you sometimes get the scoop before anyone else.

Speaker Oh, I'm sure. I, I, I, if I put my mind to it, I could give you a catalog of scoops that resulted because of Walter being a Texan and being friendly with all of those people, although he was very friendly with Kennedy too.

Speaker I mean they were they big, they were chums. And you know, Walter was the word. I hate the word. But Walter Cronkite is often described as avuncular or Uncle Walter. And and it was that kind of attitude that made him approachable as opposed to to others in the business.

Speaker So, I mean, that works both ways. It worked both for the public, with the viewers, as well as for people.

Speaker Oh, yes. There's no question that among the Walter Cronkite's biggest show business attributes, if you can put it that way, were his is his presence on the air.

Speaker I often described as avuncular, often described as Uncle Walter. And he like Fred friend like. Edward R. Murrow before him. Exuded a kind of a knowledge and attitude. They knew more than you did, and they were teaching you about what was going on in the context in which it was going on. There was no attempt for Walter or, say, Edward R. Murrow before him or to Huntley Brinkley to. I don't want to say dumbed down, but to to to act as if they were one of the audience who were naive about these things.

Speaker I mean, they weren't naive about these things. And that was kind of the attraction that you were getting. You were getting your nose. You were getting your information from someone who knew more about what was going on than you did.

Speaker Tell me about your work with Terry during the space race.

Speaker Well, Walter. Walter, who is a gadget freak. I mean, he was into computers before anybody at CBS News even knew what a computer was and still is. And in the same way Walter Cronkite got interested in space and the space program before anybody else. And he sort of dragged CBS News kicking and screaming into covering space to a greater extent than there was any appetite for. And of course, that gave him a head start on the moon.

Speaker That going to the moon. And the project of going to the moon and.

Speaker Although he is accused. Or has been accused of being a space program booster to where his journalism was suspect, accused by some. He vehemently denies it and we have enough of record of his coverage to say he wasn't a booster. He was critical of things that went wrong and many things that go wrong. And he was quite objective about the program in terms of of. In terms of its progress or its its its lack of progress and the accidents that occurred, the several explosions and the deaths and but.

Speaker He was there before almost anybody in mainstream television in terms of being interested in it. And we went to Florida. I can't tell you how many times I spent months there. If he accumulated all the time we spent Florida, I think it be over a year, maybe two years on many, many separate trips going down there to watch these rockets go up.

Speaker And and. I'm sorry.

Speaker That's great. Now, he he really seemed like he really prepared. I mean, he not only was interested, but he was quite.

Speaker Oh, oh, I'm glad. I'm glad you brought it up.

Speaker Walter Cronkite, we have one more thing. And then there was a moment when they were, you know, I can't remember where they were summoning up civilians. And he was he was hoping to go. And then it ended up that teacher Niños Reagan.

Speaker All right. Thanks. Your teacher is dead.

Speaker Which in which in hindsight. OK. You know, Walter Cronkite was such so interested in space and so involved. He was with the space agency was the bait was wanted to send a civilian on a flight again to promote space. Walter was short listed. I think they were down to five or ten of which Walter. Walter Cronkite was on the list of semifinalists, if you will. And in the Reagan administration, I'm not quite sure who they decided that instead of a journalist, they would send a schoolteacher A.. By the way, a decision with which Walter afterwards totally agreed with that it made it made a hell of a lot more sense because Walt is very interested in education or the lack thereof, the lack of educational progress in this country. And so when they decided to send a schoolteacher, he had no problem. He was disappointed, of course, but he had no problem with that at all. And, of course, unfortunately, on that, that was flight that blew up and killed everybody aboard, including the schoolteacher.

Speaker Did he when he was reporting that, did you have a sense that he could see himself on that flight?

Speaker I mean, there was a very good chance I would have gone up.

Speaker That's right. That was the flight in which the civilian, whoever it was, would have gone up. I've never talked to him about that. But he must have had some some sort of there had to be he would be inhuman if he didn't have some sort of thoughts about the.

Speaker Yeah, with. OK, let's talk about Fiat. OK. And. What led up to at the beginning, Cronkite was reporting on Vietnam in a very, you know, as strife.

Speaker Right. And then if you can talk about the change. Right. Right. And what happened during his final. Right.

Speaker And I think if you want some more insights, this guy, Ron Bond, I told you about this would be very important for that.

Speaker OK. Tell me when you're ready. OK.

Speaker The Vietnam War or American involvement in the Vietnam War, of course, happened. Depending on how you define it, 68, 1963 or 1964. And at the beginning, the small group of American reporters on the scene were all pretty much hawks and thought that the United States was doing God's work in stopping the march of communism in Southeast Asia. And we reported this on the evening news because that those that that was the insights we were getting. Walter made a trip, I think, in 64 to see for himself. Out of which came a documentary, as well as several pieces on the evening news. And he was a hawk. I mean, no question about it. A process, I believe, which which started because many of the generals there were World War Two veterans. Walter knew them, OK? And I think they they and Walter were pals, so to speak. And they were telling Walter this, we're going to beat beat them and the war is going fine. And Walter accepted this, I guess, is the way to put it. And it was reflected in his reportage. He was getting it from the horse's mouth, from his perspective. And none of us had any basis on which to contradict or or to argue about this because the weight of the coverage was the same way from newspapers, New York Times, Washington Post, as well as this. So. So I guess you'd call it pack journalism, but for better or for worse. That was the situation. And as the war. Got worse as American investment got bigger. More and more troops and led up to the so-called Tet advance Tet Offensive in 1968 Tet. Is the Vietnamese New Year celebration. And it happened that late February, early March of 1968 when the communists staged a national in South Vietnam uprising, which was stunning in its ferocity and stunning in the death toll. Although. It was a defeat in the end for the communists, which they have subsequently admitted and which it but it created such bloodshed and such turmoil at a time when the United States had something like half a million soldiers there, that the body politic in the United States was really rocked at the idea that after this huge investment, the communists could still could still muster up this kind of outburst. And the battle went on for weeks.

Speaker And Walter, I can't remember the exact process, but Walter Cronkite decided I think it was excellent, actually. The then president, CBS News was suggested as Walter go there. Take a look for himself. Comeback or and put together a documentary as well as two pieces for the evening news. And indeed, you we have in the library several pieces of Walter in battle gear and helmet walking around Huawei, which was one of the ancient cities of Vietnam and which was a particular target of the Tet Offensive.

Speaker And and Walter spent, I'd say, week or 10 days there and came back to mainly put together this documentary.

Speaker We were doing the evening news. I was a producer on the evening news at the time and.

Speaker I.

Speaker I don't know how it was generated, but Walter came back so disillusioned. And so upset with what he'd seen. And he was urged. My memory is he was urged by Dixieland then president CBS News to express himself, which violated Walter's ethic about being in the news. That is never to express himself. And you were never supposed to know what Walter thought about a particular situation. But in this case, I guess the situation was so bad compared to what he had been told previously and what he'd heard now from his peer group in Vietnam and with Dixieland urging him to express himself. He put together this essay, which.

Speaker Never appeared on the evening news. It appeared at the end of the documentary Sea, Walter was so. I don't I I'm saying that he was so ethical, doesn't quite encompass when I'm trying to get at. Walter was so diligent that the evening news should not be soiled by his opinions or attitude about anything that he refused to do anything on the evening news expressing his disillusionment with what was going on. And so that essay, which has now become famous, in which Lyndon and Bill Moyers tells us that Lyndon Johnson said he's lost America. He's lost Walter Cronkite when that when it was broadcast, was broadcast on the documentary, not on the evening news. And it was isolated, purposely isolated. And Walter's introduction to it was that he was stepping out of his usual position on such things to express himself on some of these thoughts. But now, of course, people there's some confusion. Anybody who cares about it or reflects on it automatically thinks that Walter did this on the evening news. And Walter went the extra mile not to involve the evening news.

Speaker I didn't know that. That's very interesting.

Speaker Now, let me tell you, the guy who was with him on the Tet Offensive. Jeff Granick, and that may mean anything to you. Jeff Granick, who Wendlandt was, was executive producer at one point of the Brokaw show and NBC. Before and you worked at ABC. And he lives up in Greenwich or Westport, Connecticut. But Jeff Gramlich was with Cronkite on the Tet Offensive. Trip.

Speaker So between those two guys, Ron Brown and Jeff Brown, you bookend his Vietnam experience.

Speaker Were you surprised? I mean, you made it very clear that how he felt personally. Were you surprised that Walter crossed that line?

Speaker Everybody was everybody. I mean, there was a lot of discussion not only about doing it, but how to express it and weren't. And I I was up to my neck doing the evening news.

Speaker So I wasn't a participant in the discussions about how it should be phrased or written. But but Walter and I've got Dixieland presence, CBS News and a fellow named Ernie Lizer, who's an important executive, I forget where he was in the hierarchy at the time.

Speaker They all talked and talked, talked, talked, talked about this ad nauseum because everybody understood the potential impact. Everybody understood Walter was stepping out of it as a custom role.

Speaker And everybody, I think it's fair to say, was sort of fearful of doing this, but felt very strongly and had to be done now.

Speaker Was there any other time that he stepped out of that role and did that kind of editorial?

Speaker No, no. I think he hit documentary or, you know.

Speaker Well, I should say that after after he stepped down from an active role, after Walter Cronkite stepped out of an active role at CBS News, he did a series of documentaries on the Discovery Channel, old fashioned one topic, timely documentaries. One hour time. And he did. He did. He didn't cross the line. But he certainly stepped on the line about. About expressing himself on drug drug drug laws in this country and other subjects such as that of those films that you executive produced.

Speaker You both sort of set up a company together that would you know, I wouldn't know.

Speaker He and another fellow named Jonathan Ward set up a company called Cronkite Ward and Company. And I was executive producer of that company, and I was not a principal in that company.

Speaker Now, was there any any films that you executive produce that you feel really that that you remember most and you are most proud of the work that you both did?

Speaker Well, yes, I mean, some of those documentaries we did for Discovery and some of those documentaries with very little updating are so pertinent today. We did one called Why We Fight, which was an examination of the United States role as policemen. And where do we. Who gave us the license and how much blood and treasure do we expand? And it was an examination of the whole question of should the United States get involved? Who made the United States this sort of important policeman?

Speaker And and there was some stunning thing, stunning events and epistle, I mean, the UN's first peacemaking organization was in Cyprus.

Speaker I discovered while we were researching this and this documentary, a period about 10 years ago, only more than 10 years ago, and the peacemaking group, U.N. peacemaking group in Cyprus had been there for 30 or 40 years and hadn't been able to make any kind of final settlement at Cyprus. And they were there to keep the opposing parties. Anyway, it was a thorough examination. And Kofi Annan, who is now secretary general of the U.N., was then in charge of U.N. peacemaking. And at the end, he was in charge at the time of the Rwanda massacre, a genocide, and whose hands were tied because of the bureaucracy and and the problems within the U.N.. And I remember we interviewed him about peacemaking and I I was very impressed with him at the time. So, yes.

Speaker And talk about the drug show that you did because of I live now is attacking. Yeah. You are attacking water.

Speaker Geez, I'd love to see some of that.

Speaker Tell me about that documentary. Well, it was an examination of. I'm sorry. Can you give what? Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes, we did.

Speaker We we produced the one hour broadcast. I can't remember the title.

Speaker Do you remember like you remember the title of the drug show. The drug show.

Speaker Karl.

Speaker This is no family matters. You've got to do it.

Speaker There was another one we called Family Matters, or does this the one that I really sort of attacking Walter?

Speaker The drug dilemma here is. Ninety five. Okay. All right.

Speaker We produced again for the Discovery Channel, a one hour documentary called Drug Dilemma, which was an examination of draconian drug laws in this country and the strange situation where nonviolent, sometimes not even drug users are put away for years at a time. And and we did a lot of interviews and a lot of prisons about people who were misled into being drug couriers, didn't even know they were drug couriers and are spending 20 years of their lives in jail. And the weight of the broadcast was that drug. The drug laws, as they now stand, weren't working. If the goal was to reduce drug traffic and drug usage and and we examined other alternatives. I remember the district attorney of Brooklyn. I think it was who had a situation where if you rehabilitation instead of incarceration. And it seemed to be very promising at the time. I have no current feeling about whether it is or not. But at the time, it seemed like that. And so the weight, the weight of the program was that whatever we're doing is not working and maybe making things worse. And with a series of anecdotes illustrating this lady's having the same as my mind, is that this one lady who was a courier without knowing she was a courier and was caught and spending and had a baby in jail, I mean, gave birth to a baby in jail. And it was just was just heartrending. I mean, because she was victimized both by her companions of the time and by the system and by the laws of the day. But when I say Walter walked up to the line, maybe stepped on the line instead of being his usual right down the middle objective sense, the weight of that of that documentary was that drug laws and the system as they now exist are lousy.

Speaker Now, down the recent years, he's become very outspoken about foreign foreign coverage and education and lots of different things. Why do you think this has happened to him?

Speaker Well.

Speaker I think, you know, I never asked him that. I'm never asked Walter the particular question of why he's become so outspoken in recent years. He has. He's declared himself on many subjects. He's come out of the closet, is the way he describes it about himself. And he feels free to be opinionated and to speak out.

Speaker Why? I don't know exactly why.

Speaker I've never said I never asked him. I've accepted this new position he has. And of course, he's not a newscaster anymore. He's not a reporter anymore. And I would anticipate that would be part of his answer to me if I questioned him about it.

Speaker And he maybe feels he can do some good by speaking out on these questions. I'm I I'm not authorized to speak for him, but that's my anticipation of the way he would feel.

Speaker Over the years, he became very close friend of his and his family. You knew Betsy. Can you tell me a little bit about what you think? Tell me a little bit about that relationship and why how that marriage withstood so many years.

Speaker Well, if I if I knew the answer to Walter's marriage to Betsy Cronkite and how it withstood all the pressures and turmoil of the years, I would bottle it and sell it. I wouldn't share it with with you or anybody. But it certainly did. And she you know, when they met Betsy Cronkite was working for some newspaper in Kansas City. She was. She wrote the advice to the lovelorn column for some Kansas City newspaper.

Speaker And.

Speaker They met, they courted. They dated. They got married in Kansas City.

Speaker And.

Speaker And gone until she died in March. March 15th of 19 of a tooth that she died March 15th of 2005. They were a cozy couple and they had three children. All three men. Now three grown ups. He had they have four grandsons. And I don't know the secret of the success of that marriage.

Speaker She was very, very bright, very quick, very funny. And she would very often kick the pedestal out from under Walt. And when he got to to. Too pretentious. And it was great fun to watch it because she would do it, you know, she'd do it in company, she she didn't wait till they got to the privacy of their bedroom. She and she she was very quick-witted. And and people people used to repeat her, her her witticisms for days or weeks after she said it.

Speaker Do you have any one particular witticism or something like that that you remember now call your back and becomes. Let me just. Okay. Could you stop? Second, I just want speed.

Speaker The fact that you had a new set. One of the things that by having this set, the deadline for stories and copy wasn't the beginning of a show, but the end of the show. Were there times when you were writing while broadcast was going on? I mean, were there. Before you go, were there times where you had. Is there one particular story where you had to change something in the middle of the broadcast? And what was that sort of on the evening news?

Speaker It was never a finished product. OK. I kept hundreds, maybe thousands of times. We would be writing while Walter was reciting because again, coming from the wire service background, that seemed to be the way to do it. And it was a moving target. I mean. And occasionally we would do the broadcast. It would be put on the air at six thirty pm New York time and then repeated at 7:00 p.m. New York time, and individual stations had an option on whether they would use the 630 version or the seven p.m. version. And back in the early days, when I say the early days of going back to the 60s, now the big cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington would broadcast the seven o'clock version. I can't explain the rationale to you, but the rest of the country would mostly take the six 30 version. But nevertheless, if we made an error, which happened occasionally on the 6th, we would we would do the show over at 7:00 to bring it up to date. And the one episode I remember Pat Buchanan's. I can't remember Pat Buchanan, a very well-known conservative commentator, I had a brother or a sister who was an accountant involved with CREEP, the committee to re-elect the president for Mr. Nixon, and also. There was some involvement in the money laundering phase of creep. And we got it wrong on the first version, because we we took the story of the Associated Press and I got a frantic, almost hysterical phone call from Leslie Stall, who was then covering the White House, telling me how we had misspoken on this subject. And so we instantly decided it was that we would do the seven o'clock show and correct it, which we did.

Speaker And we were sued by I can't remember now as Pat Buchanan's sister or brother, who is and who sued us. And I remember being deposed for hours on end by these lawyers. And when we finally showed up in front of a judge, given that we had. Corrected it without any outside pressures, without it was a self adjusting system. The judge simply threw the whole case out. He didn't even want to watch that depositions or hear anything more so that that saved us. And probably in a lot of minor other ways saved us, too, because because we were always, oh, the show is never set. The show is never set in type, as they say in the newspaper. We were always ready to adjust that. We were in Washington for reasons that escape me now. And Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis and the first bulletins came over during the first show. The Six Thirty show and Walter reported what we knew there, reports of what we didn't even know he was dead, that he'd been shot. We redid the seven o'clock to bring it up to date that he was dead. And my memory is we even did a fresh show, which was really extraordinary for the West Coast, which was three hours later. So seven o'clock. Washington was was four. It was four p.m. West Coast then. So at 10:00 o'clock that night, we did we did the show in New so that people on the West Coast would have a cogent report on what had happened to Martin Luther King.

Speaker Did Cronkite leave CBS Evening News when he wanted to?

Speaker Later than he wanted to. I'm glad you brought that up. OK, Walter Cronkite. Felt.

Speaker And without going into details, because it's too complicated and really doesn't matter to the sense of my story. Walter Cronkite felt that CBS News was on sort of a downward slope.

Speaker Okay. And he was very concerned about his situation and felt he wanted to retire as the undefeated champion.

Speaker I mean, he'd been dominant in the ratings for so many years. Most trusted man in America. Uncle Walter, the avuncular Mr. Cronkite.

Speaker And so he went to the then president of CBS News, Richard Saarland. And said to Richard Celente, in effect, his message, my words, Dick. I will. I want I want to retire. I want to get out of here while I'm still number one. And Richard Saarland was on the edge of retiring also. And so land prevailed on him to stay on, Celente said. I don't want to be the one to make that decision since I'm on the way out to prevailed on him, to muted and stay on. Solent was replaced by a fellow named Bill Leonard, who was appointed interim president of CBS News and first day on the job. They were great buddies, Bill Leonard and Walter Cronkite. First day on the job Walter was in on Bill Leonard and I went out. I went and so suddenly Bill Leonard was confronted with this. And I don't know how he did it, but Leonard kept putting Cronkite off and putting Cronkite off and putting Cronkite off, and Cronkite finally insisted. Which set the whole process in motion about the succession. And so I would say that Walter finally stepped down two or three years later than he wanted to, but achieved his goal of leaving as the undefeated champion, if you will, as the number one in the ratings.

Speaker I understood that when he when he did retire from that position, that he had hoped that he would sort of still be around sort of in a supervisory. And that didn't quite work out.

Speaker That's right. And then Walter felt and maybe we're going back 20 or 25 years now, Walter. Yeah, 25 years on, Walter. Yeah. Walter felt double crossed. I say that, frankly, and I think it's fair. Walter had an arrangement, not a not a contract, but an arrangement with with the management that he would he wouldn't fade away, that he would do occasional documentaries. He would do occasional pieces for the evening news. And as a matter of fact, at one point they assigned. But Benjamin, a previous executive producer of the Evening News, to be his producer on these sort of projects, which never seemed to get on the air. Now, he did do a couple of summer series called Universe, which were half our series about science scientific topics, but that wasn't what he had in mind.

Speaker OK, and.

Speaker For whatever reasons, I can't speak to it because I wasn't privy to it. They decided that Walters should disappear off the air.

Speaker And no, I remained executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather for the first year of Dan Rather's role, and no one ever told me this. See, we found this out much later with the testimony by by several of the executives involved. Nobody ever told me that Walter Cronkite was banned, but in effect, he was banned and kept off the evening news. And somehow, though, I managed to get him on a couple of times, not realizing I was violating some. And, of course, people assumed I was a a loyalist to a fault, if you will, of Walter Cronkite, although I knew where my bed was. But it on and was to be Dan Rather's the best executive producer. Dan Rather could could have. And again, I was not party to these discussions which did take place.

Speaker And although Walter had an agreement.

Speaker Agreement was violated the day he left the evening news. If you look at his final parting words on March six of 1981, you'll see. He says, you know, he'll be back. Which was the understanding he had with the powers that be.

Speaker So did he feel betrayed by the company?

Speaker Well, again, I can't speak for him on this subject. But yes, yes, I think it's fair to say he felt betrayed. OK. Well, I think when you say that, I will put that was pretty much to you.

Speaker What do you think, Leslie?

Speaker Quiet.

Speaker OK, Walter Cronkite. It's fair to say.

Speaker And then we'll do we'll go right into room town, which you are familiar with. Yes, I'll just holler.

Speaker We ready? OK. OK, OK, OK.

Speaker I think it's fair to say, speaking for myself and not for Walter Cronkite, that Walter Cronkite felt betrayed by CBS News right after he left the evening newscast in 1981. He expected to be on the air occasionally, not regularly.

Speaker And that. Happened almost by happenstance.

Speaker But there was a make a management decision that he was not to be seen or heard on the evening news again.

Speaker OK, let's have a.

Sanford Socolow
Interview Date:
2006-03-16
Runtime:
1:19:43
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-pz51g0jp02, cpb-aacip-504-fb4wh2dz7x
MLA CITATIONS:
"Sanford Socolow, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 16 Mar. 2006, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/535
APA CITATIONS:
(2006, March 16). Sanford Socolow, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/535
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Sanford Socolow, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). March 16, 2006. Accessed January 20, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/535

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