PS: You also note in the book that, in 1968, Cronkite privately urged Robert F. Kennedy, a dove on Vietnam, to get into the presidential race to take on LBJ, who in the end decided not to run for another term as president.

DB: I call foul on that. He should have come clean and let the public know that. Vietnam tore everyone’s compass apart. Cronkite was no exception.

PS: Notwithstanding Cronkite’s roots in wire-service reporting, he also, as you write in the book, “opened the floodgate for the line between commentary and news to be blurred.” The groundbreaking example is that special report, on Feb. 27, 1968, dissenting from LBJ on Vietnam. (Cronkite concluded, on air, that “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and in Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.”)

DB: I would see February, 27, 1968 as the beginning of what you now see as the news anchor on cable, editorializing nonstop, and when breaking news happens, they come on to be the fact-finder. The brand of the TV personality is now what carries weight. People are tuning in for the personality, not the news itself. That is part of Cronkite’s legacy, for better or for worse.

PS: His most famous moment as an anchor was the announcement of JFK’s shocking death. The power of the scene derives from its seeming spontaneity—the halting speech, the eyeglasses taken off and then put back on—and yet one of his own producers told you that “he was like an actor in the middle of his performance of a lifetime.” What’s your take?

DB: Cronkite was a ham, a jocular ham. He loved in college to act in plays. He loved the stage. He learned the tricks of the trade as a broadcaster. There were actors’ tricks, which included how you take glasses on and off. He looked at the clock to mark the moment for history, took off his glasses, got teary eyed a bit. It was the right performance. He was a pro. A tradesman. And being a good actor is part of the trade.

PS: It seems impossible these days not to see Cronkite and his era except through a veil of nostalgia.

DB: Absolutely. No question about it. It seemed like a more simple, sane time for the media. It’s [now] the post-Cronkite, mass-media culture. There will be no new pastor-in-chief.

 

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Paul Starobin , a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week, is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.