Five Years After Dropping Anchor, Walter Cronkite Is Not Quite Ready to Sail Quietly into the Sunset
Most retired yachtsmen would be sipping gin and tonics on the deck, while hired hands quietly maneuvered to a mooring. But the 69-year-old Cronkite—whose old-salt image masks the adrenaline-loving heart of a former weekend race-car driver—expertly navigates the nautical obstacle course, sailing all the way home. "This is great," says Cronkite with the same gee-whiz enthusiasm he once brought to covering manned space flights. "This is the thrill of the day."
It's hard not to hear the unintended irony of that statement. For nearly two decades, Walter Cronkite's day was filled with the power and pace of being the anchorman (the term was invented for him) in TV news. Today, five years after signing off on the CBS Evening News, Cronkite is rarely seen doing what he used to do best. His science series, Universe, was unceremoniously dumped in 1982 after two seasons. He seldom appears on the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather, and, although nicknamed "Old Ironpants" for his marathon reporting at political conventions, Cronkite played only a minor role in CBS' coverage of the 1984 presidential campaign. This Sunday he hosts a magazine-style documentary, Walter Cronkite at Large, the first of two scheduled specials featuring profiles and stories about science and technology. Yet this is the first documentary Cronkite has done for CBS in more than a year.
It's not the way he thought it would be. "What was expected when I signed my continuing contract with the previous news administration is vastly different from what this news administration wants to do," Cronkite says. "I can understand new people wanting to do new things, but I was surprised and disappointed."
Given his power five years ago, Cronkite has reason to be surprised. When he retired as CBS Evening News anchor in March 1981, he was still at the top of the ratings, while Dan Rather—a highly respected reporter—was considered perhaps too intense for the anchor's chair. Cronkite stepped down a few months ahead of his planned retirement(on his 65th birthday) to make way for Rather, then the object of a hot bidding war between CBS and ABC News. CBS executives reassured the nation that "Uncle Waiter," the journalist known as "the most trusted man in America," would be right back in our living rooms, appearing regularly as a "special correspondent." Cronkite departed with a seven-year contract worth $1 million a year for hosting documentaries, making regular appearances on the Evening News and serving on the CBS board of directors.
Currently there are deep divisions within CBS News over its direction, and many of Cronkite's old colleagues believe he is the victim of a new corporate attitude. "They're turning their backs on the old, and Walter's part of that," charges former CBS News president Richard Salant. "They throw Walter a couple of documentaries, but that's not very much work for a million dollars."
A lot has changed in TV journalism since Cronkite left. The Big Three networks are not the only news game in town, and Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings are locked in a three-way ratings race. The newscasts are doing more glitzy promotion and pop-culture features and fewer of the Washington-based wire-service-style stories that Cronkite favored. He doesn't approve of the changes. "In terms of production values, the current CBS Evening News is far better than what we did," he says, "but the scope of coverage is extremely limited. With all this dolling up and featurizing of the news, it's getting harder and harder just to get the facts of a story. I worry that we're not getting enough of the news we need to make informed judgments as citizens." (Some within CBS grumble that Cronkite should take his views to the board of directors. But, according to sources close to the board, when Cronkite complained that CBS was going soft on news, he was chastised for being disloyal.) As for Rather, Cronkite says, "He's doing fine, just fine," declining to elaborate.
In lieu of appearing frequently on the air as CBS' éminence grise, Cronkite keeps a traveling schedule that would exhaust many a younger man. In addition to writing a newly published coffee-table book on sailing, North By Northeast, and filming this week's documentary in the Soviet Union and the U.S., Cronkite often lends his presence to charity functions. At a Washington, D.C. fund raiser for a chair of journalism named after him at the University of Texas, his alma mater, Cronkite gamely sat in a throne, while celebrity friends "roasted" him. He clearly loves the adulation. Observes his longtime friend Andy Rooney: "I'd go crazy with all those rubber-chicken dinners, but Walter's really happy doing them."
Still, one can't help feeling that TV's old war-horse has a certain compulsion about keeping busy. "I haven't quite got the hang of this retirement thing," he says. "I wanted to have more time to play and reflect, but I find retirement more stressful than having a nice, steady job because I have to make decisions about where I want to be. I'll tell a lot of people that I like, no, and then I get so worn down feeling guilty that when somebody calls up and says, 'Will you speak to the Boy Scouts in Sioux City?' whammo, I'll say yes."
On a rainy afternoon in Edgartown, Cronkite sits on the screened-in porch of his two-story summer home. (The Cronkites' main residence, where they raised their three children, is a Manhattan town house.) Cronkite looks heavier than when he left the anchor desk, and he now wears a hearing aid. Although he's feeling too retired, he says he wouldn't want his old job back. "I miss it, sure," he says, "but do I miss it enough to go back? No." Instead he's enjoying things like spending more time with his family. (Daughter Kathy, 36, a talk show host, lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, lawyer Bill Ikard, and their 4-year-old son, "Buck." Nancy, 37, manages a video store on Martha's Vineyard and is married to Bill Von Brieile, a carpenter. Son Chip, 29, a film editor, lives in New York, with his wife, actress Deborah Rush.) Cronkite and his wife, Betsy, 70, dote on Buck. "I never had a burning desire to be a grandparent," says Cronkite, "but now I feel it's one of life's great pleasures—feeling those loving little hands patting my face."
After 46 years of marriage, Walter and Betsy are relishing their time together. Whatever pretensions Cronkite has, they can be punctured by his wife, a witty, down-to-earth woman who met Cronkite when both were working at a Missouri radio station. Cronkite once joked that he wanted to die "like Erroll Flynn, on a 60-foot yacht with a 16-year-old mistress." Betsy retorted, "You'll probably go with a 60-year-old mistress on a 16-foot yacht."
Yet, when Cronkite is not listening, his wife speaks tenderly of his disappointment over a mission he'll probably never make. He has been selected as one of 40 civilian finalists for the next space shuttle launch, but because of delays caused by the Challenger disaster, Cronkite will probably be too old to fly by the time civilians go up again. "He keeps looking into the sky at night and saying, 'I have to go there,' " says wife Betsy.
It's good to think of "Uncle Walter" in space, doing no-frills commentary from the cosmos. This is a man who took his first barnstorming plane ride in the '20s and covered NASA before man's first space flight. "I think experience ought to count for something," he says. He's talking about space, but he might as well be talking about his beloved CBS and his retirement as well. "The network is losing a lot of wisdom," he had said earlier in the day, more in sorrow than in anger. "It's being thrown in the ash can."